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Internet Basics: The World Wide Web

What is the World Wide Web and why is everyone talking about about it?

Web History: Just as all roads in the Microsoft Windows empire lead to Bill Gates, the vast network of the World Wide Web can be traced essentially to the vision of one person, Tim Berners-Lee, now director of the World Wide Web Consortium. In 1989, Berners-Lee proposed a communications model to transcend differences in computer platforms and thus more easily share information available via the Internet. Berners-Lee was then a researcher at CERN, a research laboratory for particle physics in Geneva, Switzerland. His motivation was to find a way for CERN members to share information worldwide. In this link, Berners-Lee tells how a broader social revolution he originally envisioned is starting to take place through Web technology.

The Web makes use of a standard communications protocol, HyperText Transfer Protocol (http://), and a standard presentation language, HyperText Markup Language (HTML). These standards allow users to view the same Web page whether they have a Windows machine, a Macintosh or UNIX-based system, or another platform. Although Web pages may have minor differences in the way they appear, the information contained within them is the same. HyperText covers much more than text files, however, and can include images, audio, video, order forms, mini programs or voice e-mail, and the list is growing!

Web Terminology: You've already learned some key Web words. "HyperText" is probably one of the most important concepts to understand regarding Web technology. Hypertexted documents are those linked together in non-linear ways, often from many different locations. The Web is formed by these links among documents. Web designers and content providers use HyperText Markup Language (HTML), a system of placing different style , location or behavior tags on text, to define their relative appearance in a Web browser and link these documents together. Here is a glossary of some other terms you will likely come across while accessing the Web and its larger parent, the Internet.

Web Browsers: A Web browser is a software program you can use to access files on the World Wide Web. Netscape Navigator is the most prevalently used, but another good browser is Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Other browsers include Mosaic, Lynx and those specific to certain online services.

The look of the Web pages you access will depend on the features your browser supports. Some browsers support frames and tables. Others do not. As new standards become prevalent in the HTML language of Web designers, more browsers will support more file behaviors, enhancing the look and uniformity of Web pages. For now that is still in flux, with Netscape and Microsoft one-upping each other with new and amazing Web tags and plug-in technologies unique to their own browsers.

Web designers often have a dilemma because their pages may look perfectly good in one browser, but not so good in another. I design my pages for Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer, but I also sometimes have to design a text version of some sites. For instance, one customer of mine has many clients on CompuServe, which owns the Spry Mosaic Web browser. This browser does not recognize the same text tags as the other two, so the documents do not display correctly.

Netscape Navigator can be downloaded for evaluation free of charge. Internet Explorer is a free product. These links are to their download sites.

Browsing Through a Web Site: These descriptions are here to help you understand what you see within your Web browser program and how to maneuver within it with the following basic commands:

Web pages are often composed of hypertext links (also called hot links) to other documents or two other spots within the same document. Generally, when you see text in a different color and/or underlined (this is a preference you can set, too) you will know that it is a hotlink. Sometimes (not always) visited links will be a different color from unvisited ones. (You can set your preferences here too.)

Most Web page default backgrounds are gray, a color that to me is hard on the eyes. I prefer more contrast and set my default background color to white, which my browser will adhere to unless the page comes with its own background color or image. Some people prefer a misty green. It's up to you, but you don't have to settle for gray unless that's what you like.

URL or Location or Net site: The Web address of the document you are viewing or seeking, ie. http://www.yahoo.com , is the Uniform Resource Locator or address for the default opening home page for the Yahoo! Internet catalog. Open URL or "open location" means "go to this Web document on this server at this location." The specific name of the document is at the end of the URL, and information in front of it describes to the computer the path it must take to reach the document. If no specific document is named at the end of an URL, the computer will default to a set name, such as "index.html" and either show that document or a list of the contents of the last directory in the path.

When you are viewing files locally on your computer, your own computer works the same way as a server by following paths to the file you are seeking. So it is important to be familiar with the way the files and directories are nested and arranged on your computer. You can customize this to some extent to suit your own organizational preferences. You will notice this more as you visit more URLs and see how other webmasters are organizing the files on their servers.

