June 2, 1997
TAKING IN THE SITES / By THOMAS W. HOLCOMB Jr.
Typo.net Entrepreneurs Set Careless Spellers Straight
Tommy if you don't learn how to spell you are not going to get anywhere.
At the risk of making Mom really mad by contradicting her in public, it
must be reported that poor spellers and bad typists can get somewhere,
thanks to a new friend on the Internet.
If you are in the habit of typing Internet addresses and you happen to type
www.micorsoft.com instead of www.microsoft.com, you will get to Microsoft's
site, but it will be courtesy of typo.net.
Typo.net, a subsidiary of Nerds Inc., is run by the company's two principal
operators, Robert Hoffer, its chief executive, and Timothy L. Kay, the
They have taken advantage of cacography in a novel way. They have
registered hundreds of novelty domain names like sawbones.net, grandma.net,
alarmist.com and consultation.net that allow for the sale of vanity e-mail
names through their site called Identity.Net. They also registered more
than 90 of the most probable misspellings of popular Web addresses afforded
by the QWERTY keyboard, for processing by typo.net. The server at typo.net
is programmed to pass visitors along to the probable desired address, after
displaying a 15-second advertisement.
A vanity e-mail name costs $10 a year, but if you work for Microsoft, you
can get an evil-empire.com alter ego free. Hoffer said he has had a few
takers for the gratis identities.
The typo.net idea grew out of the brainstorming sessions that the two held
to come up with new domain names for identity.net. Kay wrote an algorithm
to generate the misspellings and a program to automate registering them.
Hoffer and Kay then convinced Jason Brandt, account director and senior
vice president of Rapp Collins New York, an advertising agency owned by the
Omnicom Group, that their service could be valuable to some of his clients.
As a result, the reckless surfer who types micorsoft.com will connect to a
Web page that is programmed to splash a 15-second full-screen advertisement
in the browser window before referring him to Microsoft's Web site.
"We hope that we are doing both the clients and the URL a service by
providing a redirect to their service," Hoffer said. "We don't believe
there should be room in the minds of the consumers about where they are
supposed to be going."
To that end, the typo.net intercept page will begin with a line identifying
itself and stating its purpose. By the time the Web surfers have read the
legend and seen the advertisement, they are ushered along to the site that
Kay believes they meant to get to in the first place.
Experienced Web surfers tend to tune out banner ads on Web pages the way
that television viewers tune out commercials. But when you expect to see
links to software patches and downloads, sports scores or an online
newspaper, (nhtimes.com is one of their holdings) and instead there is a
bottle of pop or a colorful candy lozenge coming at you, you tend to take
Hoffer promises not to take advantage of the mistakes of viewers for longer
than the 15-second delay that he will promise his sponsors. "Typo.net is
designed not to be a destination site," Hoffer said. "Our attitude about it
is simple. We don't want this to become onerous for the consumer."
Kay notes that typo.net will process a "typo" in about half the time that a
browser would take to inform you of your error; you will not have to
decipher a cryptic DNS (domain name server) error message, or take any
other corrective action to get to your destination.
While some may see typo.net as Web pirates -- ambushing the careless on the
Internet -- Hoffer speaks of his service as a win-win proposition. This is
a healthy stance to take considering the potential for litigation with
registered names like dinsey.com, hahoo.com, amaxon.com and sprotsline.com.
"There is clearly not a domain name problem, strictly speaking," said Peter
Jaszi, professor of law at the Washington College of Law at American
University. "The rules that govern this are private administrative schemes,
applicable only to name as a precise format. The question is whether or not
it's trademark infringement."
The question is tiring to Michael Levy, the president and chief executive
of Sportsline.com. "I just have to hope that any one coming to our site
knows how to type," he said. "There are a lot of games; I wish they didn't
take place but it's a lot of work to try and do anything about it."
Typo.net holds the rights to two variations of the spelling of his popular
Others may not be as reticent.
"We deal with this domain name stuff all the time, and it comes up in
different permutations and flavors," said Scott Behm, a trademark lawyer
for Microsoft. While he indicated that Microsoft would not hesitate to
protect its customers from "confusion," he also said the company would not
necessarily turn to litigation.
John Dreyer, the vice president for corporate communications at Walt Disney
Co., seemed largely unconcerned about yet another pilot fish feeding on the
scraps of his company's site. "It sounds like a clever idea," he said, "and
it may teach all of us to be better typists."
Still, it remains to be seen whether any company will actually consider
legal action against typo.net.
"One of the things we are supposed to like in this country is imagination
and free enterprise," said Pam Samuelson, a professor of law at the
University of California at Berkeley School of Law. "It does a service to
everyone; why not just have a sense of humor about it?"