This IT graduate manages a national treasure

Karel Taft

At the beginning of our business, we had to explain to customers what the Internet is and what it is actually good for.

Karel Taft and his friends founded their own company already as students at the Faculty of Science, where computer science was taught before the establishment of an independent faculty. The company became one of the first internet providers in the Czech Republic. "We came from an internship program in England, where we found out that the internet could be sold well in our country as well," recalls the computer expert.

He still earns money in the field of information technology. His company Comquard has an annual turnover of about one hundred million crowns. He also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors CZ.NIC - an association that manages the .cz national domain.

An article from 1993 can still be found on the internet, where you write how the internet arrived on campus. Does that mean you helped starting it up?

Yes, I was in my fourth year and we received money from the Ministry of Education for the project. Thanks to the support of the Institute of Computer Science, we made a tiny server room at the Kounicova Street dormitories. There was one server with terminals, through which principally only emails could be sent. We also used Unix talk, something like ICQ, but everything was limited to writing, we could only dream about video or audio. The internet connection had a speed of 9600 bits per second, which is extremely slow by today's standards.

Was there anyone to write to at that time?

Not really. People at faculties and dormitories communicated with each other; you would not be able to find many computers in households yet. But it came in handy, cell phones did not exist yet.

At that time, you began to speculate with friends what to do after school. What led you to establish SkyNet?

We wanted to have our own company, but the beginnings were very difficult. Today companies compete for customers, everyone knows what the internet is for. At that time, we first had to explain what it was and what it would be good for. On the other hand, we were in the right place at the right time.

What were you actually offering?

First the internet connection, later also IT security. The dial-up connection was, if I am not mistaken, for some 3300 crowns a month, and then we had a landline for about 40 thousand crowns a month, which seemed like a horrendous amount for companies at that time. We were lucky to be able to get three four big customers who covered our business expenses. And the business plan? We did not have any; it developed spontaneously. One did what was mainly fun, which of course is not entirely good.

Still, you managed to break through. Can today's graduates have a similar success in today's graduates?

I think it is bold to say that it is not possible, ideas are always born. Just take a look at Facebook's success; it grew at a time when some thought everything had already been invented. Information technology is still a young field with many prospects.

You eventually sold the first company. How hard was it to get rid of something you nursed from scratch?

We sold SkyNet in 1999, when an investor came to us with a good offer. This was at a time when the market was consolidating and competition was growing. In time, we praised ourselves for the decision; we were very lucky. A few months later, the internet bubble burst and company prices fell to a fraction of the original ones. In addition, we already had disagreements with one colleague. The offer came to us as a good opportunity - rather than destroy the company together, sell it.

Did you expect IT companies to be affected by such a crisis?

When I sold the company, I invested some money, but I definitely did not want to go into this industry. I knew the prices were inflated.

You are also the chairman of the board of CZ.NIC, the association that manages the .cz national domain. What should we imagine under that?

We are custodians of the national treasure. The association is not the one who directly determines to whom what will be sold, but rather sets the rules for this market to work and work fairly. CZ.NIC does not sell domains to end users, but to registrars, who then take care of distribution to end customers. Of course, all this is done based on an agreement with the state. I must praise the state; it does not get involved in unimportant things. After all, there is no reason to be involved, the system works well in the Czech Republic - the price of domains is low, the technical level of development of the association is good.

Can the price of a domain be taken as an economic indicator?

The price of a domain should be low enough not to create a barrier to ideas. Now there are registrars on the market who sell a domain under 150 crowns, which is certainly not a problem for anyone. However, if the price fell further, I think there would be a risk that a lot of domains would be bought by speculators, because they have a certain packet of money. When domains cost less, they could block more of them. We could run the domains for a lower amount, but this would reduce their security and reliability, which are usually more important parameters for users than whether a domain costs 120 or 150 crowns. At auctions though, the good ones are sold for tens and hundreds of thousands of crowns.

If we made changes, I would certainly be in favor of the domain with and without non-ASCII symbols being bound to one subject.

Recently, there has been talk of gradually creating domains with non-ASCII symbols. What do you think about it?

The IDN system already works in some states. This is not such a burning problem in our country, because people can guess diacritics, so they understand the meaning of the name. It is worse in Arabic countries or in Cyrillic. CZ.NIC has already started one such domain, it is called háčkyčá and we have been asking companies and users in general whether they would welcome such a change. We are technically able to implement it, but market research so far shows that most users do not see any advantage in this. But it is possible that as more and more lay people use the internet, for whom it is more acceptable to enter names with accents, the IDN will be introduced.

Are you not afraid of possible chaos?

If we made changes, I would certainly be in favor of the domain with and without diacritics being bound to one subject. Consider that there is a website of the bank and someone else would register the domain č, which would pose like the one of the bank. This is dangerous, that is why I am for binding.

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