The Rise and Fall of the Unicom Empire

A domain name that is older than the commercial Internet

Screenshot of whois entry for unicom.com domain

Posted: October 5, 2020

Over thirty years ago, I established UNICOM.COM as my identity on the net. Today, that chapter has closed.

The Origin Story

Back in the late 1980s, I was living in Dallas, TX. I was working as a systems engineer on telecommunications products for a startup semiconductor company. Two big life events happened around that time.

First, some friends invited me on a weekend trip to Austin and I immediately knew I had to live here. You could walk off the street, into a club, and encounter live music that would blow you away. In fact, that’s exactly what happened: I walked off Sixth Street into a club and heard one of the most amazing guitarists I’d ever heard. (I later learned it was the great Jesse “Guitar” Taylor.)

Second, that semiconductor startup company had a successful initial public stock offering, and my stock options suddenly had some modest value.

At that time, an engineer typically used multiple computers. The heavy engineering work was done on specialized workstations that ran the Unix operating system. Office work was done on PCs. I talked my boss into buying me a copy of Unix that could run on a PC, so I had both worlds on my desktop, and it was great. The idea that you could run these engineering jobs on a low-cost desktop computer was a revelation. I thought this promised to be the future of computing. (And I was kind of right. Today, most Internet servers are PC-based architecture running a descendant of Unix called Linux.)

So a plan emerged. I would move to Austin and start a consulting practice that leveraged both my experience working with Unix computer systems, as well as communication technology. Put them together and you get “Unicom”.

The Creation of UNICOM.COM

In 1990 I made the move to Austin. I setup business in a rented office, just a short walk from the Guadalupe Street location of the world famous Antone’s night club.

Later that year, I would register the UNICOM.COM domain for my business. The commercial Internet as we know today didn’t exist at that time. I had an arrangement with the University of Texas at Austin computer science department to accept email for my domain, and then I’d call in periodically by telephone modem to retrieve pending mail.

Currently there are over 148M domain names in the .COM domain. I’ve been told that UNICOM.COM is one of the first 1,000 domain names ever created. (Alas, I cannot cite a source for this.)

The Defense of UNICOM.COM

Over the next decade, the Internet became a big thing. It went from “only for research and defense organizations” to “every business has to be on the net.”

As businesses flocked to the net there was a mad rush for domain names. Newcomers were envious of us first pioneers that had already laid out our plot of land with the pick of the greenest pastures.

Although there was only one “Unicom” in central Texas, it turns out it’s not unique globally. One Unicom, a California company, coveted my domain. They sued me in California courts to take it.

I guess they were thinking that a small proprietor might well fold rather than fight, and they could have the domain. Maybe they though that by suing me in California, I wouldn’t show up and they could take it by default judgment.

Except I didn’t fold. I got two amazing lawyers who were willing to take this on. One was Cherie Poland, who has since pivoted from law to technology R&D. The other was the famous digital rights crusader, Jim Tyre.

We won.

The judge threw out the case on matters of jurisdiction. Basically, the judge ruled that if they wanted to sue me they needed file the case in Texas. While this might seem like a technicality it’s kind of a big deal. It means that when it comes to domain disputes, large litigants couldn’t file anywhere they wanted to the detriment of smaller defendants.

If you’d like to read more, visit my archived lawsuit website.

The End of UNICOM.COM

I stopped doing consulting work around 2005 and started doing “1099” contract programming. In 2013 I took a full-time salaried position, where I remain today. While UNICOM.COM remained my online identity personally, it was no longer my place of business.

In 2012, I realized a day would come when UNICOM.COM would have more value to somebody else than it would to me. So I established CROSENTHAL.COM. In 2019, to more actively prepare for this possibility, I moved my preferred personal emailbox to the new domain.

Recently, an agency reached out to me and made an offer to buy UNICOM.COM. We quickly reached agreement, and now it is off to a new owner. I don’t know where it will end up. It would be nice if it ends up somewhere nice, befitting its pioneering legacy.

But that’s not up to me. That chapter has closed, and now we say goodbye to the good place. I’m sad that it’s ended, but I’m delighted with how it’s ended.

It's Just This Little Chromium Switch Here

Latest blog posts

One Weird Trick to Avoid Home Automation Traps

Oct 7, 2020

If you are into home automation – lights, locks, thermostats – a trap lies in wait.

The Rise and Fall of the Unicom Empire

Oct 5, 2020

Over thirty years ago, I established UNICOM.COM as my identity on the net. Today, that chapter has closed.

Making websites the automatic (but hard) way

Aug 2, 2020

In my previous blog post (from six months ago – so how you think I’m doing at this blogging...