Internet

The tools for getting on the internet

How is the internet made possible?

The power of the Internet has been made possible by three key pieces of technology: computers, software and the telephone network.

The telephone network is perhaps the most important part of the Internet. Without it and we would have to transmit digital information on floppy disks or CDs through the traditional mailing system.

The computers of the internet consist of internet servers, web servers and the standard computers for accessing the Internet. Internet servers are computers located in different parts of the world designed to receive and transmit digital information cheaply, easily and automatically and to host a variety of Web sites (or places for archiving information) on a 24-hour-a-day, seven-days-a-week basis. Web servers are actually software applications running on computers designed for the sole purpose of 'serving up' or delivering digital information in the form of documents when requested by a client on the web.

Finally, the software for running the Internet include the critical language protocol of TCP/IP needed for computers to find and understand each other including what to do with pieces of information it receives (called packets) travelling through the network. Other software include Internet browsers such as Microsoft Explorer, Netscape Navigator and Safari for displaying web pages, and the actual web pages themselves designed to archive information and present them in an attractive way.

Web pages are usually written in the most common programming language known to most computer geeks (although relatively easy to understand by most other ordinary people) as HTML. Sometimes other programming languages may get added to the HTML of a typical web page such as Javascript, but these merely enhance the web experience for Internet users.

How does the Internet find the right person?

Just like your own home or business must have a unique residential or business address for people to send letters to you over the traditional mailing system, every computer on the Internet must have a unique address of its own to ensure information transmitted over the network gets through to the right machine. The Internet manages to achieve this using a unique combination of four numbers separated by dots (.) known as IP (Internet Protocol).

As of 2007, the number of internet users has become so vast, the address system will be expanded to form five numbers separated by dots.

This means every computer will be assigned (usually typed in manually in a control panel such as TCP/IP, or automatically provided by a local server) a unique number such as 17.254.0.91.

Thus if you wanted to see the web pages of someone else's computer located at 17.254.0.91, you would type in the address field of your Internet browser http://17.254.0.91/ and press the Return key.

Of course, remembering an address like 17.254.0.91 just because you may like the information coming from someone else's computer and perhaps a few dozen other similar addresses may not enthral you to no end especially if one digit goes awry or is accidentally missing. Who knows? You could be talking to the wrong person at the other end. So computer experts have been nice enough to allow people to assign a numerical address like 17.254.0.91 to a more meaningful and easier to remember name such as http://www.apple.com/quicktime/index.html known as a domain name.

NOTE: Don't be surprised if some people may have gone backwards on their web sites when helping people to remember the address of a web page when the address starts to look like http://www.haventgotaclue.com/main/documents/interesting/2345t1/adc/a111/easiertoremember?/ almostthere/personalfolder/x123765.htm. You might as well give us the numerical address instead for simplicity sake!

All domain names and their corresponding IP addresses are stored in Domain Name Servers (DNS) — basically more computers on the Internet to help decipher and choose the correct computers having a unique IP address when you type a domain name in the address field of your Internet browser.

How do I access the Internet?

Firstly, you will need a computer, such as a PC or an Apple Macintosh. Secondly, you must have a small electronic device called a modem to help you physically communicate over the telephone network. Thirdly, you will need the software to help coordinate and run your modem and computer as well as to present the information you will collect from the Internet in a readable form understood by humans. And fourthly, you will need the telephone number of your local Information Service Provider (ISP) to help act as your "low-cost" gateway to the great wide world of the Internet.

Should I buy the latest computer to access the Internet?

No, you don't have to. Almost any old computer with a built-in or an externally-attached electronic communication device called a modem will suffice.

But don't go spending $2000 or more on your dream computer if all you want to do is send/receive email and visit Web sites. Even the really old Apple PowerBook 540C with its 100MHz processor will do just fine.

Now there's an idea for computer manufacturers who want people to access the Internet. Just rebuild or redress one of the classic old laptop computers (well at least make it smaller, tougher and perhaps more reliable and make it attachable to a normal television set, but don't put in all the latest and greatest hi-tech features) and sell it for $100 each, and just about every student, teacher and parent will buy one just to access the Internet!

What should I be looking for in a modem?

All new computers should come with a built-in modem, so you shouldn't have to worry about this. If your computer doesn't come with one, you can purchase it from your local computer store for around A$150 or even cheaper through a reputable computer magazine (the PC Card variety of modems for laptops is likely to be more expensive, about A$300). Buy a modem from a reputable name such as Hayes, US Robotics, 3Com, Diamond, MultiTech and Premier.

