What is a Computer?

What is a computer? Is my iPad a computer? What about my phone? And what is the Internet exactly?

Who should read this blog?! Those who use one of these devices everyday but are too embarrassed to ask!

The computer was originally developed, as the name implies, to compute things! They were intended to replace complicated paper calculations and simply do it faster and easier than we could as humans. Charles Babbage developed a mechanical computer called the Analytical Engine in the 19th century but the first electronic full scale computer is largely considered to be the Electronic Numerical Integrator And Computer or ENIAC designed and built in the 1940’s for the US Military. Intended for the calculation of artillery firing tables, it was actually first used to study nuclear weapons feasibility. See Wikipedia’s entry on the ENIAC to read more.

But that doesn’t help you understand what the computer is, right? And if I told you it was a series of on / off switches using a bunch of ones and zeroes that probably wouldn’t help much either would it?!

So let’s look at what a computer is from an everyday standpoint. The computer is made up of hardware. That is usually a logic-board or the place where all the computations are made using the main processor of the computer. The logic-board has Random Access Memory or RAM for short term and fast memory storage. The computer will have a long term memory storage device too; Usually a spinning hard drive or in more modern devices a solid state drive which has no moving parts. For more on this SSD drive, see our other blog entry on “storage”. And almost all computers have a way for you to read the information in the form of a screen or monitor and input devices like a mouse and keyboard.

Clear yet? No? Okay, let me clarify what these components are in a way I find most people can understand. Think of your desk at home or office. It has some long term storage capability, right? Usually in the form of drawers? Or if you had a big computer (sorry, desk!), you might have a filing cabinet filled with papers. Or if you were a super-important kind of person, maybe you would have a room filled with filing cabinets! These drawers and filing cabinets are like the hard drive on your computer. They store lots and lots of files. And if you are someone like a modern photographer, you might have lots of hard drives to store all those photos that take up lots of electronic space.

But you can’t see the paperwork in your filing cabinet, can you? No, it is stored away. You need to take it out and put it somewhere. On your desk! In a computer, think of that as the RAM memory. The computer temporarily takes files from the big filling cabinet (hard drive) and puts them on the desk (RAM) so it and you can work with them.

The work you might need to do with these files — let’s say you are writing a letter to a friend — is handled by the main processor of the computer. The processor will help display your letter on the screen and it saves the files and performs all the functions that make the computer “work”.

And of course the screen of the computer is how you are able to see what is going on inside the computer. Or at least a version of what is going on that you and I can understand! It shows you your “desktop”. That is why some computers call that basic screen your “desktop”! And like your pen on piece of paper, your keyboard and mouse are the devices you use to modify your letter or any item that you are working on.

Is your tablet a computer and what about your phone? The answer is very much YES! Over the years, the smart men and women who keep trying to improve computers have done two very life-changing things: they have made computers vastly smaller and they have made them ludicrously faster! Tablets and phones are the most recent example of that. Tablets have a screen. Unlike the traditional desktop computer, you don’t need an old fashioned keyboard and mouse but instead use the screen directly to input your interactions with the computer. But in the background, behind the scenes, the tablet is working very much like the old fashioned version or the computer. It has different types of memory, a main processor, a power supply to provide power and in the case of mobile devices, a battery to power all this when you are away from the wall plug! To give you some perspective as to how much smaller and faster computers are now: the ENIAC was the size of a modest middle-class HOUSE and could execute approximately 5000 calculations per second. The iPhone which as you know fits in your pocket can calculate just over 3 billion instructions per second. Remember the old floppy disks used the 1980’s? Today’s modern storage devices can hold the equivalent of tens of thousands of those floppy disks. And you don’t even need to keep ejecting them anymore!

So we’ve had a brief introduction to hardware. Screens, drives, RAM, etc. So what is software? Some people have a harder time understanding this than they do the hardware part!

Software are the programs that smart computer people write to make the computer do stuff! Today they write this software in programming languages like C++ which then get compiled to run on various different computer platforms like Mac, Windows and Linux. Years ago, programmers would spend weeks developing a series of punch cards that would they would then feed into a giant computer and instead of a screen, the computer would send out the results of the program on page after page of printer paper!