Open File or "open local" means to open a document stored locally on your hard disk.

"Save As Text" means to save the text parts of the document.

"Save As Source" means to preserve the document's HTML tags so that you can view it the same later in a Web browser (minus any images, which you can also save to disk but to display properly the image must be placed on your hard disk in the same path as defined in its HTML tag. The images in this file would not display properly you you move them out of the "images" directory because I have defined their path in the HTML coding. The browser will display a little broken image icon or a question mark to indicate there is supposed to be something there but the file is not in the location specified.)

While I'm on the subject of images, you can always turn off the display of images in your browser for really quick page loading. But many Web designers use image maps (illustrations with hotlinks) on their sites and you will miss these as well. Most designers will also include text hotlinks that are the same as those in the image maps for use in this case. You will know an illustration has a hot link in it if your cursor changes to a pointing finger when you pass over key areas.

"Back" and "Forward" buttons take you to the previously cached or next cached documents and can preserve form information you've type in. The "stop" button halts a page from loading and is helpful if you're tired of waiting for large image files to load.

"Home" defaults to a home page of your choice. You can set this URL yourself although most browsers default to their corporate URL.

"Refresh" or "Reload" accesses the freshest version of the document available from the server and prevents you from seeing an older cached version.

Most Web pages also have a signature at the bottom with credit information and a record of the document's URL and the last time it was modified.

Once you visit a site you like, you can "bookmark" the page or add it to your "favorites" or "hotlist" (different Web browsers call these files by different names), so that you don't have to type in its URL each time you want to visit it.

Organizing your bookmarks is time well spent but I also have come across several useful Web URL utilities. The one I use most is WebQuick which keeps a handy list of the last thousand places I've been (you'll be amazed how fast those files mount up!). Many people also offer their bookmarks over the Web. You can save these files as source and import them into your bookmarks for more bookmarks than you'll ever need.

You can also use the find or search button to find or advance to specific text. This is particularly helpful with lengthy documents that require a lot of scrolling.

Sometimes you may want to view the HTML source of a document or find out more information about that document. In Netscape "document source" and "document info" commands supply this information. This is especially helpful if you would like to try to develop your own Web page and you want to learn how it's done.

At the bottom of the Web browser is a status bar. This generally displays communications with servers and other server messages, such as "contacting host" or "loading file." Sometimes the status bar can have little messages in it programmed in by a Web designer. This is done with special Web scripting applications, one is known as Java and another is Java Script. Both of these scripting languages provide additional capabilities for Web designers and programmers and ultimately more fun for you as a Web visitor.

Another trick to keep in mind is right mouse button magic (or if you use a Mac mouse, just click and hold the mouse button down). This often brings up a new menu list of items, among the most helpful to me is "new window with this frame" and "add to address book (in e-mail)."

Error Messages: Don't fret when you get an error message from your browser. This is common and usually has one of several origins. Make a note of the specific error and what you were doing when it occurred. Particularly aggravating are some Netscape General Protection Fault or application errors that shut down the program under Windows 3.1 and Macintosh Type 11 errors. Netscape has specific steps to alleviate these problems. Other errors may occur if you are not properly logged in before you launch your browser. Typically the browser may tell you there is no DNS entry for the server it is seeking, and that may have been caused by the fact that you aren't actually online.

If your program crashes while you are online (and it will occasionally): Stay calm and accept this as a fact of Internet life. The technology is changing rapidly and many programs have to work together when you are browsing the Web. If your mouse button is frozen, try force-quitting the program with keyboard commands. If the freeze remains, you may have to restart your computer. Turn off the power and wait at least 30 seconds for the hard disk fan to spin down. If you have an external modem, turn its power off and then turn it back on. Login again and relaunch your browser. Immediately go to options, network options and clear your disk and memory caches. You may want to increase the size of your cache.

Another common error over which you have no control is a 404 File Not Found error. It simply means the document you requested via an URL doesn't exist on the server. This is likely to happen either because the document has been moved by the webmaster or its URL has been mistyped by you. Remember that most servers are UNIX-based machines and are case-sensitive to file names. Thus if you type an URL requesting the file "Index.html", it won't find it if the file name is actually "index.html". Remember to be careful to type in the URLs exactly as they appear with no spaces. This is another reason a bookmarks file is so valuable. It alleviates all that typing and the potential for error in URLs.

