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A no-nonsense guide to the way the Internet works, Part 2
technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
Simple gray rule

A no-nonsense guide to the way the Internet works, Part 2

Bit Player for Jan. 10, 1998

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1999, The Syracuse Newspapers

The Internet is a thing. The World Wide Web is not a thing.

Keep that in mind. Last week I explained some of the basics of the Internet, which you can think of as a something made of wires and cables that lets computers and networks connect to each other. But the Web is more like an idea than a thing. You can touch the various parts of the Internet, but you can't touch the Web.

That's because the World Wide Web is a concept, an agreement to do certain things in various ways. If the Internet is thought of as the international highway for computer data, the Web can be understood as the rules of the road, the traffic laws. We need to narrow that down to say that the Web can be understood as the rules for a particular kind of travel on that road, because there are many different kinds. But the principle is the same.

(Don't fret if you've suddenly realized that no one ever told you this about the World Wide Web. Most "experts" have no idea how the Web works. Most of them apparently think the Web is somehow part of the Internet, when it's actually just a set of rules.)

Some of those rules of the road are pretty simple and some are devilishly complicated. I won't burden you with them. I'll just point out that you don't have to learn any of them personally. Your computer does all of this for you every time you use your Web browser.

And that brings up something you probably know already. You do things on the Web using a Web browser. It's a wonderful invention. The browser does three very important things:

  • It shows you things stored on another computer, anywhere in the world. It does this by displaying "pages" that can contain text, pictures and sounds.
  • It lets you hop, skip and jump from one page to another -- from one computer in one place to another one across the globe -- with a single click of your mouse.
  • It lets you send small amounts of information to another computer quickly, without the cumbersome burden of using e-mail. You do this by typing something onto a Web page on your screen. This interaction lets you do your shopping on the Web and many other interactive things.

The best part about this may not be obvious. In fact, it's not supposed to be obvious, and that's why it's so great. You can do all these things without trying. You don't have to learn anything. Using a browser is like using your feet. You lean forward and drag one foot ahead of the other and more or less fall on the foot in front. Voila! You are walking. Click on something that's underlined and you're off and running on the Web. It's that simple.

Those underlines have a fancy name -- hyperlinks. Parents of overactive kids know what "hyper" means, and "links" are connections, so "hyperlinks" are like super-active connections. They tell your Web browser to reach out on the Internet and connect to something. They're not always underlined, although they're supposed to be. If they don't have underlines, they'll usually be shown in a different color.

Because Web browsers are so easy to use and so powerful, a lot of folks think your entire computer should work the way your Web browser works. They think everything you can click on -- your own folders, for example -- should have underlines and act like hyperlinks.

That's an interesting idea, but it might be carrying things too far. Anyone using Windows 98 can ditch all the Web-look-alike stuff and run the computer the old-fashioned way. (Just click the Start button and then click Settings and go from there.) If you have Windows 95 and use Internet Explorer 4, you can turn off the Webby stuff the same way.

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