Web terminology for non-geeks

In preparation for the IT605 Technology in Ministry class that I help teach for Asbury Seminary, I have been thinking of how to best describe various web technologies in layman's terms. I have tried in the past to relate my interest (read: obsession) with graphics and web to friends and family members, only to have their eyes glaze over when I get to the technical side of things.

So, at the risk of this sounding too watered-down to the veterans out there, here is my attempt to give some simple explanations of commonly used Internet terminology. So lets say that the World Wide Web is a kitchen. Or, better yet, a cafe where there is a large amount of food (info) available for consumption. Alrighty then, you and I are going to sit down and have a nice meal at the WWW cafe.

Here are the various elements that go into serving up a good meal…

  • RSS - This can be thought of as the dinner menu because it gives a quick summary of what is available. We can easily read through what various dishes have to offer, without having to go to the kitchen and look at all the food being prepared.

  • Browser - This is the plate on which the meal is served. While most people eat off the unwashed tray called Internet Explorer, Firefox has been shown to have less cracks in it, and as such is a more sanitary option.

  • XHTML - This is the meal itself. Let's think of it like fish. There are many different types of fish to choose from, and many different ways to eat them. You can get it in uncooked (sushi) form, and without any spices, but that doesn't make for a very tasty meal.

  • DOM - This could be thought of as the type of fish we are eating. We can have Trout, Salmon, Halibut, or any other type of fish in the sea. After we've made our decision about the type, then we add the flavoring.

  • CSS - This is the secret sauce, the combination of spices and ingredients that give the meal its special flavor. Once the recipe is worked out, it can then be easily mixed in other meals, rather than recreated from scratch each time.

  • Flash - This is dessert. When done right, it can really add to and compliment the meal, but it's no substitute for the real meat of the main course. If all you eat is sugar, you don't get any real nutrition.

  • PHP - This is the skillet or oven, the method of combining and preparing all the elements before serving it up to the customer. While it's not always necessary, it ensures that your content is served up hot and fresh.

  • MySQL - This is the giant walk-in freezer, where the ingredients are stored until they are needed to be combined to create the meal. When ingredients are retrieved and put into PHP for processing.

  • Apache - This is the kitchen itself, where all the preparation, mixing, baking and frying takes place. Some try to cook in a Windows environment, but this could be analogous to using a BBQ grill in your backyard. It still gets the job done, but isn't as secure as being inside.

  • Web Standards - These are a set of guidelines and regulations that help ensure that we all have a pleasant eating experience. While they take a little extra work to adhere to, it's worth it in the long run. Example: "All employees must wash their hands before returning to work."

So, now that we have have established some working comparisons, what do these terms mean in their more literal sense? Glad you asked…

  • RSS - This stands for Rich Site Summary, though it has also been called Really Simple Syndication. In short, it gives someone who has subscribed to an RSS feed the ability to read either short preview snippets of an article, or in some cases the full article, without ever having to actually visit the particular website. Think of it like a stock-ticker at the bottom of CNN (on TV).

  • Browser - We have all seen the big blue "E" on our desktop, and for the longest time it was the standard for viewing the Internet. However, in recent years, Microsoft has done little to update their browser. Now there are many more options out there which offer better functionality and security against viruses. For more on that, check out Browse Happy.

  • XHTML - This is the next generation of HTML, which stands for Extensible HyperText Markup Language. It is a more strict form of content markup, allowing for better use of information. For instance, it is now possible for blind people to have the web read to them, assuming the site in question has well-done code.

  • DOM - This stands for Document Object Model. DOM was initially supported by web browsers to manipulate elements in a HTML document. DOM was a way of dynamically accessing and updating the content, structure and style of documents. It defines what type of document is being served to the browser, such as HTML / XML.

  • CSS - Cascading Style Sheets are the new way to add visual appeal to an otherwise boring looking website. This includes the ability to add borders, specify image backgrounds, and change font styles and typefaces. It can also be used to add different styling to printing. For an example, go to Print Preview in your browser, and notice that SonSpring only prints the current article, and not the header images, menu, or sidebar.

  • Flash - This is the latest and greatest method of creating eye-catching animations. However, many people overuse it and make sites nearly entirely in Flash. This is bad for a few reasons. It adds unnecessary file size to your page, and makes it load slower. It is inaccessible to browsers which do not have the Flash plugin installed. It is typically not summarized via RSS, and as such is not able to be heard by blind people. This is the reason many sites offer both Flash and plain HTML versions of their content.

  • PHP - Originally, PHP stood for Personal Home Page, and was one of the first hit-counters on the web. Eventually, because of its open-source nature, it developed into a widespread and very robust server-side programming language. PHP now stands for Hypertext Preprocessor (though the original acronym still stands). It can manipulate data, communicate with a database, and perform logical If/Then functions. While there are other alternatives to PHP out there, it is by far the most user-friendly and has a (hyper) active development community worldwide.

  • MySQL - This is the most common database in use on the web, and it too is open-source. The SQL stands for Structured Query Language, and is the way that data is stored and retrieved to and from a server computer.

  • Apache - This is by far the most popular web-server software platform. Again, it is open-source, meaning that anyone can download the entire behind-the-scenes code, and develop it as they wish. Because of this community effort to improve Apache, it is considered by many experts to be more secure than anything Microsoft has to offer.

  • Web Standards - The governing body of the web, the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C for short, has established guildelines of best practices for web programming. While there is nobody enforcing web standards, and one can make a website without them, they are the best way to ensure that you are creating clean code that is accessible to many different browsers. For instance, it is no longer acceptable to use tables for page layout, and designers are strongly encouraged to use only CSS. For more on that, read the article: Throwing Tables out the Window.

Okay, I think that about covers it for our brief tutorial. I hope you enjoyed the meal! If anyone has suggestions on how to improve this article, or has additional metaphors to add, let me know via the comments link below.

Note: special thanks to Jonathan Snook for his expert corrections.