Just what IS a Browser?

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Your browser is the most important program on your computer. It is the way you access the Internet, and you're using it right now.

But do you know what it is? Don't feel embarrassed if you don't. In 2009, Google surveyed people in Times Square and found that only 8% of them -- less than 1 in 10 -- actually knew what a browser is or which one they used.

I've made a simple video to explain.

What a Browser Does

Browsers make the World Wide Web possible with these three basic functions:

1. Fetching the content you requested

When you enter an Internet address (also known as a "URL") of the content that you want into your browser's Address Bar, the browser contacts the server (remote computer) at that address, requests the content you asked for, and brings it back to you.

2. Displaying the content that it fetched as a web page

The fetched content includes pictures, text, and a set of instructions that tells the browser how to put it together. The browser assembles and displays it for you on the screen as a web page.

3. Letting you navigate to other pages by clicking on hypertext links

This is where the "browsing" part comes in. Before browsers and the World Wide Web, people with Internet access could retrieve files from libraries and servers, if they knew the address where the content was stored.

The key idea of the World Wide Web was hypertext -- a way for an author to connect related pages, with the address of the related content actually in a "clickable" link. A new markup

The "http://" at the beginning of every web page address (whether you see it or not) is simply the way the browser knows to go to the Internet address and ask the web server there for the content.

A Browser is NOT a Search Engine

The browser is a software program on your device (computer, tablet or phone). You can use it to request searches by a search engine, but the searches are done elsewhere -- such as at Google -- and are sent to you as a web page of links (the search results).

By the way, if you're interested in knowing how Google does it, here's their discussion from 2008, when the web hit a trillion URLs. It's quite a bit bigger now! Google: We knew the web was big ... Google has about 45 billion web pages in its index. It uses "web crawler" or "spider" programs that visit web pages and follow all the links they can find, saving the information into its indexed database.

When you enter the search term into your browser, it sends it to Google (or Bing, or the search engine you are using). The search engine is on Google's computers. It looks through all those indexed web pages to find the ones that match your search terms.

It all happens so fast that it can seem like it's a part of your browser. But it's not -- it's going out over the Internet to communicate with the search engine. You actually can do some things with your browser when you're not connected to the Internet, like use certain "web apps" or view content that you have saved onto your computer. But to use a search, you must have an Internet connection to the search engine.

Now What?

Now you know what a browser is. you're ready for the next article, What Browser Do You Use?

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