The Internet for Dummiesby John R. Levine, Carol Baroudi, Margy Levine Young
This best-selling plain-English guide explains what's new in the phenomenally growing realm of the Internet. See more details below
This best-selling plain-English guide explains what's new in the phenomenally growing realm of the Internet.
Read an Excerpt
What Is the Net? What Is the Web?
In This Chapter
* What, really, is the Internet?
* For that matter, what is a network?
* What is the Internet good for?
* Is the Internet a safe place?
* Where did the Internet come from?
What is the Internet? What is the Web? Are they the same thing? The answer (one you'll see more often in this book than you might expect) is, it depends. The Internet, the Web, and the technologies that make them work are changing faster than anyone can keep track of. This chapter begins with the basics and tells you what the Internet and the Web are and, just as important, what has changed during the past couple of years so that you can begin to have an understanding of what it's all about.
If you're new to the Internet, and especially if you don't have much computer experience, be patient with yourself. Many of the ideas here are completely new. Allow yourself some time to read and reread. It's a brand-new world with its own language, and it takes some getting used to. Many people find it helpful to read through the entire book quickly one time to get a broader perspective of what we're talking about. Others plow through a page at a time. Whatever your style, remember that it's new stuff you're not supposed to understand it already. Even for many experienced Internet users, it's a new world.
Even if you're an experienced computer user, you may find theInternet unlike anything you've ever tackled. The Internet is not a software package and doesn't easily lend itself to the kind of step-by-step instruction we could provide for a single, fixed program. We are as step-by-step as we can be, but the Internet resembles a living organism that's mutating at an astonishing rate more than it resembles Microsoft Word or Excel, which sit quietly on your computer and mind their own business. After you get set up and get a little practice, using the Internet seems like second nature; in the beginning, however, it can be daunting.
The Internet also known as the Net is the world's largest computer network. "What is a network?" you may ask. Even if you already know, you may want to read the next couple of paragraphs to make sure that we're speaking the same language.
A computer network is basically a bunch of computers hooked together to communicate somehow. In concept, it's sort of like a radio or TV network that connects a bunch of radio or TV stations so that they can share the latest episode of The X-Files.
Don't take the analogy too far. TV networks send the same information to all the stations at the same time (it's called broadcast networking); in computer networks, each particular message is usually routed to a particular computer. Unlike TV networks, computer networks are invariably two-way: When computer A sends a message to computer B, B can send a reply back to A.
Some computer networks consist of a central computer and a bunch of remote stations that report to it (a central airline-reservation computer, for example, with thousands of screens and keyboards in airports and travel agencies). Others, including the Internet, are more egalitarian and permit any computer on the network to communicate with any other.
The Internet isn't really one network it's a network of networks, all freely exchanging information. The networks range from the big and formal (such as the corporate networks at AT&T, General Electric, and Hewlett-Packard) to the small and informal (such as the one in John's back bedroom, with a couple of old PCs bought through the Want Advertiser) and everything in between. College and university networks have long been part of the Internet, and now high schools and elementary schools are joining up. In the past few years, Internet usage has been increasing at a pace equivalent to that of television in the early '50s; the Net now has an estimated 100 million computers and something like 300 million users, growing at 40 to 50 percent per year.
So What's All the Hoopla?
Everywhere you turn, you hear people talking about the Net and the Web as though they're on a first-name basis. Radio shows give you their e-mail addresses, businesses give you their Web site (starting with "www" and ending with the ubiquitous "dot com"), and strangers ask whether you have a home page. People are "going online and getting connected." Are they really talking about this same "network of networks?" Yes, and there's more.
With networks, size counts for a great deal because the larger a network is, the more stuff it has to offer. Because the Internet is the world's largest interconnected group of computer networks, it has an amazing array of information to offer.
The Internet is a new communications technology that is affecting our lives on a scale as significant as the telephone and television. Some people believe that when it comes to disseminating information, the Internet is the most significant invention since the printing press. If you use a telephone, write letters, read a newspaper or magazine, or do business or any kind of research, the Internet can radically alter your entire world view.
When people talk about the Internet today, they're usually talking about what they can do, what they have found, and whom they have met. The Internet's capabilities are so expansive that we don't have room to give a complete list in this chapter (indeed, it would fill several books larger than this one), but here's a quick summary:
* Electronic mail (e-mail): This service is certainly the most widely used you can exchange e-mail with millions of people all over the world. People use e-mail for anything for which they might use paper mail, faxes, special delivery of documents, or the telephone: gossip, recipes, rumors, love letters you name it. (We hear that some people even use it for stuff related to work.) Electronic mailing lists enable you to join in group discussions with people who have similar interests and meet people over the Net. Mail servers or mailbots (programs that respond to e-mail messages automatically) let you retrieve all sorts of information. Chapters 11, 12, and 13 have all the details.
