fogI am shocked and appalled.

There are people walking around in this day and age who are absolutely clueless. They could not tell you what a browser is if you threatened them with surgical removal of their WiFi. And if you said the surgery would happen in an operating system, it would make more sense to them than asking them what operating system they prefer. And if you asked them to describe the difference between DSL and WiFi and FIOS and dialup and 3G, they would look at you quizzically, as if you asked them to differentiate between water and H2O.

I recently listened to a person present a new software platform. To explain how easy it is to use, he used a computer as a metaphor. His images that were meant to clarify further confused people who don’t understand how their computer works or what a browser is.

And then I realized that I don’t have a good metaphor for what a browser is, either.  As a person who avoids Internet Explorer like the plague, I can’t bring myself to mention it as an example. But if I say “Firefox”, that doesn’t help with people who connect to the Internet, not with a browser, but with a picture on the screen that says, “connect to Internet.”

I also know that I can’t simply explain the difference between dialup and DSL. Yet. (Though I’m working with garden hoses and PVC and M&Ms. I promise.)

I could rant. But it would be both futile and foolish. Really, apart from geek-cred, does the picture really need to say anything more than “connect to Internet?”

In a month, I’m talking about social media to a group of people who have been hearing that they need to know about it but who know little about it. In fact, I’m willing to bet that they don’t know what a browser is.

My goal will be to help them understand starting from where they are.

I’ll let you know how it goes.

And, by the way, I am fully aware that you (yes, you), can’t explain a browser in normal-people-speak either.

When we’re done here, you will.


17 responses to “Outrageous

  1. Hence why AOL became so big. People just wanted to “get it” even though in the background AOL used IE as the “browser” to access websites.

    Now people of all ages want Facebook and/or Twitter… the learning curve can be quick… perhaps too quick.

  2. Why does it all need to be explained? Did the car dealer explain the workings of your car’s transmission before you bought it? Just deliver the benefits and explain all that they can “browse” and everyone will be happy. Too much tech talk can be good for the ego but is not really necessary.

    GR Hansen

  3. Jon, I’m going to attempt an explanation and perhaps it will spark a better way, but no attempt to explain it won’t help… So here is an attempt.

    A browser is like your home television. If you want to watch tv, you have to have a tv. Thus, if you want to get on the internet you have to have a browser. A browser is what lets you turn your computer into a tv.

    What you want to see online is like wanting to watch a channel on tv. (you could possibly use the antenna vs cable vs satellite to compare bandwidth, but we will leave that out and focus only on the browser analogy.)

    An old outdated no longer recommended browser is like the big console tv’s with the channel changer as a dial on the television set.

    The idea of cookies enabled, supporting java, have flash installed etc might be compared to how many channels you have access too – fewer plugins installed means you cant see as many websites (because you dont have those channels). Or, if that analogy doesnt work to explain java, flash etc, you might compare it to components of a tv like saying your tv (browser) is so old you cant hook up a vcr much less a dvd player and you can forget about your kids playstation or xbox. Continuing this you might say that having flash or java is like being able to plug in your personal camcorder and see it on tv, or your view your digital pictures on tv through your digital camera- if you dont have a new tv (browser with updated plugins), you cant connect those devices to it and wont be able to watch the home moves or the see the digital pictures – even though they are there, you just cant see them.

    Updating your browser could be the same thing as going from black and white to color television. Or, as a new tv example, going from a tube CRT screen tv to a flat screen tv. Inherently, you know when you update technology like that, even if you dont understand it, you’ll get ‘more’ of something (more color, more resolution, more channels, more speed, more connections to the tv etc).

    The web browser is controlled by a click of the mouse – like a tv is controlled by the remote. If you dont ever adjust your brightness, contrast, and various tv settings you wont have the “best” experience your tv can offer and the same is true for your browser.

    So thats my attempt to explain a browser. Thoughts?

  4. The bane of working in IT – trying to explain things computer related to those who don’t care, don’t ‘get it’. This is funny, but so true.
    I explain what a browser is by telling the person it is simply another program, used for connecting to the Internet. The best answer I’ve ever hear was, “But I use Yahoo.”
    Great post.

  5. Well said. Like many “IT professionals”, I get to deal with this “phenomenon” every day. There’s an excellent (Google-sponsored) “What is a Browser” video on YouTube that addresses this issue in a more humorous tone.

    PVC? M&Ms? I’m so using that!! I’ll be watching this space for excellent analogies/suggestions on how to explain a browser to non-tech people.

  6. A browser is software that is used to view images and text on the internet.These images and text are driven by something called HTML code.
    If you think of the internet as a series of tubes that are interconnected, then a browser is what allows you to take a snapshot inside those tubes, allowing you to see exactly what you want, when you want. LOL
    But it gets better. By typing in a specific phone number (some will call it a URL) you are able to connect through that series of tubes almost instantaneously. (if you are willing to pay for a high speed connection). Then through the magic of machine translation those images and text appear on the screen.
    Thats my story and I am sticking to it!!

  7. A browser is a window to the Internet.

  8. Found myself talking to an iPhone 3GS owner the other day about her email service… she was using Comcast. We talked about Gmail and how it was free and she could use Google Calendar for her schedule… (“there’s an app for that…”). I explained how to sign up, and she asked me “How would I get to my email?” She really had NO clue.

    I also explained to her what WiFi was… when it would pop up on her iPhone during our conversation.