Web Interactivity: One of the most exciting things about the Web is that it offers two-way communications. You may be alone in a room on your computer, but you are never alone on the Web. Web telephony and video conferencing are emerging technologies, but interactive forms provide another way of sending information back and forth, and Web pages are becoming increasingly more dynamic depending on who accesses them at what time and with which browsers and whether you've been there before or not (as "cookies" can establish) Web servers can construct HTML documents on the fly from form input. An excellent example of this is a message board system. You can post a message and the computer can take that data and construct a new Web page on the spot with the use of a cgi (common gateway interface) script.

Searching the Web: There are many search engines and catalogs available to help you find what you're looking for on the Web, which is also populated by numerous "spiders" and "robots" moving from server to server scanning HTML documents, gobbling up words and digesting them as databases. My favorite online directory is Yahoo!, and if an initial search of the Yahoo! directory doesn't tell me what I need, I click from there to a link to Alta Vista or excite or WebCrawler, which send out spiders to catalog text contained within documents. There is an art to refining your searches that can best be learned through trial and error. Yahoo! has helpful search options. Also helpful: software managers that search a myriad of directories, catalogs and robot-generated databases. Client-side search managers such as WebCompass can perform focused searches for you in the background.

Here are some of my favorite Web directories and/or search engines:

These search pages will plug you into several search engines at once:

Saving Documents, Working Offline: You can view Web documents offline by saving them as text or source. You can also print them for viewing later. Many Web browsers will issue an error if you launch them offline, but generally you can just click "okay" and keep working anyway. This is helpful if you are creating a Web page you want to test view offline, and is also helpful if you have a lot of e-mail to compose. Some Internet magazines come with CD-ROMs that are packed full of Web sites in their entirety, saving you online and file transfer time. These CDs often typically are also jam-packed with the latest plug-ins and shareware. Try one out! There is also an assortment of available offline browsers, such as WebWhacker, which can download whole web sites for offline viewing later. You can configure these offline browsers to notify you when a page you're interested in has changed.

Push-Me, Pull-You: "Push" technology is a hot Web topic for online marketers and information providers hoping to put their message on your desktop. As a Web browser-person, you "pull" the information you want from servers by clicking on the topics and/or ads you're interested in. In "push" technology, the information comes to you. An example of this is the wildly successful PointCast Network, which delivers some high-powered news and information by topically-arranged "channels," along with an assortment of animated ads, ticker tapes and screensavers, that can be updated via automatic downloads as often as you like. Other choices include After Dark Online, Netscape's In-Box Direct, which delivers Web pages and news sites fresh to your e-mailbox, and BackWeb. Both Netscape and Microsoft are working to integrate push technology into their browsers.

Emerging Technologies and Plug-Ins: Many Web sites are pushing the envelope in terms of media development, but you won't be able to enjoy this technology unless you've downloaded and installed the necessary plug-ins (usually easily available free downloading via the net) or helper applications, which are software programs designed to launch a specific type of file. A plug-in is designed to launch the file within your browser window. A helper application is an external program that displays a file outside your browser window.

Developing technologies include software for Web telephone and video conferencing capabilities, three-D virtual reality worlds, Real Audio (and now RealVideo) for streaming realtime audio/video broadcasting. Cornell University's CU-SeeMe videoconferencing software brings to life all those familiar TV-phone cartoon scenes on the Jetsons. Who knew that technology was so close at hand?

A couple came into my office one day convinced their daughter's boyfriend was probably doing something illegal because he wanted her to make their long-distance phone calls via the Web (and save all those long distance fees). They left my office amazed but reassured that her boyfriend wasn't out of line and that maybe their daughter really did need that new computer at college after all.

Netscape and Explorer come preloaded with many helpers, but you'll also have to download some plug-ins yourself and more are being developed daily. There are more than 100 Netscape plug-ins available. Be sure to check out these technologies:

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