* The World Wide Web: When people talk these days about surfing the Net, they often mean checking out sites on this (buzzword alert) multimedia hyperlinked database that spans the globe. In fact, people are talking more about the Web and less about the Net. Are they the same thing? Technically, no. Practically speaking, for many people, yes. We tell you the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth (this year), in Chapter 6.
The Web, unlike earlier Net services, combines text, pictures, sound, and even animation and lets you move around with a click of your computer mouse. New Web sites (sets of Web pages) are growing faster than you can say "Big Mac with cheese," with new sites appearing every minute. In 1993, when we wrote the first edition of this book, the Internet had 130 Web sites. Today, it has many millions, and statistics indicate that the number is doubling every few months.
The software used to navigate the Web is known as a browser. The most popular browsers today are Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. We tell you all about them in Chapters 6 and 7, along with some other less popular but worthy competitors.
* Chatting: People are talking to people all over the globe about everything under the sun. They enter chat rooms with several other people or one special someone. They're using the America Online chat facility, CompuServe's version of the same thing, or Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a chat facility available to almost anyone on the Internet. We tell you how in Chapter 15, along with discussing paging programs like ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger that let you send messages that "pop up" on the recipient's screen.
* Information retrieval: Many computers have files of information that are free for the taking. The files range from U.S. Supreme Court decisions and library card catalogs to the text of old books, digitized pictures (nearly all of them suitable for family audiences), and an enormous variety of software, from games to operating systems.
Special tools known as search engines, directories, and indices help you find information on the Net. Lots of people are trying to create the fastest, smartest search engine and the most complete Net index. We tell you about two of the most useful, AltaVista and Yahoo!, so that you get the picture. As mentioned in the Introduction to this book, you see a Web icon here and there; it points to resources you can retrieve from the Net, as described in Chapter 16.
* Electronic commerce: This term is just a fancy word for buying and selling stuff over the Net. It seems that everybody's doing it, and now the software is available to make the process of sending your credit card number over the Net safe and secure. You can buy anything from books to stock in microbreweries. We talk about the relevant issues later in this chapter and in Chapter 9.
* Intranets, extranets, portals, and hubs: Wouldn't ya know? Businesses have figured out that this Internet stuff is really useful. They're using e-mail and Web technologies on their own internal networks and calling them intranets. After companies figured out that Internet technology can be used inside their companies, some quickly cottoned to the idea that they could use this same stuff to work with their customers and suppliers and other companies with which they have business relationships. Because this technology goes outside their companies, they called this new permutation extranets. Then businesses figured out that they could share the same virtual site and began putting their services together in a business mall and because the group of services had one entry point they were named portals. And in an attempt to become the center of the universe, on the Web, anyway, still other companies are trying to re-create an online business hub with all the convenience and amenities of being in the thick of business. Chances are, whether you use these terms or not, this will be your year to experience at least one of these. We talk about intranets, extranets, portals, and hubs in Chapter 2.
* Games and gossip: A type of multi-user game called a MUD (Multi-User Dimension or Multi-User Dungeon) can easily absorb all your waking hours and an alarming number of what otherwise would be your sleeping hours. In a MUD, you can challenge other players who can be anywhere in the world. Lots of other multi-user games, like AlphaWorld are available on the Web too.
A Few Real-Life Stories
Seventh-grade students in San Diego use the Internet to exchange letters and stories with kids in Israel. Although it's partly just for fun and to make friends in a foreign country, a sober academic study reported that when kids have a real audience for their stuff, they write better. (Big surprise.)
For many purposes, the Internet is the fastest and most reliable way to move information. In September 1998, when special prosecutor Kenneth Starr suddenly delivered his report to the U.S. House of Representatives, the House quickly put the report online, allowing millions of people to read it the day it came out. (We can still debate whether it was a good idea to do that, but the Internet is what made it possible.) And Matt Drudge's Drudge Report online gossip sheet broke much of the scandal first.
During the 1991 Soviet coup, members of a tiny Internet provider called RELCOM sent out stories that would have been in newspapers, statements from Boris Yeltsin (hand-delivered by friends), and their personal observations from downtown Moscow.
Medical researchers around the world use the Internet to maintain databases of rapidly changing data. People with medical conditions use the Internet to communicate with each other in support groups and to compare experiences.
