In the second half of the 20th century, computers went from chunky business calculators to a part of nearly every corner of human life. Along the way, we started using the terms and concepts that describe how these machines work. Just the other day I realised that even though say “URL” about once a day in my work life, I didn’t know what the acronym stood for.
People like to pretend that the world used to be simpler — it wasn’t. Things were just complicated in a different way. But it is true that we’re all walking around discussing and relying on fantastically complex systems that most of us can’t even begin to understand. Tech companies sometimes use that to their advantage, hiding shady practices behind a wall of technical jargon. One way to push back on that is to learn just a little bit about these acronyms we throw around all the time without even knowing what they mean. Shall we?
URL stands for Uniform Resource Locator. Depending on your background, there’s a good chance you’ve never heard anyone say the acronym’s full phrase out loud. It speaks to how fundamental the concept is to the structure of the modern world.
Like the name suggests, a URL identifies the location of something that lives on the internet, including servers and websites, and we use them to give our browsers instructions on where to go. They’re “uniform” because they’re all structured the same way. It’s the same concept as an address for a building which tells the Postal Service where to take your mail.
Here’s a weird one. When your normally-very-fast cell service is spotty, you might notice a little logo letting you know your phone switched from 5G to LTE. Guess what that stands for: Long Term Evolution. Weird right?
LTE is one of many standards for wireless telecommunication (e.g. cell phone service). As we expand the use of mobile phones and other wireless devices, telecom companies are forced to expand the capacity of their systems, both in terms of speed and the number of devices a network can handle. LTE is sort of a half-way point between 3G and 4G (which we’ll get to, just be patient). In other words, when they developed it LTE was one step in the “long term evolution” of telephony standards.
When Twitter says it’s going to start charging for its API, or OpenAI says it won’t steal data from people who use the ChatGPT API, what the hell are they talking about?
API stands for Application Programming Interface. It’s a way for two computer programs (aka applications, aka apps) to talk to each other. Take Facebook, for example. It’s a huge network of interconnected systems made up of millions of lines of code. That system is, to say the least, complicated. Not only is it complicated, it involves a ton of trade secrets and that’s going through constant internal changes as the company works on it and builds new things.
Developers want to connect their apps to other apps for all kinds of different reasons, but they need to do it in a way that’s simple, doesn’t give away secrets, and doesn’t break when an engineer changes a line of code. That’s where APIs come in.
To continue the Facebook example, the company’s APIs do all kinds of things, including connecting to Facebook’s advertising system, letting other apps post on the platform, and providing outside access to users’ friend lists (with permission of course).
2G, 3G, 4G, 5G….
This one’s a little less weird. Some people think the “G” stands for gigahertz, but it’s actually Generation, which is why you never heard about 1G. It didn’t really need special nomenclature until we started making sequels.
These generations are referring, once again, to the standards used by wireless cellular technology. We keep making more wireless devices that use more data and require faster data transfers, but there’s a hard ceiling in terms of what our systems can handle. When 5G rolled out, the telecom industry made a big deal about how it was going to revolutionise the world and make way for “smart cities” where everything was connected. Unfortunately for anyone who bought the hype, that doesn’t look like it’s happening anytime soon.
The introduction of 5G was a flashpoint for conspiracy theories which were all pretty ridiculous from the start (unless you count private companies making money on government-funded infrastructure as a conspiracy). If that’s the new normal, get used to it, because this is a never-ending process. People had already started working on 6g before 5G was even finished.
Guess what: Wifi isn’t short for wireless fidelity, even though the name was based on hi-fi, which stands for high fidelity. It actually isn’t short for anything at all. Wifi is the proper name, and Wi-Fi is a registered trademark of the Wi-Fi Alliance, a tech industry trade group.
Right now you are reading a webpage that is written using a lot of HTML. We say “HTML” so we don’t have to spell out “Hyper Text Markup Language.” HTML is a simple system that tells a browser how to display a web page. It’s “hyper text” as opposed to plain old “text” because you can use all sorts of cool colours and fonts and add videos and pictures. It “marks up” the page by saying things like “put these words here,” or “put this image here and make it this exact size.”
