Usage of the internet by content type

Usage of the internet by content type; notice that Web traffic is trending down. Sources: Cisco estimates based on CAIDA publications, Andrew Odlyzko, Wired Magazine.


In this business, we often use the Internet and the World Wide Web synonymously. Technically, they aren’t, and I think it’s useful to know the difference.

You might have heard Senator Ted Stevens pontificate once upon the nature of the Internet: “[…] the Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It’s a series of tubes.” That’s actually largely true, but this places undue emphasis on the wiring and misses what makes the Internet revolutionary: the ability for physically separated devices to communicate with each other. It’s about the devices, not the wires. The Internet is a world-wide, publicly available lattice of computers interconnected by various means, through which data flows. That’s very vague, so let’s look at an example.

Typical home network setup

Typical home network setup. From PCGuideBook.com.

Think about your home network. You probably have a desktop PC, which is connected to a router, which is connected to a modem, from which you get your connection to the Internet. You might also have a laptop, a tablet, a printer, perhaps a video gaming console, also hooked up to your router. All of these devices (including the router) are connected by “series of tubes.” However, your laptop and tablet are probably connected wirelessly – no tubes in this case.

Notice that “Internet” is capitalized, implying that there is only one and it’s monolithic. Remember that the Internet is a lattice of interconnected computers. Another way to put it is that the Internet is a network of internets. An internet is a subset network of the greater Internet; it’s largely a theoretical difference.

How about an intranet? An intranet is not publicly available; it’s private to a specific group of users, often a company or similar organization. Usually, it is connected to the Internet, but it’s a one-way street – only devices on the intranet can “get out,” but devices on the Internet can’t “get in” to the intranet.

Now, let’s talk about the World Wide Web. The Web operates on top of the Internet; without the Internet, the Web wouldn’t work or make sense. The World Wide Web is an interconnected lattice of webpages, intended for humans to view. The Web relies on a client-server architecture – the device you use to browse the Web is the client, and the computer that stores the content you’re trying to access is the server.

Wired Magazine has proclaimed that “the Web is dead” — meaning we’re using other services, applications, and protocols on the Internet more than the Web (see above graphic). As the author, Chris Anderson, explains to NPR:

[…T]he Internet predates the Web. The Internet, it was originally created in the 1970s. And it is the network. It is the wires and the routers that transport digital data.

Now, there’s lots of applications that use the Internet. The Web is one of them. And it’s the one we use. But, you know, when you think about it, you know, when you make a Skype call that’s using the Internet but not the Web. If you’re downloading movies via Netflix, that’s using the Internet but not the Web.

In other words, the Internet is the medium; the Web is just one protocol that uses the medium. Notice in the above graphic that in 1990, FTP was huge. That was how the Internet was primarily used when it was first invented and before the Web took off; turns out it was a big truck that you could dump stuff on! If you’ve been on the Internet since the ’90s, how has your usage changed? Do you think it will continue to change?

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