Please note that modems have been surpassed by broadband modems. So whatever modem you do get should be the latest.

When buying a modem, look for the highest speed device you can afford, preferably with a "flash ROM upgradeable" feature for ease of upgrading to any future modem standard (V.90 as of 2005) without requiring the modem to be sent back to the manufacturer. As of 2006, the highest speed digital-to-analogue modems run at 56kbps or to put it more simply a 56,000 bits per second (with a V.90 specification), which means that it can reduce the time it takes to accurately download pages and files on the Internet through the old copper telephone lines compared to a modem that runs at only 28.8kbps. But remember, don't try to buy the fastest modem in the world and expect to download files the fastest (or the most reliably) because:

  • your local Information Service Provider (ISP) for connecting you to the Internet may have a much slower modem; and/or
  • the telephone line you use for Internet access may be of the old copper variety and possibly be subject to receiving more electrical interference from neighbouring electronic equipment,

which could make your Internet experience a less than favourable one indeed. Also many people could be trying to get on the Internet with your ISP during peak times and this will make it slower for you to download information (1).

If you want to get the most from your experience in using the Internet, talk to your local ISP and find out what modem speed they use. Also ask your ISP what is the best time to be connected to the Internet. And find out whether the ISP has a policy of disconnecting users without notice because of these problems.

To minimise disappointment, we recommend a broadband modem. The minimum speeds for broadband are 128kbps. In some business locations close to a telephone exchange box, the speeds can reach 2,000kbps. If choosing a broadband modem, make sure the ISP gives you adequate upload and download speeds. ISPs are likely to give you good download speeds but poor upload speeds. But if you want to video conference with a family member, the upload speed should be as quick as the download speed.

When choosing a modem (broadband or an analogue version), get the one with software that enables it to operate as both an answering machine and a fax machine. This will make your options for communicating with other people more flexible and will save you the cost of purchasing more specialised pieces of equipment for doing the same job at a later date.

If the modem is for business use, consider installing a second telephone line so that one of them is dedicated for Internet use, and the other is free to receive normal voice messages (i.e. your standard telephone system) (2). With broadband, this is not necessary: one telephone line can serve as an internet connection and as a standard telephone connection all at the same time. In other words, someone can be using the telephone to talk to someone, but you can be on the internet at the same time.

What will ISPs do for me?

Nothing all that exciting other than to help you get on the Internet. But if you don't go through an ISP, then surfing on the Internet can be an extremely expensive proposition!

To minimise your cost when accessing the Internet, you would be wise to contact your local Information Service Provider (ISP) who will act as your low-cost gateway or "middleman" to the entire worldwide computer network. Internet connection through an ISP is roughly A$9.00 per month for 56k modem experience to A$25 for broadband. And don't worry about getting a hugh telephone bill when your computer is connected to the Internet - you only pay the local telephone rate for connecting to your local ISP. (3)

NOTE: Broadband is a little bit different to traditional analogue modems in that leaving broadband on all the time could actually rack up a huge telephone bill. Why? Because all it takes is for someone on the internet to download stuff from your computer and keep doing it for as long as they like until you reach the maximum upload/download data volume assigned by your ISP. If you exceed this volume, you may have to pay extra by the megabyte (MB). This is especially true of cheap broadband deals. When choosing broadband, make sure your ISP can cut you off when the volume is reached. If you continue using broadband, you should receive a letter or email explaining you have exceeded the volume of data for the month. Of course, the ideal broadband provider should be someone who can give you unlimited upload and download volume rates, at the highest speed possible, for the lowest price.

Could we be dreaming?

What software do I need to access the Internet?

Assuming you have already installed your modem and followed the manufacturer's recommendation on how to install and setup the Internet software drivers for running your modem, you will also need a piece of software loaded up on your computer called an Internet browser. When you begin using a computer to access the Internet, look for an Internet browser called Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Or better still, try the astonishingly brilliant Mozilla FireFox. This is the kind of browser all internet users should be using.

Setting up your computer with the software you need to access the Internet nowadays is as simple as (i) inserting an installation CD supplied by one of your local ISPs; (ii) installing the software on the CD by clicking on a button; (iii) letting the software reconfigure aspects of your network connection; (iv) restarting your computer for the changes to take effect; (v) launching the Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator browser; and (vi) filling in your personal details, password, username and email address on the online web page form provided by the ISP. This is usually all it takes to activate your account and start accessing the world of information on the Internet.

