ENUM, an initiative we first reported on in March 2001, seems to be finally picking up steam. Originally spearheaded by VeriSign and Telcordia Technologies , the initiative attempts to bridge the Internet, Phones, Fax and Wireless with a single contact address -- your phone number. The UK Government is seriously involved in efforts to stimulate the growth of ENUM in the United Kingdom , adding to a general endorsement of ENUM by the U.S. Department of Commerce last year.
In essence, ENUM is a distributed database that translates telephone numbers to IP addresses, which means that phone numbers could be used in place of, or in addition to, domain names. Currently, when you enter www.infocommercereport.com into your browser, Domain Name Servers (DNS) perform a lookup up on that name, find that it is associated with a specific IP address, and take your browser there. ENUM works identically, and is actually integrated into the existing DNS infrastructure.

Interestingly, ENUM can do more than a one-to-one translation to an IP address. It can also link to email addresses, instant messaging identities and cell phone numbers. It's also important to note that ENUM is designed to be queried by machines as well as humans, meaning that all sorts of interesting applications to perform seamless communications are likely to emerge, not the least of which might be streamlining voice over IP (VoIP) call connection.

A lot of governments seem excited about ENUM as a way to bridge the wired phone network with the Internet. Needless to say, the usual suspects in the domain registration space are all circled around ENUM, hoping to become the central registration, and hoping to tap into all the associated registration fees.

Fees? Well, somebody has to pay for all this somehow, and the current notion seems to be to use the existing model for domain registration. And with all those millions of consumers out there hankering for ENUM, revenues could be huge.

Consumers? Hankering? Here we go again. Develop a new technology, and everybody immediately assumes a consumer market exists, primarily because they want a consumer market to exist. After all, there are far more consumers than businesses out there. Businesses want to be contacted, and they want to make the contact process as simple as possible. Is the same true of consumers? Will millions of them rush out to link and expose all their electronic contact data in a searchable public database? I suspect that caution will figure into this at some point.

As to hankering, I have to ask, just as I did with the national cell phone directory: does the market really want this? It's a huge issue, because not just revenue is at stake, but the ability to achieve a critical mass of listings, without which nobody will bother to use ENUM, and the whole initiative will collapse. Too much ambition and greed too early means the almost certain death of ENUM.

Governments are behind ENUM in the general belief that it will lead to technological progress, and hey, they're not paying for it (and they may well tax it). The big companies involved in ENUM see big profit opportunities, although ENUM has all the characteristics of technology in search of an application. And unlike directory assistance and the white pages, there's no opportunity to impose "unlisted number" fees because the database does not exist, and it depends on consumers to populate it.

It will be interesting to see how ENUM evolves, but in my opinion, success will depend on scaling it down before ramping it up.