The Internet has more prosaic uses, too. Here are some from our personal experience:
When we began writing our megabook, Internet Secrets (published by IDG Books Worldwide, Inc.), we posted notices on the Net asking for contributions. We got responses from all over the world. Many of these contributors became our friends. Now we have people to visit all over the world. It could happen to you.
We get mail every day from all over the world from readers of our ... For Dummies books and are often the happy recipients of readers' first-ever e-mail messages.
The Internet is its own best source of software. Whenever we hear about a new service, it usually takes only a few minutes to find software for our computers (various computers running various versions of Windows and a Power Macintosh), download it, and start it up. Most of the software available on the Internet is free or inexpensive shareware.
The Internet has local and regional parts too. When John wanted to sell a trusty but tired minivan, a note on the Internet in a local for-sale area found a buyer within two days. Margy's husband sold his used computer within a half-hour of posting a message in the relevant Usenet newsgroup.
Why Is This Medium Different from Any Other Medium?
The Internet is unlike all the other communications media we've ever encountered. People of all ages, colors, creeds, and countries freely share ideas, stories, data, opinions, and products.
Anybody can access it
One great thing about the Internet is that it's probably the most open network in the world. Thousands of computers provide facilities that are available to anyone who has Net access. This situation is unusual most networks are extremely restrictive in what they allow users to do and require specific arrangements and passwords for each service. Although pay services exist (and more are added every day), most Internet services are free for the taking. If you don't already have access to the Internet through your company, your school, your library, or a friend's attic, you probably have to pay for access by using one of the Internet access providers. We talk about them in Chapter 4.
It's politically, socially, and religiously correct
Another great thing about the Internet is that it is what one may call "socially unstratified." That is, one computer is no better than any other, and no person is any better than any other. Who you are on the Internet depends solely on how you present yourself through your keyboard. If what you say makes you sound like an intelligent, interesting person, that's who you are. It doesn't matter how old you are or what you look like or whether you're a student, a business executive, or a construction worker. Physical disabilities don't matter we correspond with people who are blind or deaf. If they hadn't felt like telling us, we never would have known. People become famous in the Net community, some favorably and some unfavorably, but they get that way through their own efforts.
The Net advantage
Maybe it's obvious to you that Internet technology is changing so quickly that you have barely had time to crack the spine of The Internet For Dummies, 6th Edition, and here you are holding the seventh edition. (We said the same thing last time.) "Could it possibly be all that different?" you ask yourself.
Trust us we've asked ourselves the same thing. The answer, by the way, is a resounding "Yes." It's that different again this year. This year, we have to say that the Internet is totally mainstream, and you're falling farther behind the curve faster if you haven't yet gotten started. Increasingly, news gets out on the Internet before it's available on other media, and the cyber-deprived are losing ground.
Here are some of the ways the Internet is being used:
* Finding people: If you've lost track of your childhood sweetheart, now's your chance to find him or her anywhere in the country. You can use one of the directory services to search the phone books of the entire United States. We tell you more about this subject in Chapter 8.
* Finding businesses, products, and services: New yellow page directory services enable you to search by the type of company you're looking for. You can indicate the area code or zip code to help specify the location. People are shopping for that hard-to-find, special gift item. A friend told us of her search for a bear pendant that led her to a company in Alaska that had just what she was looking for.
* Research: Law firms are realizing that a great deal of information they formerly paid $600 an hour to find from commercial services can be found for almost nothing when they go directly to the Net. Real estate appraisers use demographic data available on the Net, including unemployment statistics, to help assess property values. Genetics researchers and other scientists download up-to-date research results from around the world. Businesses and potential businesses research their competition over the Net.
* Education: Schoolteachers coordinate projects with classrooms all over the globe. College students and their families exchange e-mail to facilitate letter writing and keep down the cost of phone calls. Students do research from their home computers. The latest encyclopedias are online.
* Travel: Cities, towns, states, and countries are using the Web to put up (post) tourist and event information. Travelers find weather information, maps, transportation schedules and tickets, and museum hours online.
* Marketing and sales: Software companies are selling software and providing updates via the Net. (The folks making money from the manufacture of floppy disks are looking for new products. Aside from the large pile of AOL disks we now use as coasters, most software distribution is migrating to the Net.) Companies are selling products over the Net. Online bookstores and music stores enable people to browse online, choose titles, and pay for stuff over the Net.
* Love: People are finding romance on the Net. Singles ads and matchmaking sites vie for users. Contrary to Internet lore, the Net community is no longer just a bunch of socially challenged male nerds under 25.
* Healing: Patients and doctors keep up-to-date with the latest medical findings, share treatment experience, and give one another support around medical problems. We even know of some practitioners who exchange e-mail directly with their patients.