Please note that if at any time you intend to install a brand new copy of your Windows or Macintosh operating system on your computer (whether because you want to upgrade or had to solve other system problems), you will have to reuse the ISP's installation CD to reconfigure your computer's network settings for Internet/email access.

Which is the best Internet browser?

For a long time after 1994, Netscape Navigator was considered the tool for all Internet use. After 2000, Microsoft Corporation delivered a powerful browser called Microsoft Internet Explorer. So powerful is this browser that nearly 93 per cent of all Internet users regular use it as of June 2002.

The main advantage of Microsoft Internet Explorer is its fast web page rendering engine with the ability to present web pages more attractively than Netscape Navigator versions 1.0 to 6.x. And most importantly, it has become a standard for presenting web pages.

Realising the domination of Microsoft Internet Explorer on the Internet, Netscape (now owned by AOL Time Warner), has released Netscape Navigator version 7. This latest incarnation of the old favourite has now taken a major leap forward in design and features.

The latest Netscape Navigator now sports a sexy interface and comes with features like Tabbed Browsing for helping you see multiple web pages within the one browser window (and so reduce window clutter); a better Download Manager than Microsoft Internet Explorer; and full email, newsgroup reader and instant-messaging software.

Another positive move by Netscape is the choice of browser you want to download. You can have a choice of downloading the browser only (roughly 9MB), a more substantial browser with email, instant messaging and a newsgroup reader (roughly 12.6MB), or a whopping 30.8MB for the complete version with quality audio and video plug-ins along with Sun Java 2.

With features, design and choices like this, Netscape Navigator version 7 is poised for a serious comeback if enough users discover the gem in this piece of software. It will be interesting to see how Netscape will affect Microsoft's share of the Internet browser market in the coming years. (4)

What is the purpose of a browser?

Now when you open up an Internet browser, what you will see within the browser is a web page. The page may be blank or it may have some graphics and text popping up on it.

A web page is just a collection of text, pictures, movies and sounds presented like the pages of a book. The only big difference between the normal pages of a standard book and the web page you are looking at is the way the web page can also show you movies, sounds and animated graphics and not just static images and text as in a standard book.

This is one of the biggest advantages of the Internet. The other advantage is that the Internet can provide you with real-time, up-to-date information in almost any field you care to read about. For example, you can now watch in real-time someone on the internet using a camera and video conferencing software.

Think of (i) the Internet as a great big encyclopedia of information; (ii) the web site as a book; and (iii) the web pages within a web site like the pages or chapters of a book. And to help you find specific pages on the Internet, you will need to access a search engine (we call this special web page "the index of the encyclopedia") like http://www.yahoo.com, http://www.altavista.com, or http://www.excite.com.

It is important to note that no single search engine (not even all of them combined) is able to find every single web page in existence at any one time on the Internet. Finding a web page among literally more than a billion pages online as of June 2001 depends on the author of the page notifying the owners of search engine sites of their online presence. Furthermore, web pages change and move about to different web addresses fairly quickly and regularly, making it extremely difficult for search engines to keep track of all web pages.

To make matters worse, as the Internet becomes more commercialised, companies like Microsoft are providing their own special brand of search engines or working with existing ones to ensure certain sites appearing in a search engine result are selected in favour of other web sites in an attempt to attract the audience and support the companies commercial aims.

Whether the information is deliberately restricted by companies or the technology is not powerful enough to handle the amount of information, it is believed by some experts (including the work done by the company BrightPlanet.com) that at least 400 and possibly as much as 550 times the amount of information we can directly access through search engines (called the surface Web lay hidden away or unobserved by the search engines (called the deep Web).

As Angus Kidman, editor-in-chief of Australian Personal Computer, wrote in the October 2000 issue:

"...the fundamental problem with search engines: they're not very good and they miss a lot of stuff." (5)

However, the only serious disadvantages the Internet brings to a society is the fact that (i) you need a computer (often a bulky machine) in order to read information in electronic form; and (ii) it increases the social gap between rich and poor because of the high cost of purchasing a computer and accessing the Internet. But otherwise the technology has a lot going for it.

The onus is on computer manufacturers, ISPs, the government and the rest of society to ensure the cost of a computer and access to the Internet is absolutely at its lowest for everyone to benefit from it.