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Friday, October 28, 2005

FiT Tip - To be or not to http://

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To be or not to http://

The online world is filled with obscure jargon, obtuse concepts and general misinformation. The goal at my free Internet classes at my local library is to cut through this fog and leave the students with some understanding of Internet concepts. Certain questions get asked again and again as new members join the class and here is one of the perennials.

Who comes up with these things?

One question that always seems to arise is about the http prefix seen before all web addresses (officially called Uniform Resource Locators or URLs) when using your web browser. HyperText Transport Protocol (http://) sounds more like a government program to move equipment around the country than a method of accessing information on the Internet. Like all good scientists, the developers of the world wide web had to come up with some way of referring to the workings of their system and this is about as stereotypical a piece of techno-jargon as can be found. In reality, HTTP is merely the language or dialect spoken between the world wide web browser on your computer (i.e. Safari, Firefox or MS Internet Explorer) and the world wide web site you are trying to access.

Forget about it

In most cases, the http:// you see before web addresses is superfluous as 99.9% of the time you will be accessing web sites with your web browser. If you only type in an address, say www.welchwrite.com, you will find that your browser will add the http:// automatically. It assumes that the address you typed is a web site and acts accordingly. The only time you need to preface an address at all is when you are attempting to access information that is NOT on a web server.

Even at a distance I can see the quizzical expression on your faces. How can you use a web browser to access information that isnít on a web site? The truth is that web browsers have the ability to access many different types of information besides web sites. They can get files from File Transfer Protocol (ftp) sites and browse information stored in Gopher servers. The secret to this magic is using a prefix to tell your browser that the site you are trying to access is NOT a web server (http://), but an ftp (ftp://) or gopher site (gopher://). In fact the only time you need to worry about the prefix at all is when it is explicitly included as part of the address. (i.e. ftp://ftp.download.com) While the usage of these older services is waning you may still see them referred to in magazines and television.

WWW, not!

Another holdover from the old days is the "www" you often see in front of many web addresses. In the olden days, this www. was a shorthand way of identifying a computer running web server software. More and more, this prefix can be omitted and, in some cases, it may be replaced with something else. Yahoo.com's personalized service, My Yahoo uses the URL my.yahoo.com. Other sites I have seen include items such as webmail.earthlink and tv.excite.com. As you can see, none of these addresses require the www and in most cases, if you try to include www you will get an error message.

Save yourself a few extra keystrokes each time you type a web address. Drop the http:// and the www. Even if you only save 1 second per address, imagine how many minutes you will save over the course of a day.


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