What is the internet?

What is the Internet?

The Internet—also called "cyberspace", "information superhighway" or quite simply "the Net"—is the world's biggest computer network. It consists of independently-managed computers and minor computer networks (known in the IT world as intranets) all linked together by the telephone line and a special standard 'protocol' or language known as TCP/IP.

Originally called the Internetwork, the technology for bridging computers across the existing telephone network was developed in the 1960s by computer experts at the US Department of Defence (1) as a way of preserving information in the event parts of the network goes down during a war (the main threat in those days was getting nuked by the communists in Russia).

Several American universities quickly caught on to the idea. Within a couple years after its conception, the technology was expanded for more peaceful aims to help students and academics communicate with each other over great distances at maximum speed and minimal cost and time.

Is there a simple way to understand the Internet?

Physically speaking, the Internet is a fancy name for the old telephone network where the humble telephone is replaced by the more sophisticated computer. Soon, if microphones and tiny video cameras become a standard plug-in feature for all computers (and perhaps even mobile phones as well), then the Internet could be called the videophone.(2)

On a more non-physical level, think of the Internet as just another way for people to store information and share the ideas around the world at the same time in a process known as archiving and communication. And when we communicate on the Internet, we do so using a combination of pictures, movies and text, and not just sounds using the telephone.

As Veronica Kamerling, a 53-year-old businesswoman from the UK, once put it quite elegantly:

"It's just a very good communication [and archiving] tool for everybody..." (3)

How do businesses see the Internet?

To most business professionals, the Internet is seen not just as a communication tool, but also as the world's first true free market economy. In other words, it is another opportunity for any ambitious entrepreneur to advertise, sell and (depending on the type of product or service) distribute anything of value to customers.

Is the Internet just for people to communicate with each other?

It is a little more than just for people communicating with each other. Businesses are also using the Internet to help them communicate with electronic devices so they can control the way the devices work for their customers while at the same time learn how customers use their products.

In other words, we will soon have the ability to tell our appliances over the Internet how to set the temperature in our homes, specify what television programs we want to record on video tape, and even download the latest and greatest washing cycle for our new washing machines of the future.

NOTE: We should be extremely careful how we implement this business idea of remotely controlling appliances via the Internet. Once appliances are linked to the Internet, it is very easy to have them automatically controlled by a computer centralised from one place where it can be monitored and checked by someone else. Big Brother, here we come! Or what happens if someone else manages to get their hands on your special telephone number for controlling your own appliances? You could find yourself either locked in or locked out of your own home, or find the washing machine suddenly and mysterious starting up on its own!

Why have we developed the Internet?

Our telephone system has proved to be one of the most valuable pieces of technology ever devised by humans. Apart from recent advances in radio wave communication and satellite technology, the telephone system has helped so many people to communicate with each other over great distances.

Unfortunately, the telephone is an old piece of technology designed to transfer our voices (or ideas through sounds) over the network. This is where the Internet comes to the rescue. The Internet simply adds more information to our telephone messages by including pictures, text and movies to our sounds.

And eventually, in the future, the Internet may become the videophone where we will be able to see who we are speaking to and even transfer documents electronically over the old telephone network.

It is all about putting more information (or more "bang-for-our-buck") into our existing tried-and-tested telephone network system.

But why?

The Internet is not just an excellent tool for communicating ideas with other people. It has the power of reducing the cost of publishing highly changeable information such as journals.(4)

In other words, it has the potential of providing the latest up-to-date information (perhaps in real-time if the supplier of the information and the reader are simultaneously connected). This is useful in modern society because most individuals and organisations tend to move around, change addresses and phone numbers, update their products over a short period of time, and so on.

NOTE: If the software for real-time updating of information is not available, then the speed of the update is still dependent on the person updating the web pages. So the above statement may not necessarily be true. It is possible to find some web sites that haven't been updated for years!

The Internet service used the most is email because of its speed and low- or virtually non-existent costs when communicating in text form.

And now the same thing is becoming true of certain web sites hosted from certain low-cost or "free" Information Service Providers (or ISPs) in various countries around the world.

What is another advantage for having the Internet?

Another of the great advantages the Internet can bring to society, apart from helping to preserve constructive and useful worldwide information (while the electricity to power the Internet is maintained(5)), is the potential to reduce (though not quite eliminate) the need for paper as a means of communicating with someone in the world. Another is the opportunity to liberate people from having to work from a centralised location. As vice-president of Digi International Mr Bob Poorman said:

" Europe and elsewhere governments are providing companies with tax incentives to allow their employees to work from home." (6)

However, the issue of secure transmission of information over the Internet is still in its infancy and this has prevented the benefits of full paper reduction and working from any location in the world from being fully implemented. As James Riley reported in The Australian on 26 November 1996:

"For all the explosive growth of Internet technology in Australia and across the globe, one of the greatest stumbling blocks to its real "killer application" electronic commerce has been concerns about network security.

