The Internet And How It Works
It seems like everyone’s talking about the Internet these days. But what is it really? How does it work? How do you access it? And most important, what can it do for you at work or at home?
Fortunately, accessing and using the Internet is fairly simple. Let this tutorial be your guide to the Internet as you connect for the first time and explore the network’s vast and useful resources.
How Does the Internet Work?
The Internet is a worldwide collection of computer networks, cooperating with each other to exchange data using a common software standard. Through telephone wires and satellite links, Internet users can share information in a variety of forms. The size, scope and design of the Internet allows users to:
- connect easily through ordinary personal computers and local phone numbers;
- exchange electronic mail (E-mail) with friends and colleagues with accounts on the Internet;
- post information for others to access, and update it frequently;
- access multimedia information that includes sound, photographic images and even video; and
- access diverse perspectives from around the world.
An additional attribute of the Internet is that it lacks a central authority—in other words, there is no “Internet, Inc.” that controls the Internet. Beyond the various governing boards that work to establish policies and standards, the Internet is bound by few rules and answers to no single organization.
In February 1996, President Clinton signed into law the Communications Decency Act, which provides criminal penalties for those who post or transmit “indecent” material via the Internet. This law, however, has been challenged in U.S. courts by those who feel it would unfairly prohibit many legitimate uses of the Internet, and was ruled unconstitutional in July 1996. The federal government, however, is preparing an appeal.
The History of the Internet
Many people think that the Internet is a recent innovation, when in fact the essence of it has been around for over a quarter century. The Internet began as ARPAnet, a U.S. Department of Defense project to create a nationwide computer network that would continue to function even if a large portion of it were destroyed in a nuclear war or natural disaster.
During the next two decades, the network that evolved was used primarily by academic institutions, scientists and the government for research and communications. The appeal of the Internet to these bodies was obvious, as it allowed disparate institutions to connect to each others’ computing systems and databases, as well as share data via E-mail.
The nature of the Internet changed abruptly in 1992, when the U.S. government began pulling out of network management, and commercial entities offered Internet access to the general public for the first time. This change in focus marked the beginning of the Internet’s astonishing expansion.
According to a survey conducted by CommerceNet and Nielsen Media Research in early 1997, nearly one out of every four Americans over the age of 16 is an Internet user. And the number of users worldwide is believed to be well into the tens of millions. Other statistics are equally startling:
- A CNN report stated that Internet traffic in 1996 was 25 times what it was just two years earlier.
- The market research group IntelliQuest pegged the number of Internet users in the U.S. in late 1996 at 47 million – a 34 percent increase over the first quarter of that year.
- According to IBM, 146 countries currently have at least some level of Internet access.
- The technology research firm IDG estimates that by century’s end, one billion people worldwide will have access to personal computers—more than doubling the computer-savvy population of 1996.
The Internet explosion coincides with the advent of increasingly powerful yet reasonably priced personal computers with easy-to-use graphical operating systems. The result has been an attraction of recent computer “converts” to the network, and new possibilities for exploiting a wealth of
What Kinds of Information are Available?
In addition to text documents, the Internet makes available graphics files (digitized photographs and artwork), and even files that contain digitized sound and video. Through the Internet, you can download software, participate in interactive forums where users post and respond to public messages, and even join “chats,” in which you and other users type (and, in some cases, speak) messages that are received by the chat participants instantly.
How Do People Use the Internet?
Obviously, the Internet can bring you a whole host of capabilities. But how can they be put to practical use?
Among the ways that users like yourself are taking advantage of the Internet are:
- Sharing research and business data among colleagues and like-minded individuals.
- Communicating with others and transmitting files via E-mail.
- Requesting and providing assistance with problems and questions.
- Marketing and publicizing products and services.
- Gathering valuable feedback and suggestions from customers and business partners.
The Internet’s potential is limited only by users’ vision and creativity. And as the Internet grows, new and innovative uses will surely follow.
The Sum of Many Parts
Unlike many computer networks, the Internet consists of not one but multiple data systems that were developed independently. The most popular and important systems are:
- E-mail, for exchange of electronic mail messages.
- USENET newsgroups, for posting and responding to public “bulletin board” messages.
- File Transfer Protocol (FTP), a system for storing and retrieving data files on large computer systems.
- Gopher, a method of searching for various text-based Internet resources (largely obsolete).
- TELNET, a way of cornecting directly to computer systems on the Internet.
- Internet Relay Chat (IRC), a system for sending public and private messages to other users in “real time”—that is, your message appears on the recipient’s screen as soon as you type it.
- CU-SeeMe, a videoconferencing system that allows users to send and receive sound and pictures simultaneously over the Internet.
- The World Wide Web.
The final component listed here is perhaps the most exciting element of the Internet today. We will learn more about the World Wide Web—and how you can benefit from it.