The Difference Between The ‘Internet’ and the ‘Web’

“I invented the Web not the Internet!” Tim Berners-Lee

Many people in our industry still confuse the ‘internet’ with the ‘web’.   This distinction doesn’t matter to the ordinary user, but it is hugely significant in the world of media, particularly advertising, so its worth picking apart the difference.

Tim Berners-Lee in the 1980s

Firstly, its important to recognise the hierarchy between the two terms, as they are not equivalent. The ‘web’ is very much a sub-set of the activity that happens on the ‘internet’. So we will explain ‘internet’ first.

The Internet, short for ‘inter-connected networks’, refers to physical infrastructure – cables, servers, routers, switches etc.  Created via hundreds of separate inventions and innovations that started in the late 60s, the ‘Internet’ is now a collective term for a huge number of separately owned and managed systems, that all work to the same, agreed set of rules and tech standards – what are known as ‘protocols’ (hence Internet Protocol, or ‘IP’).  

It is loosely managed and, if you follow the rules and tech standards, you can connect your infrastructure to the internet without having to get permission from any organisation.  However, on its own, the Internet doesn’t do anything or contain anything interesting.  Its only when you put content onto your servers, and exchange it across the network that it gets interesting.

To do this, you have to follow more rules about how content is created and stored, and how services are organised.  This is where confusion sometimes starts as each type of content or service has to follow its own rules and protocols.  Also, the content needs dedicated servers and the user needs a bit of specific software to run it:

The Early Stuff

File Transfer – One of the earliest things the boffins did was work out an agreed set of rules (a protocol) to manage transfering a block of data, or a ‘file’, from one computer to another. They invented the ‘file transfer protocol’ or ‘FTP’. If you have used WeTransfer or similar FTP services then you will have used this (we’ll explain why you went to a website to do it in a minute).  

Email – transferring simple messages between computers was solved by creating a ‘simple message transfer protocol’ or SMTP . This is the main protocol that runs behind all email systems like iMail and Outlook. (Again, we’ll explain why you can do email through a web page like Hotmail in a minute).

The Web, –  also referred formally as World Wide Web (www) – this was invented by Tim Berners-Lee as a way to make interactive links between content on different servers. It was meant to help researchers make connections between research content in different places. So some content about ‘France’ could link automatically to content about ‘Paris’ on a different server, by clicking on a link.  He called content containing these links ‘hypertext’ and wrote a ‘Hypertext Transfer Protocol’ – what is now referred to as HTTP. (If you can see a web address with http, you know you are on Tim Berners-Lee’s great invention).

How Did Hotmail Fit Into This Again?

The web has become the most popular of all the content types and often a web page is used instead of software to deliver the other internet services. So if you want to use email without messy software like iMail or Outlook, you can use a web page (like Hotmail) to access some mail software sitting on a service providers computer instead of yours. (Tech summary – you are using HTTP to access an SMTP service on a mail server somewhere).

But What About Telly??

Video – when Tim Berners-Lee first invented Hypertext, he wasn’t thinking about people watching telly over the web.  It was a protocol designed for text. So the early video pioneers avoided the web altogether and created Internet protocols specifically for video.  There were various versions of these protocols, but they tend to get lumped together under the phrase ‘Internet Protocol Television’ – IPTV.

Most TV platforms that wanted to use the Internet to deliver TV or video wrote their own, proprietary Internet TV protocols.  Some of these (like the one used for Sky+HD’s on-demand service) are still in use today.  For a long time, using the web to run video was painful (and needed plug-ins like Flash and Silverlight in your browser). However, in recent years there have been significant software breakthroughs that have allowed companies to use web code, web servers and web browsers, to distribute video painlessly. Some TV platforms (like BT Television) have changed from a private IPTV system to using a more open web-based platform (in BT’s case, Youview).

This means that in the UK we have TV platforms that use IPTV (like Sky+HD), some which use web content and protocols (like Youview) and some which use a combination (like SkyQ)

Why Does This Matter?

This distinction doesn’t necessarily matter to the end viewer – although the IPTV based players make a case that their systems perform better and offer a more consistent interface compared to Web systems). For the advertising industry, this distinction is crucial. It is somewhere between ‘very hard’ and ‘downright impossible’ to integrate most of the current generation of open market advertising technology (ad-tech) into proprietary IPTV television systems.

This explains why there is very limited advertising in on-demand TV on Sky and Virgin. Any advertising innovation on those platforms (like SkyAdSmart) is built on proprietary ad technology. Unfortunately, Sky and Virgin account for over half the homes in the UK and about 65% of the TV content viewing (by hours). If you buy an ad campaign on a broadcaster’s web player (eg ITV Hub), the ad campaign won’t run on Sky or Virgin unless you do a seperate deal with them, and build a seperate campaign (content and data) to support this.

Therefore, if we want significant innovation around TV advertising on any of the platforms still running IPTV systems, they are going to have to solve how to integrate web technology, or change their content systems to more web friendly protocols. This is significant and the agency/client world needs to be putting pressure on the TV platforms to do this.

Codicil About Blockchain

If you were wondering what the hell ‘blockchain’ or ‘bitcoin’ is, then the above explanation about internet protocols should help. Blockchain is just the newest of the Internet Protocols. It runs over the internet but, as with every other content type described above, requires a very specific type of server, and very specific types of software to access it. It shares some characteristics with the web (every server gets a copy of every ID), but has some significant differences (you can’t copy or delete anything, and every record you add is connected to the previous one – hence block ‘chain’).

Bitcoin is a consumer service that has been built to exploit the unique characteristics of blockchain – particularly the fact you can’t copy or delete records – allowing the system to behave like a currency.

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