* Investing: People do financial research, buy stock, and invest money. Some companies are online and trade their own shares. Investors are finding new ventures, and new ventures are finding capital.
* Organizing events: Conference and trade-show organizers are finding that the best way to disseminate information, call for papers, and do registration is to do it on the Web. Information can be updated regularly, and paper and shipping costs are dramatically reduced. Registering online saves the cost of on-site registration staff and the hassle of on-site registration lines.
* Nonprofits: Churches, synagogues, and other community organizations put up pages telling about themselves and inviting new people. The online church newsletter always comes before Sunday.
We hear many new buzzwords and phrases aimed at confounding the innocent and filling the pockets of would-be consultants. We hear about "digital commerce," "electronic commerce," "digicash," "virtual checks," and "smart cards." Entire books are being written about these subjects. The one topic in this area that you need to know about is buying stuff over the Net. Chapter 9 tells you all about it. (If you plan to set up your own business and sell stuff over the Net, you need more info than we have pages in this book to cover it.)
The earth-shattering, startling new idea of how to buy things over the Net lies buried in the inner meaning of the following phrase: "Enter your credit card number." We're not saying that you shouldn't exercise caution, but our experience of buying stuff over the Net in the past years tells us that you have no great cause for alarm. What have we bought? Books, CDs, clothing, software, videotapes, encyclopedia subscriptions, and matchmaking subscriptions. Here's what you need to know.
Security in general
Some folks seem particularly wary of sending their credit card number over the Net. On the other hand, every day, people hand their actual physical cards with their handwritten signatures to gas station attendants wearing distinctive outfits in bright colors not found in nature, to servers at restaurants, and to clerks at all sorts of stores. Do you know what they do with the card before they give it back to you? Do you worry about it? We don't. We do know someone who used to run a restaurant and later ran an online store, who assures us that he had far more credit card trouble at the restaurant.
If you use a credit card, remember that the credit card companies are even more concerned than you are about the idea of any kind of credit card fraud, on or off the Net. All cards have a limit on the amount of fraudulent use for which you're liable; if you're a U.S. resident the limit is $50 or less. But remember that a debit card is not the same as a credit card and we suggest you stick with credit cards because debit cards are not protected in the same way.
The point is, if you're comfortable using a credit card for other uses, you don't have to get really scared about using it over the Net just because it's new. We do recommend mat you take sensible precautions, and we tell you all about them in Chapter 9, which talks about shopping on the Net, with or without a credit card. Meanwhile, look for the little padlock on a Web page that tells you you're running in secure mode.
If possible, use credit cards rather than checks when ordering over the Net. If you have a dispute with the vendor, you can ask your credit card company to reverse the charge or to refuse charges from that company.
Security in specific
To avoid the possibility of bad guys or gals electronically listening to the bits of your private information whirring across the Net, stripping them off, and redirecting them to purchase their dream vacations, schemes have been invented to encode info sent over the Net so that even if the villains intercept the info, it doesn't do them any good. The information gets all mixed up and hidden in such a way that only the legitimate recipient can decode it. The software that processes this information safely, hiding everything from possible perverse perusal, is known as SSL (Secure Sockets Layer), which lets you connect to a secure server. Most Web browsers (you can read more about them in Chapter 6) have SSL built right in. If you're the least bit antsy about sending your card number over the Net, stick to secure servers.
Software that takes your credit card number (or any other information) over the Net without encoding it is known as insecure. Insecure services are perfectly adequate for many transactions. We use them all the time so long as we know that the business behind the server is reliable. If you don't know the business behind the server, the fundamental reliability of the business should be of more concern than what flavor of server they use.
Some Thoughts about Safety and Privacy
The Internet is a funny place. Although it seems completely anonymous, it's not. People used to have Internet usernames that bore some resemblance to their true identity their name or initials or some combination in conjunction with their university or corporation gave a fairly traceable route to an actual person. Today, with the phenomenon of screen names (courtesy of America Online) and multiple e-mail addresses (courtesy of many Internet providers), revealing your identity is definitely optional.
Depending on who you are and what you want to do on the Net, you may, in fact, want different names and different accounts. Here are some legitimate reasons for wanting them:
* You're a professional a physician, for example and you want to participate in a mailing list or newsgroup without being asked for your professional opinion.
* You want help with an area of concern that you feel is private and would not want your problem known to people close to you who might find out if your name were associated with it.
* You do business on the Net, and you socialize on the Net. You may want to keep those activities separate.
And a warning to those who might consider abusing the anonymous nature of the Net: Most Net activities can be traced. If you start to abuse the Net, you'll find you're not so anonymous.