HTTP stands for Hypertext Transfer Protocol. As we just learned, hypertext makes up the content of webpages and tells browsers how to display it. But your browser also needs a way to ask for a copy of all of that and a variety of other things. HTTP is the language browsers and servers use to communicate and send files.
HTTP lets your browser say “Hello, I am a browser, and I’m looking for this particular website.” The server responds with something like, “Hi browser, I’m a server. Here’s the website you wanted.” And because those files are written using a standardised system like HTML.
The problem with HTTP is it’s not encrypted, so a new secure protocol was developed and they slapped an “s” at the end, which stands for “secure.” HTTPS lets browsers and servers send encrypted information back and forth, so anyone who intercepts it in the middle won’t be able to see the content. Security fans have slowly forced the internet to adopt HTTPS, and today it’s used by around 80% of all websites.
What even is the ‘World Wide Web?’
In the early days of the consumer internet, you had to type “www.” at the beginning of URLs. You probably know that it stands for World Wide Web. What you might not know is the World Wide Web and the internet aren’t the exact same thing, even though the words “internet” and “web” get used interchangeably.
Towards the end of the 60s, the US military started working on a system that would let different computers work together with each other at the same time. Everyone agreed this was a cool idea, and soon governments, business, and academics started working on their own systems which, together, would eventually form the internet.
To be really useful, those systems needed to work interoperable, so the world needed a standard way for computers to communicate. Enter a guy named Tim Berners Lee, who came up with the World Wide Web in 1991. The Web is a system which lets computers use a web browser to access documents and files that are stored on servers using the internet, and communicate in a way that’s seamless and interoperable so everyone can build on each other’s work. It includes a number of different standards, including the aforementioned HTML, HTTP, and URLs.
SMS is an acronym for Short Message Service, an early system for mobile phones to send text messages to each other. You might also have heard of its older brother MMS, or Multimedia Messaging Service, which allowed for things like images and group texts. The first text message, “Merry Christmas” was sent in 1992, during the Cretaceous period. We still use SMS today, which is too bad, because it has serious flaws.
When two iPhones text each other, they communicate using iMessage’s encrypted communication protocol. Newer Android phones have largely moved over to RCS (Rich Communication Services), which allows for end-to-end encryption and lots of other neat features. But when iPhones and Androids text each other, it gets sent over regular old, unencrypted SMS, which leaves users vulnerable and prevents things like reactions or audio messages from working. This is decidedly Apple’s fault.
Google, the maker of Android, wants to solve this problem. Apple refuses to adopt RCS, or to make iMessage interoperable. Why? It might have something to do with keeping Apple users locked in its system, which company executives said explicitly in internal emails. Which is a shame, because it means Apple users have to suffer, even though they’ve spent hundreds or thousands of dollars on the company’s products.
Have you noticed that there’s a lot of stuff on the internet? Heck, these days there’s so much that a person might start having a hard time keeping track of it all! People have been trying to figure out what to do about all that for a long time. RSS — which stands for RDF Site Summary or Really Simple Syndication depending on who you ask — was one early idea.
RSS let websites that make content, like this, one for example, to create a feed of content. People could plug the address of that feed into a tool called an RSS Reader, which would aggregate all of that content in one place, complete with convenient automatic updates. For a while RSS seemed like it was gaining steam, and many of the biggest names and companies behind the internet got behind it.
Unfortunately, the internet isn’t run by a bunch of benevolent visionaries who want the web to be great, it’s run by tech companies who want it to make them money. RSS didn’t fit into a lot of companies’ strategies, and one by one, all the biggest names in tech stopped supporting it, including Google, Facebook, Twitter, and even Mozilla. But recently there’s been a push to reanimate RSS, and Google actually added an RSS reader to Chrome for Android in 2021.
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