Many people use the terms "the web" and "the Internet" interchangeably to refer to any online services, but in truth they are quite separate, with the Internet acting as the infrastructure to many services, both web-based and those that require other connection protocols.
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The Nature of the Internet
If you use the Internet on a daily basis, you’re probably spending most of your time on the World Wide Web, a popular part of the Internet. This distinction is key to understanding the wealth of online services that are available to all users, but it is often overlooked for brevity or due to general ignorance.
Along with the web, there are other services that you might access across the Internet, such as email, various chat services, Usenet, P2P networks, WebDAV and many more. All of these are just as important as the web in their own way, and each offers additional functionality that many of us have come to rely on.
However, if we are to understand the difference between the Internet and the World Wide Web, we first need to understand the very nature of the Internet itself.
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What Is the Internet?
Many people refer to the Internet as being synonymous with the web, but the truth is that the World Wide Web and all of the other online services that you see below are made possible by the Internet. They simply “sit" on it, and the various protocols and data exchanges that each requires for effective use are made possible by the networks of cables, routers, data centers and other pieces of hardware.
The word “Internet" derives from the term inter-network, a term used to describe several computer networks that are linked together. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, the Internet comprised several disparate networks connected by telecommunications infrastructure, and as this new system of communications grew (based on specifications developed by DARPA, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and more telecoms companies took an interest in it, so did the number of people using it.
Early uses for the Internet included defence and national security, email, bulletin boards (the precursors to modern discussion forums) and FTP (File Transfer Protocol, a system used regularly for uploading files to servers), but the development of the HTTP protocol and HTML made having a connection to the ‘net a priority for many homes and businesses thanks to the World Wide Web.
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Bulletin Boards, Usenet and Email
The main purpose of the Internet is communications and this was obvious in the early days as large corporations, government departments and educational institutions made use of email to contact partners and colleagues around the world.
Elsewhere, computing enthusiasts made use of bulletin boards and Usenet to table discussions and share files, taking advantage of provisions made by telecoms companies for small amounts of data to be cached and viewed on the limited PCs of the age. None of these systems required a particularly large amount of bandwidth or a fast connection, and when the lowly 14.4 kb/s modems was replaced with 28.4 kb/s it seemed as though high speed Internet had arrived!
In truth, it was the arrival of the World Wide Web that prompted many developments in Internet technology that we enjoy today, such as high speed and mobile connections, P2P file-sharing, online gaming and text, and voice and video chat with services such as Skype.
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P2P, Gaming and Chat Networks
As the Internet has grown from a collection of large organizations and institutions and into the homes of billions of people, the requirement for faster connectivity and greater bandwidth has resulted in the development of new forms of online communication.
While email is still in use, data is shared via P2P (peer to peer) networks such as BitTorrent. This method links up a group of computers to download and share data from particular files, a method also used by Skype for voice and video chat.
Meanwhile, possibly the biggest element of the Internet since the introduction of the World Wide Web, online gaming, makes it possible to interact within an online virtual world with people from around the globe in military and quasi-mediaeval fantasy quests for in-game wealth and success. The success of World of Warcraft alone has made online gaming big business.
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The World Wide Web Explained
Alongside all of these (and other) elements of communication and interaction that use the infrastructure of the Internet is the World Wide Web, a series of pages viewed in a web browser. Just like email, chat and gaming, these pages, constructed from HTML (a modern version of the markup used in newspaper publishing), are delivered to computers around the world via the Internet. Just like Usenet and P2P file-sharing, the World Wide Web is another service that sits on the Internet, but is certainly the most popular Internet service, offering browser-based shopping, news, discussion, games, social interactions and much more.
By now you should be able to see what the difference is between the Internet and the World Wide Web.