Thing #1: What is the Internet?

or, “You Say Tomato, I Say TCP/IP”
What is the Internet, exactly?

To some of us, the Internet is where we stay in touch with friends, get the news, shop, and play games. To some others, the Internet can mean their local broadband providers, or the underground wires and fiber-optic cables that carry data back and forth across cities and oceans. Who is right?

A helpful place to start is near the Very Beginning: 1974.  That was the year that a few smart computer researchers invented something called the Internet Protocol Suite, or TCP/IP for short. TCP/IP created a set of rules that allowed computers to “talk” to each other and send information back and forth.

TCP/IP is somewhat like human communication: when we speak to each other, the rules of grammar provide structure to language and ensures that we can understand each other and exchange ideas. Similarly, TCP/IP provides the rules of communication that ensure interconnected devices understand each other so that they can send information back and forth. As that group of interconnected devices grew from one room to many rooms -- and then to many buildings, and then to many cities and countries - - the Internet was born.

The early creators of the Internet discovered that data and information could be sent more efficiently when broken into smaller chunks, sent separately, and reassembled. Those chunks are called packets. So when you send an email across the Internet, your full email message is broken down into packets, sent to your recipient,  and reassembled. The same thing happens when you watch a video on a website like YouTube: the video files are segmented into data packets that can be sent from multiple YouTube servers around the world and reassembled to form the video that you watch through your browser.

What about speed? If traffic on the Internet were akin to a stream of water, the Internet’s bandwidth is equivalent to the amount of water that flows through the stream per second. So when you hear engineers talking about bandwidth, what they’re really referring to is the amount of data that can be sent over your Internet connection per second. This is an indication of how fast your connection is. Faster connections are now possible with better physical infrastructure (such as fiber optic cables that can send information close to the speed of light), as well as better ways to encode the information onto the physical medium itself, even on older medium like copper wires.

The Internet is a fascinating and highly technical system, and yet for most of us today, it’s a user- friendly world where we don’t even think about the wires and equations involved. The Internet is also the backbone that allows the World Wide Web that we know and love to exist: with an Internet connection, we can access an open, ever-growing universe of interlinked web pages and applications. In fact, there are probably as many pages on the web today as there are neurons in your brain, as there are stars in the Milky Way!

In the next two chapters, we’ll take a look at how the web is used today through cloud computing and web apps.

Thing #2: Cloud Computing

or, why it’s ok for a truck to crush your laptop

Modern computing in the age of the Internet is quite a strange, remarkable thing. As you sit hunched over your laptop at home watching a YouTube video or using a search engine, you’re actually plugging into the collective power of thousands of computers that serve all this information to you from far-away rooms distributed around the world. It’s almost like having a massive supercomputer at your beck and call, thanks to the Internet.

This phenomenon is what we typically refer to as cloud computing. We now read the
news, listen to music, shop, watch TV shows and store our files on the web. Some of us live in cities in which nearly every museum, bank, and government office has a website. The end result? We spend less time in lines or on the phone, as these websites allow us to do things like pay bills and make reservations. The movement of many of our daily tasks online enables us to live more fully in the real world.

Cloud computing offers other benefits as well. Not too long ago, many of us worried about losing our documents, photos and files if something bad happened to our computers, like a virus or a hardware malfunction. Today, our data is migrating beyond the boundaries of our personal computers. Instead, we’re moving our data online into “the cloud”. If you upload your photos, store critical files online and use a web-based email service like Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, an 18-wheel truck could run over your laptop and all your data would still safely reside on the web, accessible from any Internet-connected computer, anywhere in the world.

Thing #3: Web Apps

or, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Appiness”
If you play online games, use an online photo editor, or rely on web-based services like Google Maps, Twitter, Amazon, YouTube or Facebook, then you’re an active resident in the wonderful world of web apps.
What exactly is a web app, anyway? And why should we care?
App is shorthand for an application. Applications are also called programs or software. Traditionally, they’ve been designed to do broad, intensive tasks like accounting or word processing. In the online world of web browsers and smart phones, apps are usually nimbler programs focused on a single task. Web apps, in particular, run these tasks inside the web browser and often provide a rich, interactive experience.
Google Maps is a good example of a web app. It’s focused on one task: providing helpful map features within a web browser. You can pan and zoom around a map, search for a college or cafe, and get driving directions, among other tasks. All the information you need is pulled into the web app dynamically every time you ask for it.
This brings us to four virtues of Web Appiness:

1. I can access my data from anywhere.

In the traditional world of desktop applications, data is usually stored on my computer’s hard drive. If I’m on vacation and leave my computer at home, I can’t access my email, photos, or any of my data when I need it. In the new world of web apps, my email and all my data are stored online on the web. I can get to it on a web browser from any computer that’s connected to the Internet.

2. I’ll always get the latest version of any app.

Which version of YouTube am I using today? What about tomorrow? The answer: Always the latest. Web apps update themselves automatically, so there’s always just one version: the latest version, with all the newest features and improvements. No need to manually upgrade to a new version every time. And I don’t have to go through a lengthy install process to use my web apps.

3. It works on every device with a web browser.

In traditional computing, some programs work only on particular systems or devices. For instance, many programs written for a PC won’t work on a Mac. Keeping up with all the right software can be time-consuming and costly. In contrast, the web is an open platform. Anyone can reach it from a browser on any web-connected device, regardless of whether it’s a desktop computer, laptop, or mobile phone. That means I can use my favorite web apps even if I’m using my friend’s laptop or a computer at an Internet cafe.

4. It’s safer.

Web apps run in the browser and I never
have to download them onto my computer. Because of this separation between the app code and my computer’s code, web apps can’t interfere with other tasks on my computer or the overall performance of my machine. This means that I’m better protected from threats like viruses, malware and spyware.