What is the software part of the computer as far as the user experience is concerned? Good question. The software is essentially everything that you see in terms of your interactions with your tablet or computer or phone. You’ve probably heard of the “Operating System” or OS. That is software! It is the software that is telling the computer how to do it’s job, what icons to show you on the screen, what to do when you click on an icon, what to do when you talk to your phone. It’s all programming that those smart people at the computer companies have developed. It’s “software”. What else is software? Remember back at the beginning of this blog when we talked about that letter you are writing to your friend? The app or application that you are using to write the letter? That is software! Someone (or a team of someones) spent a lot of time developing that piece of software just so you could write to your friend! What about that app where you store all your photos? That’s software!

I hope that gives you some idea of what a computer is, at least in a very basic way. There are plenty of articles, blogs and discussion boards on the internet where you can delve into these topics in greater depth.

But wait! What is the internet?! You know it as that mysterious place where you can order products and they show up on your doorstep, right!? Well that is a very nice and modern way that people use the internet. But what is it exactly?

Put simply, the internet is a series of computers all networked together. Inter (connected)-net(work) if you will. It’s that simple. It’s all computers connected to all other computers that want to be connected. These days you almost have no choice but to be connected because your computer and especially things like your phone depend upon the internet for basic functionality. They need to be able to connect to the big computers (called servers — servers are just big, fast computers that “serve” data out to you and me) controlled not only by the companies that made your phone or computer but also other companies that might have produced the software you are using.

But let’s back up. So the internet is a bunch of connected computers. So my computer is part of the internet? Yes! When you are connected to the internet, you are PART of the internet. Having said that, some computers out there (like those servers I just mentioned) are set up to feed a lot of data out and process incoming requests and computers like yours are used mainly to receive that information. That is not exclusively true but to simplify the explanation, go with me for a moment! Think about that news site you like to go to. The news that comes up on your screen through use of a browser (like Safari or Google Chrome or Internet Explorer) is getting that information (or “downloading” it) from the computers that the news organization controls. In other words, they put the news story on their server and you connect to their server computer to read it.

That’s the basic explanation. Here is the more complicated one. It is more complicated because you don’t connect directly to the news computer. To get that news, your computer first jumps onto the internet (not literally of course, your computer can’t jump, at least not yet!) through your local service provider (that company you pay money to every month. In Canada it might be Rogers or Bell). That’s where you start. You log onto their system. They send your request through their big computers (remember what they are called? Servers!) to computers in a more central part of the country and then those requests get sent to servers of your news company. This might go through an untold number of switches and computers before it gets there! Then the news company feeds the requested information back to your computer through a similar network. And voila, you get to read your news story. All in the blink of an eye.

And yes, you’re right. It’s not just us asking to read a news story and the story gets sent. A lot of back and forth happens, especially these days. Companies you are connected to like to know where you are in the world, so they ask your computer for that information. They like to know what else you are searching for on the internet so they ask your computer for that information. They like to know about YOU. It helps them interact with you more efficiently, they would tell you. Sound a little like “big brother”? A lot of people think so and personal privacy is a VERY big issue these days with the way we are all interconnected. I encourage you to read more on this subject.

I know what your next question is. What about my email? Email is all part of the internet. When you read your email, whether that is within your browser (like Safari) or whether you have a separate email program (like Apple Mail), it doesn’t matter. You are going onto the internet, retrieving your mail from the mail server and downloading it to your mail software. It’s just like getting your news story downloaded for reading but simply a different type of server. But I assure you, it is all using the internet!

What else uses the internet? That’s a great question because over the years we have all become more and more “connected” and our devices rely more and more on us being connected.

The internet was first invented back in the 1980’s and was used largely for communicating between universities so that academics and researchers could more efficiently share ideas and information. But it was very slooowwww! If you are old enough you may remember “dial-up” connections. Back in the day, if you had a very modern computer with a university or similar account, you could dial into the internet. Back then you could send and receive email and you could go to things called bulletin boards where information was shared and you could download some very basic documents and software.

These days with broadband internet and more and more communities getting fiber-optic connections and wireless internet with terrific speeds, it means that those smarty-pants software developers can ask their software to do a lot more because they know that the computers and phones and tablets can handle the complicated tasks they are asking them to do. They know the computers are fast enough and that the internet connections are fast enough and can handle lots of data so they can do things that were once only dreamed of. Like being able to use an app on your phone to have a video chat with a friend on the other side of the world. Or play an interactive video game with twenty other people and not have any delays in the feedback of the software. Or have your tablet update its software programs when you are not even looking or realizing that it is happening!

So that’s it in a nutshell. I hope this explanation has helped some of you get a grasp as to what is going on the next time you play a game on your phone or receive an annoying email from a relative! It’s been many years in the making!