(CNN) -- Suppose that the Internet had been invented in Thailand, and that every Web address ended with three letters in the Thai alphabet that you needed to type out.
Allowing URLs in non-English language formats may spur a new wave of Internet usage, analysts say.
In such a scenario, people who speak and read only English (or another language) would be dissuaded from using and exploring the Internet, and creating things on it. Technology leaders from the United States would appeal to some Thai organization in charge of domain names to please allow them to add a few English endings -- ".com" perhaps -- and then wait patiently for years for it to happen.
In reality, of course, the situation is somewhat reversed, and to most English speakers the entire issue is "invisible, incomprehensible, and therefore non-existent -- never mind the billions of people who face this problem every day," says Tan Tin Wee, a professor at the National University of Singapore.
Tan and others have been pushing for internationalized domain names, or IDNs, for the past 10 years or so. (And coping with plenty of delays and frustrations along the way.) The idea with IDNs is to allow for the existence of Web addresses that are rendered completely in a non-English language -- or, to look at it in another way, that are rendered completely in the local language of particular countries and regions.
The idea -- finally -- might soon become a reality. ICANN, the U.S. organization in charge of domain names, says that by the middle of next year, it will accept applications for non-English top-level domains (that's the space where ".com" is in a Web address).
The upshot? There could be completely English-free URLs by early 2009 or sooner.
That's a big deal for millions of people for whom English is a completely alien, incomprehensible script. For them, it's a design tweak that could change everything. And if you have any doubts about the importance of easy-to-use design, consider the iPod: It wasn't the first MP3 player, but it stormed the market largely because of its user-friendly design.
The ability for Web addresses to be rendered completely in a local language could be another design-driven tipping point, unleashing a flood of new Internet junkies around the world. Developers and businesses could more easily survey the Internet as it exists in their language, and see new possibilities.
"It opens up an entire horizon enabling the reader to actually go out and create and deploy and come up with new inventions," says Khaled Fattal, who heads the Multilingual Internet Names Consortium. "He's now able to say, 'Oh, wait a second, we don't have this service that I could make money from.' "
For companies operating internationally, the Internet will become a more complicated place. The global fragmentation of language communities will be more accurately reproduced on the Web. That might open opportunities to more effectively promote and serve regional markets, but companies will also have to think about securing Web addresses rendered completely in local languages.
Some advice: "Understand clearly which language communities you are interacting with or counting on interacting with in the future," suggests Milton Mueller, a professor at Syracuse University. "Secure appropriate names in those linguistic groups. Be proactive rather than defensive."
Companies will also need to be concerned about potentially fraudulent uses of their names in other languages. Research firm Gartner believes companies will increasingly rely on specialists to deal with the dangers.
Services such as MarkMonitor now exist specifically to look for abuse of a company's name online and to manage dealing with that abuse, notes Gartner analyst Lydia Leong. She expects these services will be extended to an increasing number of languages over time.
"Rather than trying to manage mass defensive registrations, companies will typically find it less expensive, more efficient, and more effective, to outsource these kinds of security services," she says.
It's unlikely, after all, that companies will have tech-savvy multilingual workers on hand who can read in Tamil, Hangul, Cyrillic, Arabic, Hebrew, Devanagari and so on.