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What Is the Internet and What Can You Do There?
You probably think you already know what the Internet is. And you're probably 90% right, for all practical purposes. But by developing just a little better understanding of what the Net's all about, you'll find learning to use it much easier.
Don't get me wrong: This hour is not about the tiny, techie details of how the Net works. You don't need to know exactly how the Net works to use it, any more than you need to know the mechanics of an engine to drive. Rather, this hour is designed to give you some helpful background—and perhaps dispel a few myths and misconceptions—so you can jump confidently into the stuff coming up in later hours.
At the end of the hour, you'll be able to answer the following questions:
· What exactly is the Internet?
· Where did the Internet come from, and where is it going?
· What are clients and servers, and how do they determine what you can do on the Net?
· What types of activities can you perform on the Net, given the right hardware and software?
Understanding the Net (Easy Version)
No doubt you've heard of a computer network, a group of computers that are wired together so that they can communicate with one another. When computers are hooked together in a network, users of those computers can send each other messages and share computer files and programs.
Computer networks today can be as small as two PCshooked together in an office, and they can be as big as thousands of computers of all different types spread all over the world and connected to one another not just by wires, but through telephone lines and even through the air via satellite.
To build a really big network, you build lots of little networks and then hook the networks to each other, creating an internetwork. That's all the Internet really is: The world's largest Internetwork (hence its name). In homes, businesses, schools, and government offices all over the world, millions of computers of all different types—PCs, Macintoshes, big corporate mainframes, and others—are connected together in networks, and those networks are connected to one another to form the Internet. Because everything's connected, any computer on the Internet can communicate with any other computer on the Internet (see Figure 1.1).
How It All Began
In the late '60s, the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) recognized how dependent the U.S. government had become on its national computer network, and asked, "What would happen if an enemy knocked out our network? Could we respond without access to our computers?"
In those days, if one network in an Internetwork failed, the whole internetwork collapsed. If defense computers in Washington were disabled by a bomb, power failure, disgruntled programmer, or spilled Pepsi, defense computing in far away Colorado or California could be compromised. The whole system depended on every part operating properly.
So the DoD designed a new kind of internetwork that could still function when part of the network died. The linchpin of the whole system was a set of communications rules—protocols—called TCP/IP. In general, any network communicating with TCP/IP can communicate with any other network communicating with TCP/IP. And if any part of a TCP/IP internetwork fails, the rest of the internetwork can keep running.
TCP/IP. An abbreviation for the Internet's fundamental communications system. It stands for Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, but you don't need to know that unless you think it will impress your friends. (Pronounce it "tee see pee eye pee" and say it real fast.)
TCP/IP worked so reliably that other government (and government-related) agencies began to apply it in their own networks, even those with no defense role. By the late '70s, most large computer networks used by the government, defense contractors, large universities, and major scientific and research organizations were using TCP/IP for internetworking. (Most still use it today.)
Because all of these internetworks communicated in the same way, they could communicate with one another, too. The government, defense contractors, and scientists often needed to communicate with one another and share information, so they hooked all of their computers and networks into one big TCP/IP internetwork. And that fat internetwork was the infant Internet.
What It Became
The first great thing about the Internet's design is that it's open to all types of computers. Virtually any computer—from a palmtop PC to a supercomputer—can be equipped with TCP/IP so it can get on the Net. And even when a computer doesn't use TCP/IP, it can access information on the Net using other technologies, "back doors" to the Net, so to speak.
The other important thing about the Net is that it allows the use of a wide range of communications media—ways computers can communicate. The "wires" that interconnect the millions of computers on the Internet include the wires that hook together the small networks in offices, private data lines, local telephone lines, national telephone networks (which carry signals via wire, microwave, and satellite), and international telephone carriers.
It is this wide range of hardware and communications options, and the universal availability of TCP/IP, that has enabled the Internet to grow so large, encompassing over 65 million users on every continent (yes, including Antarctica). That's why you can get online, from your home or office, right through the same telephone line you use to call out for pizza. It's a crazy world.
Online/Offline. When your computer has a live, open connection to the Internet you could use to do something, you and your computer are said to be online. When the Internet connection is closed (because your computer is off or for any other reason), you're offline.
Making the Net Work: Clients and Servers
The key to doing anything on the Net is understanding two little words: "client" and "server." Figure 1.2 illustrates the relationship between clients and servers.
