Although popular media accounts are often confused and confusing, the concept of the Internet really is rather simple: it’s a worldwide collection of computer networksa network of networkssharing digital information via a common set of networking and software protocols.
Networks are not new to computers. What makes the Internet unique is its worldwide collection of digital telecommunication links that share a common set of computer-network technologies, protocols, and applications. Whether you run Microsoft Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS, or even the now ancient Windows 3.1, when connected to the Internet, all computers speak the same networking language and use functionally identical programs, so you can exchange informationeven multimedia pictures and soundwith someone next door or across the planet.
The common and now quite familiar programs people use to communicate and distribute their work over the Internet have also found their way into private and semiprivate networks. These so-called intranets and extranets use the same software, applications, and networking protocols as the Internet. But unlike the Internet, intranets are private networks, with access restricted to members of the institution. Likewise, extranets restrict access but use the Internet to provide services to members.
The Internet, on the other hand, seemingly has no restrictions. Anyone with a computer and the right networking software and connection can “get on the Net” and begin exchanging words, sounds, and pictures with others around the world, day or night: no membership required. And that’s precisely what is confusing about the Internet.
Like an oriental bazaar, the Internet is not well organized, there are few content guides, and it can take a lot of time and technical expertise to tap its full potential.