An anxious mum checks her computer. Her son is flying back to New Zealand after his OE in London.
By accessing the live flight information board at Auckland International Airport from her computer, she checks what time Air New Zealand flight NZ1 is due to land. From the screen she reads NZ1 is due at 5.15am, 30 minutes early.
A smile crosses her face as she types in flightradar24.com. This site enables her to track the incoming flight NZ1 live as it starts descending over the Pacific towards Auckland. With some more rattling of computer keys she goes into the Air New Zealand website, where she can find out what the breakfast menu was on board NZ1 this morning, and what movies were being shown on the aircraft's flight entertainment system.
All this information has been delivered to her desktop thanks to two of the most important developments of the late 20th century: the internet and the world wide web.
The world wide web has an associated jargon that can be confusing to the lay person. For example, the world wide web and the internet are not synonymous. The internet is a global system of interconnected computer networks: a network in this sense is a collection of hardware devices and computers that can communicate with each other to share information. Whereas the world wide web is a service that uses the internet.
The world wide web is a huge series of text documents, pictures and videos (together referred to as "content") that is accessed using a web browser. A web browser is a software application that retrieves and presents the information available on the world wide web.
So with your computer you can access the world wide web via a web browser that uses a search engine to search out and present you with a list of websites that contain the topic you are interested in accessing.
A website is a set of related content. Bringing together this content on one or more websites so that it can be searched out by the search engine is the job of a web server. A web server "hosts" a website and comprises computer hardware and software whose function is to deliver web content to the user via the internet.
The internet began in the 1960s when packet switching was invented. This was a means of packaging data in a way that it could be distributed and shared.
It was realised that this technology could be used widely if key elements of the hardware and software could be standardised. These procedures and rules, called protocols, were agreed and documented in 1982, and by the 1990s the network referred to as the internet was being used for email, text messaging and the world wide web.
The internet has a routing hierarchy. The customers are at the bottom; above them are the internet service providers (the ISPs); whose job is to connect you to the customers of other ISPs so you can send emails to Telecom ISP customers from your TelstraClear ISP.
The top of the routing hierarchy tree are called Tier 1 networks. They are the big telecommunications companies which can exchange information with each other free of charge through their mutual agreements.
The world wide web was born in 1984 when British telecommunications consultant Tim Berners-Lee was working at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research). He spotted that a huge improvement to the scientific research effort would be achieved if scientists around the world could access and share information quickly. His idea was to develop "a large hyper-texted database with text links".
In other words, you could write a report on your computer and highlight words in the document that, when double clicked, would reference other texts that can then be immediately accessed. By August 6, 1991, Berners-Lee had in place all the elements required to achieve this: the first web browser, the first web server and the first web pages. He posted a summary of his world wide web project. It didn't take long for the world wide web to become the global phenomenon it is today.
As for John's mum, she was at Auckland Airport 30 minutes before the scheduled arrival time of NZ1. As a result, her very tired son did not have to wait - thanks to the internet.
- © Fairfax NZ News
What's your view of sand mining?Related story: Environmental group urges mining fight
with Rachel Stewart
Matt Rilkoff's perspective of contemporary life
with Gordon Brown
With Kathryn Calvert
The self-confessed bard of Brixton, offers views on life, politics and Akubra hats.
with Glenn McLean