The term network isn’t a new one at all; in fact it’s been around for thousands and thousands of years. It only refers to the exchange of information between two or more people. In ancient times, this might have been communicating a message of impending attack through a network of burning bonfires upon hilltops, or mirrors reflecting sunlight to communicate the coming of a new king. Things have certainly moved on by these methods, but nonetheless, the intention is the same, to convey information quickly, efficiently and accurately between two or more points.
And, how rapidly things have moved on is quite remarkable. Only a few decades ago people would lug their massive desktop computers over to their friends’ house for a quick (read three days) game of Doom or Wolfenstein 3D. These games were some of the first to be designed to be played across a computer network. The Internet back then wasn’t up to transporting the vast amounts of data required for real-time online computer games. At least the Internet that was available to the home user wasn’t.
Two key factors determined the viability of a network connection, speed, and latency. Network connection speed is a measure of how fast information can be transmitted and received between computers and latency determines how fast information could travel from one computer to another. The simple analogy is the plain old garden hose. When you turn on the tap, there’s typically a delay from the time of turning the tap on to the water coming out the end, that’s latency. Speed is the rate at which at which the water comes out of the hose once it’s flowing.
Although things have become faster and more sophisticated, this simple analogy still holds true.
As connectivity was improved, so did the use of applications across a computer network. And while the cable between computers to form a network is used in high abundance, subtle differences came about. The cables themselves became able to transmit and receive greater amounts of information, we’ll call information data from now on, and so larger files and more complex games could be enjoyed over a network. Certainly, in the commercial world this has had enormous benefits, especially for remote working.
Networks have grown and grown, and the biggest by far is simply called ‘The Internet.’ Sounds obvious but that’s all it is, an enormous network of computers all talking to each other, and likely through massive cables that span continents and oceans!
Of course, to understand all these data, specialised equipment has evolved to decode the vast quantities of data, many moons ago this was simply called a terminal adapter and just plugged into a standard telephone line. It worked, but the amount of data was limited, and errors were common, often resulting in a lot of frustration for the end user. Now, the common terminology is a modem, which is made up of two words, modulator, and demodulator. This piece of kit takes the signals used to transmit data over distance into signals that the computer can understand, and they’ve become pretty smart recently. Modems now can self-diagnose faults, work together to increase the amount of data and even wake up a computer that has shut down to save energy. All of these advances still inherently rely on physical cable to move data from one place to another, but of recent, although it seems a lifetime now, the cables have started to disappear.
Enter, the (relatively) new kid on the block, wireless technology. Television, radio and morse code have been around for many many years now but the concept of communicating computer data without cables came around in the late 90’s with the term Wi-Fi being trademarked. These Wi-Fi networks were initially intended for temporary use where a permanent cable was impractical or overly expensive to warrant the use of a computer. The idea of a wireless network proved extremely popular, but security was a major issue with the early protocols being prone to hackers. Often simply wanting to obtain an internet connection, which was seen as a luxury during the early days of Wi-Fi adoption. Wi-Fi also suffered from reliability issues with signals disconnecting at the most inconvenient times and networks being difficult to setup without expert assistance. The term plug and play changed all that as modems and routers became united, with software that made setting up a network, particularly a home network, idiot proof, almost.
As with nearly all technology, speeds increased across wireless networks and the latest Wi-Fi connections now rival speeds previously only attained with hard-wired cabled networks. As to what the future holds, time will tell. Many airlines already offer in-flight wireless Internet connectivity, perhaps next the entire world will offer Wi-Fi.