Most of the information you will access through the Internet is stored on computers called servers. A server can be any type of computer; what makes it a server is the role it plays. It stores information for use by clients.
A client is a computer—or, more accurately, a particular computer program—that knows how to communicate with a particular type of server to use the information stored on that server (or to put information there). For example, when you surf the Web, you use a client program called a Web browser to communicate with a computer where Web pages are stored—a Web server.
Web browser. A program that gives a computer the ability to communicate with Web servers and display the information stored there. You'll learn much more about Web browsers and other client programs as your 24 hours tick by.
In general, each type of Internet activity involves a different type of client and server. To use the Web, you need a Web client program to communicate with Web servers; to use email, you need an email program to communicate with email servers.
This client/server business shows what the Internet really is: Just a communications medium, a virtual wire through which computers communicate. It's the different kinds of clients and servers—not the Net itself—that enable you to perform various activities. And because new kinds of clients and servers can be invented, new types of activities can be added to the Internet at any time.
What Can You Do Through the Net?
I've known people who have gone out and bought a PC, signed up for an Internet account, and then called me to say, "Okay, so I'm on the Internet. Now what am I supposed to do there?"
That's backwards. I think the marketers and the press have pushed so hard that some folks simply think they must be on the Net, without knowing why, sort of the way everybody thinks they need a beeper. But unless there's something on the Net you want or need to use, you don't need the Net. You shouldn't buy a rice steamer unless you like rice. You don't need a beeper if you never leave the house. Don't let Madison Avenue and Microsoft push you around.
So here's a good place to get a feel for what you can actually do on the Net. If nothing here looks like something you want to do, please give this book to a friend or to your local library. You can check out the Net again in a year or two, to see whether it offers anything new.
Browse the Web
It's very likely that your interest in the Internet was sparked by the World Wide Web, even if you don't know it. When you see news stories about the Internet showing someone looking at a cool, colorful screen full of things to see and do, that person is looking at the World Wide Web, most commonly referred to as "the Web" or occasionally as "WWW."
All those funky looking Internet addresses you see in ads today—www.pepsi.com and so forth—are the addresses you need to visit those companies on the Web. With an Internet connection and a Web browser on your computer, you can type an address to visit a particular Web site and read the Web pages stored there. (Figure 1.3 shows a Web page, viewed through a Web browser.)
Web site and Web page. These terms are used flexibly, but in general, a Web site is a particular Web server, or a part of a Web server, where a collection of Web pages about a particular organization or subject is stored.
When you use your Web browser to contact a Web site, the information on the server is displayed on your computer screen. The particular screenful of information you view is described as one Web page.
By browsing the Web, you can do a staggering number of different things, including all of the following.
Visit Companies, Governments, Museums, Schools ...
Just about any large organization has it own Web site these days. Many smaller organizations have their own sites too, or are covered in pages stored on others' sites. You can visit these sites to learn more about products you want to buy, school or government policies, and much more.
For example, I belong to an HMO for medical coverage. I can visit my HMO's Web site to find and choose a new doctor, review policy restrictions, and much more. I can do this any day, any time, without waiting on hold for the "next available operator."
Just as easily, I can check out tax rules or order forms on the Internal Revenue Service Web site. Or view paintings in museums all over the world. Or find out when the next Parent's Night is at the local elementary school.
Read the News
CNN has its own Web site (see Figure 1.4), as do The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and dozens of other media outlets ranging from major print magazines, to fly-by-night rags spreading rumors, to small sites featuring news about any imaginable topic. You'll also find a number of great news sources that have no print or broadcast counterpart—they're exclusive to the Web.
Whatever kind of news you dig, you can find it on the Web. And often, the news online is more up-to-the-minute than any print counterpart because unlike broadcast news, you can look at it any time you find convenient. Best of all, after a news story on the Web, no one ever says, "Thanks for that report, Carla. What a terrible tragedy."
Increasingly, libraries large and small are making their catalogs available online. That means I can find out which of the dozen libraries I use has the book I need, without spending a day driving to each. Some libraries even let you borrow online; you choose a book from the catalog of a library across the state from you, and in a few days you can pick it up at a library closer to you, or right from your mailbox.
Books are published right on the Web, including classics (Shakespeare, Dickens) and new works. You can read them right on your screen, or print them out to read later on the bus. (Please don't read while you drive. I hate that.) The Web has even initiated its own kind of literature, collaborative fiction, in which visitors to a Web site can read—and contribute to—a story in progress.
