Chapter 19 - What is the Internet?

Many people think the Internet is a modern phenomenon that couldn't even be dreamed of without today's technology. It actually started long before the home computer revolution, predating VCRs, compact discs and Post-It Notes.

Early roots

The Internet was born in 1969 out of a project by the U.S. Department of Defense known as ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network). The system was designed to allow governmental, business and academic researchers to exchange information and share programs over computers in different locations.

In October of that year, engineers from UCLA connected their computer to another at Stanford University, exchanged messages and the early makings of a global network were underway.

In the 1970s and early '80s, ARPAnet was dominated by those working in the fields of computer science, research, education and government. It eventually grew beyond the scope of a simple military project and became known as the Internet, with the government backing off from its leadership role and the National Science Foundation and private companies leading the way.

Still, the concept of the Internet remained true to its roots. It was a giant network of interconnected computers with no central control. All types of computers could connect, as long as they spoke a common language known as TCP/IP, which was agreed upon in 1983.

Birth of the Web

The Internet received a face-lift in 1989, when a concept called the World Wide Web was first proposed. No longer would information have to be exchanged as dull text. Web pages could feature colors, pictures and eventually sound and video. The Web brought the Internet to the masses.

We often hear people interchange Internet with World Wide Web, but the two are not the same. The Internet is the network of interconnected computers, and we can do many things using that network.

The World Wide Web is just one aspect of the Internet, albeit the easiest and most popular one. We access the Web when we use our Web browser software to view any of the millions of Web pages that combine text and multimedia. When someone tells you to go to the site www.amazon.com, that's the Web.

Knowing the exact Web address is one way to visit a Web site. It's kind of like knowing the street address where you want to go and telling the cab driver to take you there. If you want to go to the Apple's Web site and know the address (www.apple.com), you type it into the address window in your Web browser and hit go.

The other way of getting around is through "hyperlinks," which are words or pictures on one site which, when clicked, take you to another. Say you were walking around New York City looking for a place to have dinner. You might walk up to someone and ask, "Where's a good place to get Italian food around here?" and they might respond, "Louie's in the Bronx." On the Web, you might do a search for "Italian restaurants" on AltaVista and it might send you to the site of the restaurant.

Learning the lingo

If you traveled to Paris and didn't speak a word of French, you'd undoubtedly have a difficult time getting around. That's how many people feel when they first enter the world of the Internet.

Before jumping into the online world, take a moment to learn some of the basic terms you'll see thrown around:

  • Internet - A worldwide network of interconnected computers with no central control.
  • World Wide Web - A subsection of the Internet in which people access information through documents of text, that can be dressed up with graphics, sound and video. Browsers such as Internet Explorer and Netscape allow us to view these documents.
  • Online service - An online community such as AOL with such features as chat rooms, discussion forums, shopping and gaming areas, etc. Online services also provide access to the Internet.
  • ISP (Internet Service Provider) - A company that allows you to connect to the Internet (usually for a monthly fee) directly through its computer systems.
  • Online - The state of being connected to your ISP or online service
  • Offline - The state of being disconnected to your ISP or online service.
  • Log-on - The process of establishing a connection to your ISP or online service. Usually involves a user name and password.
  • E-mail - Electronic messages exchanged with others on the Internet or other network.
  • Web page - A document on the World Wide Web that can contain text, pictures and sound. The term "Web page" refers to each individual page of content, so there will often be multiple Web pages on a Web site.
  • Web site - A location on the Web with one or more pages of content with a common theme. Pages on a Web site are typically linked together with "hyperlinks," defined in the previous section.
  • Blog - Born out of a combination of the words Web and log, a blog is an online journal in which people can add entries.

The Internet also has its own culture, with abbreviations and symbols that newcomers might not understand. There are plenty of good sites out there to help take some of the mystery out of the online world.

What the Internet can do for you

In the following chapters, we'll talk the many different uses of the Internet, and explore how it can benefit you. Consider some of the possibilities:

  • You can send electronic mail or "e-mail" to friends and family.
  • You can research a topic of interest on the Web and get immediate answers.
  • You can chat with others or post messages to a discussion board.
  • You can download new software off the Internet and have it up and running instantly
  • You can watch videos of today's top news stories without having to wait for the 11 o'clock
  • news.
  • You can challenge friends or strangers to an online board or card game
  • You can share photographs with friends and family
  • You can listen to Internet-only radio stations and download music

Excited? We'll let's get started. In the next chapter, we'll discuss the different ways you can get online and how to choose your Internet provider.

NEXT - Chapter 20 - Choosing an Internet provider