Ann Arbor Business to Business
Small Business and the Internet

Alphanumeric Soup

January 1999

By Mike Gould

In order to run POP or IMAP email over TCP/IP, you must set your PPP or SLIP preferences as specified by your ISP (depending on your OS, of course). DNS addresses must be correct or your HTTP requests might be 404.

Right. I'll wait while you catch your breath....dum de dum...back to normal? OK; as reader Whee B. Wondrin wrote in: "I try to keep up with all this life in the future business, but what's with all the acronyms, already?" The answer is as follows: in order to conserve bandwidth (information/the means to deliver it, as we discussed a few columns ago), we technical folks have come up with a metric boatload of linguistic shortcuts, short-circuiting the English language to our own ends.

To help demystify this somewhat, here is an explanation of some of the more popular acronyms mentioned above:

Becoming Buzzword-Compliant
ISP - Internet Service Provider. As we discussed waaaay back when I started this column, this is your gateway to the Internet; someone with a closet full of modems standing by to take your modem's call. These modems are hooked to a Big Hairy Server (BHS) which is in turn connected to the Internet. The server (a dedicated computer) collects the traffic from the modems and routes it to the Internet; the ISP collects your money every month and keeps the BHS running.

POP and IMAP - these are flavors of Email. POP stands for Post Office Protocol; with this type of email; your email program (Eudora, Netscape, Outlook, etc.) downloads your mail from the email server provided by your ISP; the email is then stored on your computer. IMAP stands for Internet Mail Access Protocol, and is a method by which your mail is stored and read on the server; this is useful if you work from several computers and need to connect to your stored email. Under POP, your email is stored on one computer (the one in your office or home, for instance), and is inaccessible from others, your laptop, for instance.

TCP/IP - Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol; this is the "language" of the Internet. This language was designed to be spoken over computer networks, and to get it to talk over phone lines, you need:

PPP - Peer to Peer Protocol; this is how IP is transmogrified to run through the phone system. Your computer creates files (email, documents, etc.); PPP then makes the information recognizable to the Internet. SLIP (Serial Line Information Protocol) is an older form of this, since largely supplanted by PPP. In order for your computer's modem to talk to your ISP correctly, PPP must be configured; this involves setting the correct ISP phone number, selecting the right modem drivers, and various other bits (and bytes) of housekeeping. The technical support staff at your ISP are there to help you get this working.

Alphabits and Bytes
OS - Operating System; the software that runs all the other software, and tries to keep the software talking to the hardware. This is also known as platform. The main examples of this are Windows (3.1, 95, 98, NT, etc.), Macintosh, and various flavors of Unix (Linux, etc.). Each OS has its quirks and features, and proponents and critics. The entire discussion of OS preferences is fraught with quasi-religious posturing and can lead to fist fights and name-calling; we'll leave that to another article. Suffice it to say that you can run PPP on any of these OS's.

DNS - Domain Name Service (or Server); this is the aspect of the Internet where Domain names ( are linked to their Internet addresses. An internet address looks like this:; this can be difficult to memorize, so the founders of the Internet came up with a scheme whereby tables of names and their corresponding address numbers are set up at various locations on the Internet; each ISP has one, for instance. This is sort of like a phone directory, except that you don't have to look up the number; the DNS does it for you. Part of setting up your internet connection involves specifying the exact address of the DNS server you will be using. When you are cruising the Web and type "" into your browser, the requested domain name ( is sent to the DNS server you have specified. The server (usually a program running on the BHS mentioned above) looks up the name in its table, sees the address listed next to it, and sends your request for web pages to that address. These lists of addresses are updated frequently. The above is a simplification, but describes the process fairly well. The main thing you need to be aware of is that your ISP's DNS address needs to be listed somewhere in the bowels of your computer in order for all this to work.

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