Since computer software can travel through the Internet, you can actually get software right through the Web and use it on your PC. Some of the software is free, some isn't. But it's all there, whenever you need it—no box, no disc, no pushy guy at the electronics store saying, "Ya want a cell phone with that? Huh? C'mon!"
One of the fastest-growing, and most controversial, Web activities is shopping (see Figure 1.5). Right on the Web, you can browse an online catalog, choose merchandise, type in a credit card number and shipping address, and receive your merchandise in a few days, postage paid. Besides merchandise, you can buy just about anything else on the Web: stocks, legal services, you name it. Everything but surgery, and I'm sure that's only a matter of time. The hottest new trend in online shopping is the online auction house, a Web site where you can bid on all kinds of items, new and old, from odds and ends to objets d'art.
The controversy arises from the fact that sending your credit card number and other private information through the Internet exposes you to abuse of that information by anyone clever enough to cull it from the din of Web traffic. But that risk factor is rapidly shrinking as the Web develops improved security. (You'll learn about Web security in Hour 8, "Protecting Your Privacy (and Other Security Stuff).") And shopping from your PC, you can't get mugged in the mall parking lot.
Watch TV and Listen to CD-Quality Music and Radio Broadcasts
Through your Internet connection, you can actually watch live TV broadcasts and listen to radio programs (see Figure 1.6). The sound and picture quality won't be as good as you get from a real TV or radio, but the Net gives you access to programs you can't get on your own TV or radio, such as shows not offered in your area or special programs broadcast only to the Internet. With music, however, there's no compromise. Right from the Internet, you can copy CD-quality music files that you can listen to anytime, even when you're not on the Internet. You learn all about Internet-based video, radio, and music in Hour 7, "Playing Online Video, Music, and Broadcasts."
Play Games, Get a College Degree, Waste Time ...
Have I left anything out? There's too much on the Web to cover succinctly. But I hope you get the idea. The Web is where it's at. In fact, there are many folks on the Internet who use the Web and nothing else. But those folks are missing out.... Read on.
Email, in case you didn't know, is messages sent as electronic files from one computer to another. Using Internet email, you can type a message on your computer and send it to anyone else on the Internet.
Each user on the Internet has a unique email address; if your email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, you're the only person in the world with that email address (isn't that nice?). So if anyone, anywhere in the world, sends a message to that address, it reaches you and you alone. As mentioned earlier, to use email, you need an email client program, which interacts with the email servers that store and send email around the world.
Email is great for simple messages, but these days, it can do more. You can attach computer files to email messages to send them to others, broadcast a message to two or a hundred recipients at once, and even create cool, colorful messages with graphics and sound. (You'll learn how in Hour 23.)
Have a Discussion
Using your email program, you can join mailing lists related to topics that interest you. Members of a mailing list automatically receive news and other information—in the form of email messages—related to the list's topic. Often, members can send their own news and comments to the list, and those messages are passed on to all members.
But the Internet's principal discussion venue is the newsgroup, a sort of public bulletin board. There are thousands of newsgroups, each centering on a particular topic—everything from music to politics, from addiction recovery to TV shows.
Visitors to a newsgroup post messages that any other visitor can read. When reading a message, any visitor can quickly compose and post a reply to that message, to add information to the message, or to argue with it (usually to argue—you know how folks are). As the replies are followed by replies to the replies, a sort of free-form discussion evolves.
Exchanging messages through email and newsgroups is great, but it's not very interactive. You type a message, send it, and wait hours or days for a reply. Sometimes, you want to communicate in a more immediate, interactive, "live" way. That's where Internet Relay Chat—a.k.a. "IRC" or just "Chat"—comes in.
Using chat client programs, folks from all over the world contact Chat servers and join one another in live discussions. Each discussion takes place in a separate chat "room" or "channel" reserved for discussion of a particular topic. The discussion is carried out through a series of typed messages; each participant types his or her contributions, and anything anyone in the room types shows up on the screen of everyone in the room.
Run Programs on Other Computers
Not everything on the Internet sits on a Web server, email server, news server, or chat server. There are other kinds of computers and servers connected to the Net—ones you can use, if you know how, through an Internet technology called Telnet. When you use a distant computer through Telnet, you can run programs on it and access its data as if you were there.
