We’re back with a new piece taken from our Chinese Domaining Masterclass! In the past, the masterclass content focused heavily on each numeric and the importance of understanding what they mean when investing in Chinese domain names.
This piece is a bit different!
Today, I’d like to present a brief history of Chinese IDNs. This interesting topic illustrates the beginning of fully-Chinese scripts and how they were implemented into the DNS. This perspective will better help you understand the context behind why Chinese people want to use the internet in their own native language, and you might learn something along the way as well!
With that said, let’s get started.
In the Chinese internet’s early days, Chinese domains were expected
The localization of the internet has always been under the spotlight for Chinese netizens and entrepreneurs, even in the earliest days of China’s internet business. The reason is obvious: that new thing called “the web” had to be accessed by URLs composed in Roman (ASCII) letters, so the learning curve was steep for a lot of Chinese people. Additionally, since Chinese companies “localized” (or cloned) almost every popular online service (Sohu and Netease cloned Yahoo, Tencent OICQ cloned ICQ), there was no reason in most Chinese minds that that URLs shouldn’t also be localized into Chinese.
Along came 3721
As early as 1998, a controversial individual by the name of Zhou Hongyi had an idea for the localization of internet URLs. Here’s what Zhou’s ideas entailed:
Zhou went forward by creating a company named “3721,” which was derived from a Chinese folk saying “I don’t care if 3 multiplied by 7 makes 21,” meaning “I don’t care if this is good, I’m doing it anyway.” Hence, Zhou said that although a Chinese URL is technically not possible by international DNS standards, we’re doing it anyway!
In 3721’s original implementation, their “Chinese domain names” weren’t real, as in they could not be resolved by the standard DNS. Regardless, it was called “网络实名” (“real online names”). Each “domain name” in the product of the 3721 system is literally just one keyword or keyphrase, unattached to any domain. The entire URL has just one single segment. For example, one could purchase the online keyword/keyphrase of “奥巴马” (Obama) from 3721, and redirect it to his/her own website. By typing in “奥巴马” on any web browser that has the 3721 plugin installed, you are taken to that website. No dot-com, no dot-anything.
Despite its flaws, 3721 made sense because Chinese people wanted Chinese domains
3721’s vision made so much sense, and its product did indeed serve the urgent demand of an existing market (namely, anyone who’s trying to learn how to use the internet), that it saw major success. After a few rounds of media exposure on China’s television networks and national newspapers, large numbers of early internet users and internet cafes were installing the plugin, because it actually made the internet accessible to all Chinese people.
In October 2001, 3721 announced that it was a profitable business, which was practically impossible back then, when virtually all internet businesses were sustaining losses. In 2003, 3721 was acquired by Yahoo, which renamed the plugin “Yahoo Helper.”
3721 was not the most user-friendly
However, things had already been going awry, even when 3721 was at its peak. People discovered that in addition to simply resolving Chinese strings typed into the address bars of browsers, the 3721 plugin (later “Yahoo Helper”) had been also busy in other ways:
The backlash against 3721
Within the next decade, public opinion of 3721 “Chinese domain names” plugin turned from positive to extremely negative. Today, the 3721 plugin is considered “the mother of all malware” in China, and the combination of those four numbers “3721” carries a reminder of the notorious past in which only a bogus view of the web was possible.
Thanks to the virus-inducing distribution and embedding, plus the herculean difficulty in uninstalling it, the plugin maintained a remarkable installed base throughout most of its life cycle, only hitting a slight roadblock since Microsoft enhanced the security mechanism in Windows XP SP2 (released in 2004). By 2009, Yahoo China terminated the whole “Yahoo Helper” product line, putting an end to 3721 and its legacy.
But the damage had been done. Anything related to 3721 was shunned by Chinese netizens including the name, the term “上网助手” (online helper), the term “网络实名” (online real name), and the term “中文上网” (accessing the internet in Chinese).
Many Chinese internet businesses worked out their own “Chinese domain name” solutions, fundamentally the same as 3721’s keyword/keyphrase hack. Some credible attempts were made by Baidu and China Internet Network Information Center (CNNIC). Eventually Baidu gave up trying to compete, and CNNIC began lobbying ICANN for real Chinese domain names.
Real Chinese domains followed 3721’s bogus Chinese domains
CNNIC managed to have IDNs established as an industry standard by ICANN around 2007, and the national registry started to offer “.中国” (“China” in Simplified Chinese) real Chinese domain names. However the new era of real Chinese domain names faced a challenging time in the market, due to three key reasons:
The rebooting of Chinese domain names
In late 2013 and early 2014, the first of the fully-Chinese new gTLDs were released, and over 70 new Chinese TLDs are expected to join the internet in the coming years.
Registries which have invested in this new generation of TLDs include Chinese government organizations CNNIC and CONAC, brands and private businesses such as TLD Registry. These investments have been made because they believe there is an unambiguous market for Chinese domain names: they were warmly greeted and achieved major success in 1998, and that desire for an internet accessible by all Chinese is undiminished.
Just don’t ever say “plugin.” 3721 has left a generation of Chinese netizens with a permanent scar.
- ChopChop Domains Team