Originally created 02/23/98

Computerese confusing, but precise

When you spend too much time fooling with computers, you tend to forget that most humans are engaged in more honest pursuits -- and that they're often mystified by what they see and hear when they sit down in front of a keyboard.

Here's an example from this week's messages:

"I was having trouble with my e-mail, and the people at my Internet service asked me what kind of `client' I was using. I wasn't sure what they were talking about, and they said it meant what kind of e-mail program I had. Why did they call it a `client,' and why didn't they say what they meant in the first place?"

Well, let's just say that technobabble can be mystifying. But it's no more or less mysterious than the code words and terms that people in any profession use every day.

Just look at how many folks watch "ER" every week. They can't wait to see a dozen doctors and nurses pound on some poor slob's chest and toss incomprehensible medical jargon at one another. Does anybody actually know what Ringer's Lactate is?

Of course not. And you don't have to understand the stuff on "ER" to enjoy the show. It's there to lend a sense of authenticity. Unfortunately, computing isn't a spectator sport. When your computer gets sick, you'll have to learn a bit about the lingo of the PC doctors to survive.

Like medics, PC geeks use a language that is very precise. But instead of being based on Latin, it consists of regular English words that serve as metaphors for things that happen in invisible places.

For example, the first time a techie told me that the files on my hard drive were "corrupt," I had to chuckle. In my line of work, the word corrupt brings to mind politicians in shiny suits taking greasy envelopes full of cash from guys who want no-bid contracts.

But when I looked it up in the dictionary, I found an archaic usage of the term "corrupt" that meant "spoiled." Which was precisely what had had happened to my scrambled checkbook files.

Now back to the question about the use of "client." In the world of computers, the term has nothing to do with a person who engages the services of a lawyer, but it does describe a similar relationship. The term "client-server" is used to describe the way your PC interacts with other computers over a network -- in this case the Internet.

Once upon a time, when all computers were big mainframes, the people who used them worked on "dumb" terminals -- keyboards and screens that were hooked directly to the big iron. The mainframe had to monitor every keystroke of every terminal and run each piece of software that users employed. This was inefficient and downright dangerous -- when the mainframe crashed, everybody burned.

But as PCs replaced the old terminals, they took over a lot of the day-to-day work (word processing and spreadsheets, for example). There was still a need for big computers to store information shared by everybody and handle massive jobs like the company payroll -- but the relationship slowly changed.

Instead of hooking each PC to the mainframe directly with a long cable, corporations set up "networks," a more flexible system in which PCs share a "party line" that connects them to larger computers and to one another.

These PCs ask the mainframe for help only when they need its services. So big computers became "servers" and little ones became their "clients."

The simplest setup is a file server -- a big computer that manages a central storage area for word processing documents, spreadsheets, schedules and the like.

When you want to open a file in your word processor, your computer asks the server to deliver it. Once it's delivered, your PC takes over. But it can get more complicated. You may be running a program that uses your company's mailing list, which contains 800,000 names. You want to find everyone in ZIP Code 21202, which requires a lot of horsepower. So your program, as the client, requests the information.

A database program running on the server actually performs the search. It finds all the 21202s and sends the results to your PC. Your computer prints the mailing labels. This is known as "distributed computing" and it's very hot.

When you're connected to the Internet, you'll run a variety of "client" programs that request help from servers somewhere else. Your e-mail program is one of those clients. Somewhere out in cyberspace, a server is receiving and storing your mail. When you're ready to read it, your e-mail client requests your mail and the server delivers it. Your computer is responsible for sorting and displaying it.

When you reply to a message from Aunt Rhoda, your e-mail client sends it to a server that handles outgoing mail. The server sends it on its way.

Your Web browser is a client, too. When you click on a link to another page, your browser sends a request to the Web server that stores the original. The Web server, which may be in your building or in Australia, delivers the page to your computer. You wouldn't recognize it, though. It's a jumble of text and weird commands. Your Web browser formats it and displays it on your screen.

So there you have it -- one mystery solved. The next time you run into trouble and don't understand what the geeks are saying, ask them to explain in simple English. They might be able to do it.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service