There's so much on Web and news servers these days that you may never want or need to journey beyond them. But for the adventurous, Telnet offers access to information you can't get any other way. In Hour 19, "Tools for the Serious User: FTP and Telnet," you'll discover Telnet and FTP, two powerful tools for exploiting the Net beyond the confines of the Web, email, and newsgroups.
The Internet is a huge, and growing, internetwork that nobody really planned but that happened anyway. Your job is not really to understand it, but to enjoy it and to use it in whatever way you find valuable or entertaining.
The value and entertainment are stored all over the world on a vast array of servers; to tap the benefits of the Net, you deploy a family of client programs that know how to talk to the servers. In a way, most of this book is really about choosing and using client programs to make the most of the Internet's servers.
Q If the Net "just happened," who's in charge? What keeps it going?
A That's one of the really neat things about the Internet: Nobody's in charge. (Microsoft, Netscape, and America Online want to be in charge, but that's different.) There are volunteer committees that handle such things as making sure every computer gets its own, unique Internet ID (which is essential to the workings of the Net) and approving the standards for such things as the way Web browsers communicate with Web servers. But nobody really controls the Internet, and nobody owns it.
It's the standards that keep the Internet going. The Internet is made up of privately owned computers and networking equipment, whose owners have put them on the Net for their own reasons. But because that hardware is part of the Net and obeys its standards, you get to use it, too. It's really a big fat co-op, an amazing example of how independent parties, collaborating for their own self-interest can inadvertently create a public good.
As you'll learn in Hour 3, "Choosing an Internet Provider," you generally pay a subscription fee to an Internet provider in order to use the Internet, but that fee covers the provider's costs (plus profit) in maintaining its service. You're not paying "The Internet" a dime, since there's no actual organization to collect your money. In principle (if not always in practice), the Internet is free.
Q You just mentioned America Online. Isn't that the same thing as the Internet?
A No and yes. As you'll learn in Hour 3, America Online (AOL) is a commercial online service. It provides its subscribers with a range of information and services that are not on the Internet, and it also provides those subscribers with access to the Internet, just like any other Internet provider. Lots of folks use AOL, but the majority of Internet citizens use other Internet services.
Q I have this funny rash on my elbow. Is it psoriasis?
A Stick to the subject. Or, better yet, learn to search for information on the Web (as you will in Part III, "Finding What You're Looking For"), and you can find out everything you ever wanted to know about rashes.
In the meantime, dab on some cortisone cream, don't walk on it for a few days, and call me if it gets worse.
|Pt. I||Getting Started||5|
|Hour 1||What Is the Internet and What Can You Do There?||7|
|Hour 2||What Hardware and Software Do You Need?||23|
|Hour 3||Getting Connected to the Internet||41|
|Hour 4||Basic Browsing||63|
|Pt. II||Talking to the World||87|
|Hour 5||Sending and Receiving Email||89|
|Hour 6||Chatting and Instant Messenger||115|
|Hour 7||Participating in Newsgroups and Mailing Lists||133|
|Hour 8||Online Communication Tricks and Tips||151|
|Pt. III||Software for Your Journey||165|
|Hour 9||Using Internet Explorer 6.0||167|
|Hour 10||Using Netscape Navigator 6||185|
|Hour 11||Using AOL 6.0||203|
|Hour 12||Plug-in and Add-on Programs||217|
|Pt. IV||Needles in a VERY Big Haystack||233|
|Hour 13||Searching for Information||235|
|Hour 14||Downloading Programs and Files||259|
|Hour 15||Finding People||279|
|Hour 16||Working Smarter by Working Offline||291|
|Pt. V||Making the Web Part of Your Life||307|
|Hour 17||Enjoying Safe Family Fun and Games||309|
|Hour 18||Buying and Selling on the Net||325|
|Hour 19||Creating Web Pages and Multimedia Messages||341|
|Hour 20||Going Wireless||359|
|Pt. VI||Integrating the Web Into Your Life||371|
|Hour 21||Ten Ways the Web Can Change Your Business Life||373|
|Hour 22||Ten Ways the Web Can Change Your Family Life||389|
|Hour 23||Ten Ways the Web Can Change Your School Life||403|
|Hour 24||Ten Ways the Web Can Change Your Personal Life||417|
|App. A: Fun Web Sites to Visit||433|
|App. B||Tools for the Serious User: FTP and Telnet||447|
|App. C||Protecting Your Privacy (and Other Security Stuff)||457|