Teach Yourself the Internet in 24 Hours

- Hour 2 -
Internet Uses in the Modern World

If one constant exists on the Internet, it is that the Internet is going to continue to grow. Since its inception in the early 70s (that's right, the Net has been around almost 25 years), the Internet's user base has grown from a handful to over 20 million!

To what can this phenomenal growth be attributed? This lesson answers that question, as well as the following:

  • How did the Internet start?

  • How has the Internet developed over the last quarter century?

  • What is the most popular use of the Internet?

  • How else can the Internet be useful?

In the preceding lesson, I promised you some of the cold, hard facts about the Internet. Well, hold on to your hat because you're about to get...

A 15-Minute Overview of the Internet

Certainly, something that has grown as popular as the Internet must prove useful for both its users and providers. Throughout the rest of this lesson and throughout this book, you will discover just why the Internet has grown so popular. You'll also learn about using the Net for communication and searching, but I'll discuss these topics later. First, here's the history lesson.

The Internet began as a project in 1973 by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). At that time, DARPA wanted to initiate a research program to investigate techniques and technologies for connecting packet networks of various kinds. DARPA ultimately wanted to develop communication protocols that would allow networked computers to talk freely across different platforms and networks. And so ARPAnet was born.

New Term: Protocol: A protocol is nothing more than a set of rules. On the Internet, it is a set of rules computers use to communicate across networks. As long as everyone follows the rules, communication can occur freely.

ARPAnet, which came to be known simply as the Internet, developed a set of protocols known as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP. You should recognize "IP" from the discussion of IP addresses in Lesson 1, "The Internet: What's It Really Like?" An IP address is, in fact, an Internet protocol address.

Just A Minute: Did you figure out the answer to the IP address question from the "Activities" section in Lesson 1? The survey says that 4,294,967,296 possible IP addresses are available on the Internet.

The Internet continued to support a few hundred government scientists for over a decade until, in 1986, the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) initiated the development of the NSFnet, which even now provides a major backbone communication service for the Internet, as you can see in Figure 2.1. Today, the NSFnet backbone carries over 12 billion packets of information per month.

New Term: Backbone: A backbone is nothing more than a major cable that carries network traffic. Although thousands of regional private and public networks exist, most Internet traffic spends most of its trip on one of the major backbones.

Although the entrance of NSF onto the scene was a major factor in the development of the Internet, possibly the biggest turning point came in 1991, when NSF dropped its funding of the Internet and lifted the ban on commercial traffic on its backbone. Up until 1991, all NSF traffic came from government and educational institutions.

Figure 2.1.

A look at the major U.S. NSF backbone as it appears today from a World Wide Web view.

After 1991, however, the Internet was never quite the same. Commercial enterprises could respond more quickly to the market and to demand for information. New commercial backbones sprang up almost overnight. With them, of course, came the marketing and popularization of the Internet. The Net started to move away from UNIX and other science application languages to Windows-based interfaces that were easy for the public to use.

Soon after that came America Online, CompuServe, and other Internet service providers who went after Joe Enduser instead of Dr. Egghead. As the Internet became more accessible, companies began to see the enormous potential for business on the Internet. In addition, users also began to see some of the incredible applications for which they could use the Internet.

In this book, I will help you discover these uses. In the rest of this lesson, though, I give you a quick tour of the ways you can benefit from the Internet.

Using the Internet for Communication

With all the publicity and television commercials, you might conclude that the most popular use of the Internet is the World Wide Web, hands down. Well, here's a surprise. The most popular use, even today, is electronic mail, or e-mail. That's right, good old person-to-person, "let's talk"-type communication. It is almost fitting that one of the original uses of the Internet would still be the most popular.

You can, of course, communicate in other ways on the Net. In the following sections, you look at a few ways people are using the Internet to communicate with one another.

Personal Communication

E-mail provides you with more than just a way to write Aunt Jane a note about how things are going. Of course, many people can and do use e-mail for this very task, and it is very effective when used this way. But you also can find some more practical reasons for personal communication.

Have you ever tried to get in touch with someone and ended up playing phone tag for two days before finally getting hold of them? If you have, you know how frustrating this situation can be. Fortunately, e-mail eliminates this problem.

