The Internet and the World Wide Web (WWW or Web) are not the same thing, though they are related. The Internet encompasses the Web, but it also encompasses other online protocols in addition to the Web. In basic terms, the difference is that the former is a massive system of connected international networks, while the latter is one type of service available within that network.
The Internet began as a U.S. Defense project in 1973. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) believed that a redundant, non-centralized, international network of computers could be vital for passing information along in the case of a nuclear disaster or other cataclysmic event. ARPA developed “packet technology” or the ability to send data across the network by breaking it up into discreet data packets, addressed to a unique machine on the network. Packets take various routes through the network, then reassemble themselves at the destination address.
The common language used to perform the task of sending data packets over the Internet is referred to as a protocol. Different services have different languages or protocols. This is another difference: the Internet supports many protocols, while the WWW is just one protocol of the many supported.
Throughout the 1980s, the Internet grew with a good deal of support by the U.S. government. This led to public and commercial implementations of the many languages developed for use over the Internet. But it wasn’t until 1990 that the Internet and the World Wide Web began to be spoken in the same breath, though its conception came much earlier.
Sir Tim Berners-Lee, a noted pioneer of computer science, was reportedly frustrated when he had to access several different machines to gather scheduling data, phone numbers and other materials he needed on a daily basis. He envisioned a hypertext protocol that could run on readily available machines on the Internet, which would provide easy access to materials for researchers. Though he first conceptualized and proposed this project in 1980, the realization of it came some ten years later. Today, Tim Berners-Lee is attributed with the remarkable distinction of creating the Web, and the Internet and the World Wide Web are terms that have been used interchangeably ever since, albeit incorrectly.
Aside from the Web, the Internet also encompasses over 100 other protocols or languages for running services. Some of these include the Post Office Protocol (POP) email system; User Network (USENET) newsgroups; instant messaging (IM); telnet; file transfer protocol (FTP); and Internet Relay Chat (IRC). Though most people won’t balk at a fellow-surfer using the two terms interchangeably, it is good to know the difference.
The one thing the Internet and the World Wide Web have in common is that they have revolutionized the world. The way we communicate, work, learn, shop, and play have all been significantly impacted by both. Perhaps most amazing is that they have existed for such a short period of time, yet are intrinsically embedded so deeply in our society, we can scarcely imagine a time without them. Thanks to both, life has become easier in many ways, people are interconnected like never before, and creative opportunities are virtually limitless.