“Soooo big!” Counting on bit.ly, Part III

In the two previous posts on this topic, I calculated that, all other things being equal, the pool of 62^6 = 56,800,235,584 six-character strings from which bit.ly is currently assigning shortened URLs has a projected “exhaustion date” somewhere around the year 2030.

This inexact prediction is more than an idle curiosity because of the nascent effort of 301Works, under the aegis of the Internet Archive, to preserve re-directs even if, especially if, a URL-shortener goes belly-up or merely stops supporting already-issued links. More than 20 companies have joined 301Works, and bit.ly made this commitment on its corporate blog last November:

Bit.ly has already begun putting its short-to-long URL mappings in escrow with IA, which will run the 301works.org Working Group.

The import of this statement is that re-directs are non-recyclable. If the world were indeed to begin running out of shortened URLs (see Part II), the 301Works members can’t just discard the never- or little-used ones and assign them to new links. The commitment, as I understand it from the initial press release, is that they will be available in perpetuity when a user anywhere clicks on the original re-direct.

“Great,” you’re thinking. “I know it’s not up there with global warming and running out of oil and fresh water, but it’s one more thing I have to worry about! What next? Coffee trees on the verge of extinction?” Relax. It only sounds bad. There are actually a lot of options.

Here’s the example we looked at in Part I: http://bit.ly/9hfrXY. For our purposes, we can dispense with the protocol (http) and punctuation (://) and look just at the domain (the verbal stand-in for the IP address of a Web server, in this case bit.ly’s) and the path. In our example, domain/path = bit.ly/9hfrXY. We have lots of wiggle room in each of these.

  • Add domains. In fact, bit.ly has already done this, though for a different reason. Instead of bit.ly/9hfrXY, you can point your browser to j.mp/9hfrXY and see exactly the same page. The rationale, explained on the bit.ly labs page, is to shorten the URL even further: “When you really need those two extra letters….” Nice, but we need something else — other domains that can re-use the path, so that bit.ly/9hfrXY and j.mp/9hfrXY would re-direct a user to completely different URLs. Each “new domain” in that sense would add another 56 billion paths with no other change. Of course, we already have this if we’re willing to use a competing URL-shortening service, but we all know the fate of that kind of online fracturing. Since I’m spinning this fantasy world, I’ll stay with “corporate bit.ly” for illustrative purposes.

  • No, really add domains. That means that bit.ly needs to go on a domain-name shopping spree. They apparently have a successful working relationship with someone in Libya (the .ly country code), so maybe they could expand there. Unfortunately, most of my top choices — gig.ly, hig.ly, pig.ly, and wig.ly — are taken (not that I think anyone in bit.ly will even read these posts, let alone follow my suggestions, but, hey, I said it’s a fantasy). Oddly enough, there is another tier that is largely available — bat.ly, bet.ly, bot.ly, but.ly, byt.ly — but I suspect these would be rejected by a branding consultant or a focus group as too confusing. Alternatively, bit.ly could look for another country, say, Estonia (.ee). Here are some available choices that would appeal to a certain demographic (and leave others merely puzzled): hu.ee, dew.ee, and lou.ee. With the current 6-character paths, that’s another 170 billion URLs! Hellooooooooooo, 22nd century.

  • Add characters. No, not cartoon characters. Simply lengthen the path. Apparently some time in 2009, bit.ly began transitioning from 5- to 6-character paths. So why not 7-character ones? Each increment of one character increases the pool by a factor of 62 (=26 lower- and 26 upper-case letters plus 10 digits). Seven characters would give a staggering 3.5 trillion addresses (62^7). Beyond that, the qualifiers move from budgetary to astronomical.

  • Be nice to the 800-pound gorilla. One reason not to move to a 7-character path is that it would put bit.ly in the position of implicitly reducing Twitter’s cap from 140 to 139. Of course, bit.ly could always approach Twitter and request an increase to 141. Based on this report in Business Insider from a few months ago, however, I am not sure that such an overture would be well-received right now.

  • Add “alphabets” (character sets). This is actually my favorite choice (assuming it is technically feasible). There is no reason that the paths have to be restricted to the Latin alphabet, as far as I know. Remember, we’re talking only about the path, not the domain name. Since bit.ly generates the path in the first place, for example, when a user is writing a tweet, and then re-directs another user to the correct Web address when the shortened URL is clicked, it is only bit.ly that has to be able to “use” the path. Even if I get a garble of stuff on the screen of my device, as long as the proper Unicode is being passed around, then the proper Web pages should be as well. (Or so I am imagining. I am way out of my element here, with feeble visions of Unicode and IDNA dancing in my head. I’m prepared to be totally wrong about this, but let me down gently.) So, take your pick and pretty soon those current 62 choices will look puny. We could add Greek or Cyrillic or Hebrew or whatever. Math symbols (which of course are often Greek letters). Dingbats, anyone?

  • Wait for the iLobe. Maybe Estonia won’t want to sell domains to bit.ly, or perhaps the outcry against 7-character paths will just be too great. After all, even by my primitive calculation in Part II, we have a couple of decades to sort this out. Which means that the true 800-pound gorillas — pause to bow politely toward the Bay Area — can realize visions that the rest of us only faintly perceive. By 2030, I suspect that prospective parents will be able to choose between the iPhone 21 and the Droid 18.3 for their pending newborns. For all I know, they both may come with complimentary brain implants. Call it the iLobe, or ask yourself (with a George Carlin inflection), why do they call it… “a ‘Droid”?… I imagine these devices being installed by nanobots administered in the standard neo-natal antiseptic eyedrops. Then, in the ultimate re-direct, Apple and Google can simply push content to us over VerizoNeural in response to our most fleeting thoughts. Fantasy, you say? Probably. Ridiculous, scary, absurd? Your call (pun intended). But I am utterly certain about one thing: if events were to play out in this way, the operating systems of the two devices would be fundamentally incompatible. Some things will never, ever change, not in a quintillion re-directs.
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