The consumer has yet to be convinced about the integrity of the Internet.

More precisely, they have yet to be convinced that it is safe to post their credit card numbers on the Internet....

The solution lay in encryption but various and complicated standards needed to be laid down to allow the various institutions to work together cohesively." (7)

Even today, despite the brilliant new advances in sophisticated encryption technology, new software tools are continuing to be developed to help break the latest security features. (8)

The Internet has a way of centralising core information of every organisation or business who uses it resulting in a much lower communication cost. For the individual, the Internet is also a way of decentralising work location resulting in a much lower rental cost for businesses who decide to move into smaller premises.

What do businesses think about the Internet?

Now that the Internet has been around for a few years, what do the business community think about it? A summary of the responses from the top 100 Australian businesses listed by the Business Review Weekly (BRW) was published in this way:

"The Internet has brought huge benefits to business, according to the BRW [top] 100 entrepreneurs. But there is a downside. Entrepreneurs complain that staff surf the Internet instead of working, and computer viruses, pornography and e-mailed jokes find their way into the workplace...

Entrepreneurs also complain that joining the Internet world has not translated into profits, and the Internet has reduced their personal contact with clients.

However, the benefits of the Internet are seen as far outweighing the disadvantages. One benefit is the increase in profile and credibility that comes from referring local and overseas customers to a Web site. This means that geography is no longer a barrier to market entry, and entrepreneurs report increased overseas interest and sales thanks to their Web site." (9)

Must I join the mad rush to get connected to the Internet?

Again, you don't have to. The Internet and the tools (e.g. a computer) you will need to get online are still generally too expensive and complicated for the average user. And even if the tools are available, the telephone network could be so poor in your area (i.e. in the country) that surfing the web could be a laborious, if not impossible, experience for some. So not everyone will be able to get on the Internet.

Also some people don't need to be immersed in so much extra information of the Internet in order to do the essential things they need to do in their lives. So for others, getting on the Internet is not a priority.

Furthermore, you are not required by law (thank God for that!) to join the Internet. You may feel a tremendous sense of pressure from computer and software manufacturers and some local ISPs and other businesses (and, following the events of 11 September 2001, the government) to get you on the Internet. But this is their job. The more people they can get online, the more money they can make and the more they can learn about you.

You don't need the Internet. There are lots of good quality information you can gather from traditional print sources in your local library, newsagent or by talking and listening to people on the radio or in person. So remember, you are not obligated to join the latest craze of the so-called worldwide revolution known as the Internet. The only reason why you may want to be on the Internet is if:

  1. you are doing research and need to gather the very latest information;
  2. you want to talk to someone on the other side of the world for the cost of a local telephone call (or no cost at all at public libraries and other locations); and/or
  3. you want the convenience of shopping for something unusual or different from the comforts of your own home.

The Internet should be seen as just another way for you to achieve certain goals in your life. But it should never be seen as the only tool available to do things, or the complete replacement of everything you have ever done. Just another means of gathering information and communicating with someone.

People tend to forget this. As Peter Coroneos, the executive director of the Internet Industry Association (IIA) based in Canberra, has discovered:

"To my fellow revolutionaries, what I am about to say may sound like heresy. But the fact is, the Internet may not be for everyone....In advanced information economies, we may soon be seeing a flattening of demand....

For those of us who spend our days campaigning for universal access, the Digital Divide (which can mean not connected, or connected in an inadequate way) has become a four dimensional problem. The first dimension is geographic. In regional and remote areas, sub-optimal telecommunications infrastructure has been blamed for such poor performance that recent research has shown 30 per cent of these online cousins surf the Web with graphics turned off. While these people are still technically online, they are second class citizens of the Net....

The second dimension of the Digital Divide is money. A study commissioned by the Australian Council of Social Services and the Communications Law Centre this year found that while geographic remoteness was certainly a factor, there was a greater correlation between Internet usage and income. Even in remote areas, the well-off were still going online.

The inaccessibility to the Net by those with disabilities forms the third dimension of the Divide. Those who cannot access Internet content because of bad site design are still being denied full participation in the Internet experience.

The fourth dimension to the problem revolves around those who have computers, but for reasons related to lack of technical experience have yet to get connected. This phenomenon is borne out in figures released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) in November which showed that over one in three of the 53 per cent of Australian homes with a computer are not online. Cost is surely an element of this statistic, but when you consider that they have already incurred the major expenditure, the deficit must include those who fear to jump.

Perhaps a fifth dimension is also evident - the lack of perceived need or value. It is possible that part of this is simply lack of exposure to the medium. But maybe there is a more embedded resistance to change that will not succumb to the hype and the hard sell. People who are just plain not interested in the Internet...." (10)