    Few minutes later, she tells me she use to write software in the early DOS ages… makes me realize just how easily you can get lost if you don’t stay up to date when technology changes.

  9. Please.

    “A browser is the software in your computer you use to look at the Internet”.

    Sometimes simple is best. I like the TV analogy. I like the long detailed explanation. But what I wrote above is what a browser IS, and the explanation will work for everyone. Will it lead to more questions? Sure. But that’s a GOOD thing.


    Jeff Yablon
    President & CEO
    Answer Guy and Virtual VIP Computer Support, Business Change Coaching and Virtual Assistant Services

  10. I’ve explained it with some success to my parents as follows.

    The browser is like the actual physical telephone.

    You punch in a special code of numbers, and it connects you to someone else, or an office. But a lot of times, you get voicemail.

    So you can hit different keys to get to different pieces of information. As in, “Push 1 for our hours of operation.”

    Then the machine on the OTHER end reads you the information you just asked for.

    Different browsers are like different phones. Some phones have all sorts of cool buttons and speed dial, etc. Some are just that cheap-O Princess slimline (or whatever). Some phones have better sound quality than others. Some phones break a lot, or choke if you try to dial a number that’s too long, (or, to beat this into the ground, are sold with your house and you’re not allowed to install a different phone on the wall, at least until the EU gets all upset…)

    Tabbed browsing is like having call waiting, or better, putting one call on hold while you deal with a different one.

    I’ve never had to go to the whole java/cookies/whatever route. But if pressed – I could go with either a fax machine attached to the phone (so it could receive different types of info) or just back to quality of the earpiece. Possibly dynamic range of the earpiece.

    Your ISP is just like your long-distance provider. Or, if you want it for the youngsters, your cell carrier service. And so on…


  11. I have to agree with hansenhouse (comment #2 above). People should not be mocked for not knowing things that they don’t need to know about in their lives. I don’t know anything about cars, but I use them every day. Does that make me a moron?

    I don’t know anything about surgery, and yet it saves millions of lives every day.

    Browsers are a highly abstract, complex concepts that only seem obvious to people (like us) who have been dealing with their inner workings for years.

    They’re also full of nonsensical, legacy ideas that make no sense to a modern Internet user. Why should it even be a separate piece of software, for example? Something like Chromium, where the OS IS a browser, would make more sense to lay people.

  12. I just tried explaining what a browser was to an older uncle this morning.

    I said, “A browser is a tool you use to go on the Internet. The tool I use is called Firefox. You may also have heard of Internet Explorer; similar tools, both are browsers.

    You can customize the tool for how you want to view and interact (or browse) on the Internet, especially if you have a tool like Firefox that opens up its design to whomever would like to improve it or create more features.

    Different browsers are more or less efficient, depending on how you want to use the tool.”

    Seemed to work for him.

  13. I think there is a growing divide between the tech-oriented and those who choose not to be. I’m not sure everyone really needs to understand the technology to use it, but I would think by now more people would know what a browser or an ISP is. For ethical purposes, it would be nice if more people could understand how they connect to information a little better instead of being herded along like cattle or sheep by big corporations with plans on their behavior. But then again, some of the very people who don’t know what a browser is can do other incredible things on the other end of the human spectrum that you and I may not be able to comprehend, like make incredible art or climb Everest. I think this is just the price of a diverse human population with unique abilities and interests.

    My definition was easy enough to formulate:

    A browser is software on your PC that connects you to the internet, like Microsoft Internet Explorer or Firefox or Opera or Google Chrome or Apple’s Safari or Netscape. Done.

  14. The problem with the car and surgery analogies – I don’t need to understand them to make them work – is that the car analogy is correct but misinterpreted and the surgery analogy is simply incorrect.

    You don’t need to fully understand a transmission or the deep workings of your car to get the full benefit, but you DO need to know how to drive, how to read the gauges, how to pop the gas cover, and the difference between gas – which goes into the gas tank – and (for instance) deisel, which is usually sold right next to the gas but really should NOT go in the gas tank. You have to know IF the car has anti-lock brakes BEFORE you get into the skid, and you have to know what that means (pump if no, slam-and-hold if yes).

    WRT surgery, it’s the opposite. You’re usually UNCONSCIOUS during surgery. It’s very rare for you to be anything but a completely passive participant in a surgery performed on yourself. And so, yes, even rudimentary knowledge is likely not helpful at all.

    It is simply unacceptable to be completely devoid of the most rudimentary understanding of tools you use every day. You’re *certainly* not using the tools to their potential, and you’re quite likely doing harm to yourself or others in the process. It’s true of cars, it’s true of televisions, it’s true of computers and the internet. No one’s forcing you to be Geeky McNerdstein, but there needs to be a baseline of familiarity AND there needs to be a social value to that baseline.


  15. oh my. I’m loving your insights. I’ve got them printed to read through and sort through and respond to tonight. I have a funny feeling that we’re heading to another post. The thoughtfulness, the identification, and the shared sense of struggle is wonderful.

    T.S. Eliot wrote about writing that “every attempt is a raid on the inarticulate with shabby equipment always deteriorating in the general mess of imprecision of feeling.” We all struggle with how to explain, whether to explain, how much to explain, and how much the feelings of the person we are talking with matter. And our tools to understand what others actually understand are limited.

    And yet, as you all are saying, we gotta keep trying.

    Thank you.

  16. Pingback: Outrageous part two – how to explain a browser « Levite Chronicles

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