Using e-mail, you can quite often get hold of people who might otherwise take hours or days to get in touch with. Not only that, but by using e-mail, you can contact them on your time--no more waiting on hold or wondering whether you've been disconnected. Just send some e-mail, go about your other business, and wait for a response to pop in your mailbox. Which, by the way, points to e-mail's biggest advantage: It's fast!

It's in the Mail

Faxes are nice, but over long distances, the costs can add up. What if you had a quick and easy way to transmit instantly any type of file, document, or computer program electronically? Well, you do. With most e-mail programs, you can encode and "attach" documents to e-mail messages, as you can see in Figure 2.2.

Figure 2.2.

Why bother with wasted paper and time at the fax machine? E-mail your message!

These documents can be computer programs, word processing files, or just about anything else you can create on a computer. All that is required of the recipient is that he or she also has an e-mail program or helper application that can "decode" these attachments.

A Public Forum

Wouldn't it be great if you could have access to hundreds of other people through one e-mail address? The listserv is just such a vehicle (see Lesson 8, "Communicating with the World: Using Mailing Lists," for detailed information on listservs). By signing up, or "subscribing," to a listserv, you then gain instant access to everyone else who subscribes to that listserv.

New Term: Listserv: A listserv is basically an e-mail address that is configured to forward every message it receives to the e-mail addresses of the users who have "subscribed" to it. You can think of a listserv as an electronic interactive newspaper. These are often commonly referred to as mailing lists.

Listservs are available on literally thousands of topics. Everybody from dachsund lovers to zoologists can find a listserv. If more than one person is interested in a particular topic, you can almost certainly find a listserv for it.

CAUTION: Listservs are great, no doubt about it. They do, however, pose a downside. Some of them are large and can sometimes dump hundreds of e-mail messages a day into your mailbox, so be careful out there.

More Public Forums

Using listservs isn't the only way to reach out and talk to large groups of people on the Internet. Using newsgroups, you can accomplish the same task in a different way.

The first difference between a listserv and a newsgroup is in the way messages are received. With listservs, messages are sent directly to your mailbox, where you have to sort them out and decide what to read. Newsgroup messages, on the other hand, are posted to something like a public electronic bulletin board, where you have to go to read the messages.

Another difference is one of access. Anybody with an e-mail address can subscribe to a listserv. To read newsgroups, however, your Internet service provider must provide you with access.

If your service provider does carry newsgroups, they are easy to subscribe to and are full of excellent information. Anything you can get from a listserv (and more), you can get from a newsgroup, as you can see in Figure 2.3. For more in-depth coverage of newsgroups, see Lessons 9, "Basic Journalism: Introduction to Newsgroups," and 10, "Getting the Scoop: Using Newsgroups."

Figure 2.3.

New to newsgroups? You can find lots of tips.

Communicate in Real Time

In the last few years, the Internet has been hit by a wave of real-time communication (see Lessons 11, "Chatting Live on the Internet," and 12, "Internet Phone and Video," for more details). The processes of getting information, talking to others, and collaborating with colleagues no longer require a waiting period.

Perhaps a couple of examples would help explain these capabilities. I recently found myself in a position in which I had to work on a project at my computer. The problem was that the NBA finals were being played, and my office doesn't have a radio. Because I'm a huge basketball fan, this was a problem. Well, actually it wasn't because the NBA's Web site was broadcasting the game over RealAudio (a plug-in you'll read about in Lesson 15, "Helping Your Browser with Plug-Ins"), and I had a RealAudio player. So, I was able to work and listen to the game at the same time.

Care for a little more useful example? How about video conferencing? With the help of a small, inexpensive camera, like the one shown in Figure 2.4, and the right software on your computer, you can conduct face-to-face business and personal meetings right over the Internet. For an organization or individual who has contacts spread out over a large geographic area but who needs face-to-face contact with them on a regular basis, video conferencing is very useful.

Figure 2.4.

Connectix QuickCam can introduce you to the world of face-to-face communication on the Internet.

CAUTION: Audio and video transmissions take up a lot of room on the Internet. Though simple video and audio transmissions are reasonably reliable over a 14.4Kbps or 28.8Kbps modem connection, to use these capabilities to their full extent, you need a network connection to the Internet.

Find Anything on the Internet

The Internet isn't called the Information Superhighway for nothing. The Internet is information. Sometimes unfiltered, many times even useless, more information is available on the Internet than any one person could ever deal with.

