What is the Difference Between Using a Computer and Using the Internet?

We’ve previously scrutinized how much it actually costs to use the internet, but let’s also look into computer usage itself — specifically, what does the average person do on a computer?

Interestingly there’s little modern research on this subject. Instead the scientific community and recent censuses are focused on what the average person does on the Internet. When looking deeper, this unveils a fascinating conundrum; there really isn’t much you can do offline on a computer these days. 

The primary usage of the Internet in the United States generally falls into four categories: Staying in touch with friends, family and coworkers through email and social networks; catching up on local news and international developments through online newspapers and blogs; staying entertained through digital video platforms, online games and magazines; and online shopping.

The interesting thing here is that none of these actions are possible through a computer without an Internet connection. Many computer programs and services these days simply require Internet access. 
 
In fact, you could say that the revolution of Internet was actually what made computers a popular consumer device in the first place. Early computers actually had limited usage outside of specialized business applications, and could only offer services like cataloging recipes, personal finance solutions home automation software, and video games. Outside of games — which weren’t very popular at the time — such offerings required tedious data entry and were seldom used. It wasn’t until the late 1990s, did the advent of the World Wide Web provide a compelling reason for most people to begin using computers regularly.

Now, you may argue that today there are many systems, services, documents and images on your computer that you can access just fine without being online. This is true — you can still access any pre-installed programs and open up all the files currently stored on the computer. And many common services like Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat will still run just fine offline. But the significant majority are limited in function or next to useless without an online connection. Any media or video streaming service won’t work offline, and similarly email or file sharing programs like Outlook or DropBox can’t function without Internet access.

And even for the few programs that can operate offline, the primary method of obtaining software programs has completely transformed in the last decade. With the rise of Software-as-a-Service and online shopping, it’s surprisingly difficult to purchase and install services from hard copies. Almost everything exists and is delivered digitally — downloaded at the click of a button. Even for the few things that solely exist physically, like computer hardware or clothing, brick-and-mortar shopping has been slowly disappearing. It can be hard to find a physical store that actually carries what you’re looking for.

All together this speaks to a growing trend over the last few years — where the terms internet usage and computer usage have become synonymous. This trend is actually the most obvious in the smartphone market. As mobile devices have advanced to have many of the same capabilities, albeit limited, as computers, they have become increasingly reliant on staying connected. Just look at the rapid proliferation of unlimited data plans and public Wi-Fi networks to see how vital Internet access is to using a smartphone. 

While this trend toward Internet reliability isn’t as obvious in the PC market, it can still be seen in laptops. Almost any laptop available today will come with a Wi-Fi adaptor. While this isn’t as immediately connective as a mobile phone, the modern infrastructure of wireless networks spanning restaurants, stores, malls, towns worldwide makes it very easy to stay connected while outdoors. In fact, as the wireless infrastructure continues to blur the line even more between using a computer and using the Internet. Virtualized computers are perhaps the pinnacle of this trend: a computer you can only access and use through a digital connection.

Even new developments like edge computing technologies seem to point toward a future where networks and computing are intimately interwoven. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time until device usage and online activities become completely synonymous — where it’s impossible to differentiate between using a computer versus using the Internet.

Shioupyn Shen

President & CEO