The anonymous, faceless nature of the Internet has its downside, too.
We advise that you do not use your full name or ever provide your name, address, and phone number to someone you don't know over the Net. Never believe anyone who says that he is from "AOL tech support" or some such authority and asks you for your password. No legitimate entity will ever ask you for your password. Be especially careful about disclosing information about kids. Don't fill out profiles in chat rooms that ask for a kid's name, hometown, school, age, address, or phone number, since they are invariably used for "targeted marketing" (a.k.a. junk mail).
Though relatively rare, horrible things have happened to a few people who have taken their Internet encounters into real life. Many wonderful things have happened, too. We've met some our best friends over the Net, and some people have met and gotten married no kidding! We just want to encourage you to use common sense when you set up a meeting with a Net friend. Here are a few tips:
* Talk to the person on the phone before you agree to meet. If you don't like the sound of the person's voice or something makes you feel nervous, don't do it.
* Depending on the context, try to check the person out a little. If you've met in a newsgroup or chat room, ask someone else you know whether they know this person. (Women, ask another woman before meeting a man.)
* Meet in a well-lit public place. Take a friend or two with you.
* If you're a kid, take a parent with you. Never, ever meet someone from the Net without your parents' explicit consent.
The Net is a wonderful place, and meeting new people and making new friends is one of the big attractions. We just want to make sure that you're being careful.
Protect your privacy
Here in the United States, we've grown up with certain attitudes about freedom and privacy, many of which we take for granted. We tend to feel that who we are, where we go, and what we do is our own business as long as we don't bother anyone else. Well, it seems that a whole bunch of people are extremely interested in who we are, where we go (on the Net, at least), and, most especially, what we buy. Here are a few hints to control how much or how little info you give them.
Please pass the cookies
To enhance your online experience, the makers of Web browsers, such as Netscape and Internet Explorer, have invented a type of special message that lets a Web site recognize you when you revisit that site. They thoughtfully store this info, called a cookie, on your very own machine to make your next visit to the same site smoother.
It may be true that cookies can make your life more convenient. You have to be the judge. Every Web server can offer you cookies. You need to know that this kind of software exists so that if you're concerned about your privacy, you can take steps to protect it.
Cookie files usually have the name cookie associated with them cookies.txt on Windows and MagicCookie on a Mac, for example. You can delete your cookie files your browser will create a new, empty one. Modern browsers can tell you about cookies and ask you whether to accept them as servers offer them to you. When Carol checked her Macintosh, she found two cookie files one from Netscape and one from Internet Explorer. If she hadn't been looking for them, she never would have known that they were there.
Contrary to rumor, cookie files cannot get other information from your hard disk, give you a bad haircut, or otherwise mess up your life. They collect only information that the browser tells them about.
In addition to the cookie file, Internet Explorer keeps a history file of where you've been on the Web. (Look in your Windows folder for a subfolder called History.) If anyone other than you uses the computer you use, you may want to delete its contents after your use, unless you don't care who sees it. Courts have ruled, by the way, that companies own their computers and their contents. You have no "right to privacy" at work, even though most of us find the idea creepy. Companies can eavesdrop on phone calls, read your e-mail (going and coming), and read anything on your computer, including a history file detailing where you've searched. This can be problematic if you've done a little unofficial surfing at lunchtime.
Encryption and pretty good privacy
When you send information through the Internet, it gets relayed from machine to machine, and along the way, if someone really cares, she may be able to take a look at what comes across the wire. Whether you're sending your credit card number or sending e-mail love letters, you may feel more comfortable if the absolute secure nature of the transmission were guaranteed.
You can guarantee security by using encryption. Encryption is high-tech-ese for encoding just like with a secret decoder ring. You know codes, spies, secret messages. Software exists that helps you package up your message and send it in a way that nobody except the intended recipient can read it. Encryption is the virtual envelope that defies prying eyes. In practice, we rarely encrypt e-mail, though we're happy to know that the option exists. One reason we don't encrypt it is that, at this point, it's too darned cumbersome. Some e-mail software comes with encryption built-in, notably Microsoft Outlook Express, so many more people will choose to use it. Also check out PGP, which stands for pretty good privacy, the most widely used encryption scheme on the Net. Because it's complicated enough to require pages of explanation, we don't have room in this book to go into the details; check out our E-Mail For Dummies, 2nd Edition and Internet Secrets, 2nd Edition where we give you blow-by-blow details. New, easier-to-use versions of PGP come out every month or two, so a PGP add-in is probably available for your favorite mail program.
and post it to your social network
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