Fortunately, some powerful search tools can help you find just about anything you want (see Lesson 20, "Finding People, Places, and Things on the Internet," for more details). In the final analysis, whether you find the Internet useful depends to a large degree on whether you can find the information you want and need. With some practice, and the help of this book, you should find great success.

Finding People

Because everyone on the Internet has an e-mail address, you should be able to find anyone, right? Well, think about it. How easy would it be to publish a telephone book with every phone number in the world? Not very easy at all. Even if you could gather all the numbers, by the time you published it, 10 percent of them would be wrong, disconnected, or changed.

The same challenge faces the Internet, and to be honest, sometimes the best way to find a friend's e-mail address is to just pick up the phone, call, and ask. With some tools, however, you can, with a little perseverance, locate e-mail addresses, as you can see in Figure 2.5.

Figure 2.5.

Even a simple e-mail client can help you locate that elusive e-mail address.

Finding Places

One of the newest crazes on the Internet is locator services. Many Internet sites help you plan trips, find locations, take you through tours on maps, and more. See the example in Figure 2.6.

All these services start with a search engine, which enables you to search a database for information you want. In this case, the database consists of locations, highway routes, and other geographical information.

New Term: Search engine: A search engine does exactly what its name says. It is really a computer program that indexes a database and then enables users to search it for relevant information.

Finding Things

You can search for billions of things on the Internet. Searching is an integral part of anyone's Internet use today. Covering every different type of search and information search is, of course, impossible, but in this book, I will point you to many of them.

Figure 2.6.

Planning a trip to New Zealand? The Internet can help.

At this point, you've seen a few examples of things you can find on the Internet, and you'll see lots more by the time you're done with the last lesson. Whether you're looking for a classic car or the recipe for perfect stroganoff, chances are you can find it on the Internet. See the example in Figure 2.7.

Figure 2.7.

For a rare car collector, the Internet is a boon.

The Internet for Fun and Entertainment

Face it; if you don't enjoy doing something, you're not very likely to do it again. The same is true of using the Internet. You need something to pique your interest or give you a laugh once in a while.

Without a doubt, the Internet is full of weird, wacky, and just plain fun stuff (see Lesson 24, "The Internet Just for Fun" for some examples). Read a new joke every day on the Web, find a newsgroup dedicated to "The Far Side," or spend some time downloading space pictures from NASA. Whatever your taste, you can find something on the Internet. Figure 2.8 shows a fun example.

Figure 2.8.

You can find political spin with a twist at The Capitol Steps Web site.


In this lesson, you learned some history behind the Internet. You discovered the Internet's humble beginnings as a small network for government scientists, as well as its phenomenal explosion in 1991.

Next, you learned how people are using the Internet to communicate by using e-mail to talk to individuals and groups, send files, and converse in real time. You also got a taste of how much information is available on the Internet and how to find it. Finally, you discovered that the Internet is also a place where you can have fun and enjoy yourself.


The following workshop helps solidify the skills that you learned in this lesson.


Q Has the Internet really been around 25 years?

A Well, yes and no. The Internet as you know it has really emerged only in the last five years or so, even though TCP/IP-based networks have been around much longer.

Q Does a difference exist between the Internet and the World Wide Web?

A The World Wide Web is just a part of the Internet, much like e-mail and newsgroups. Granted, it's a rather large part, but it isn't the same thing as the Internet any more than the telephone in your bedroom is the same as the phone system.

Q Is it really reasonable to expect to find good and useful information on the Internet?

A Absolutely. As you'll discover as you read this book, a myriad of online libraries, news sources, and other rich pockets of information are just waiting for you to tap into them.


Take the following quiz to see how much you've learned.


1. What is TCP/IP protocol?

. Because computer networks are simply connected with phone lines, it doesn't really matter what protocols are used for effective communications across these networks. True or False?

Which of the following delivers communications from a large group of people right to your mailbox?

A newsgroup

A listserv

Video-conferencing software


1. Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol.

False. Without a common "language" or protocol such as TCP/IP, networks can never talk to each other.

3. (b)
A listserv.


If you're already connected to the Internet and have started to look at Web pages, point your Web browser to http://saturn.math.uaa.alaska.edu/~royce/biblio.html to find out more about the history and growth of the Internet. If you aren't connected yet, save this activity for a future time.