On Words: Web Linguistics

People ask me questions about this piece of technology and that piece of technology. What i am often asked, even by experts themselves, is whether this is the right term or not.  This is for a technology discussion or a pitch.  Either way, there is some confusion about the difference or use of the words.  For instance Plugin vs. Add-on.

I am putting together a list of used and mis-used words that I am hearing a lot of in Internet ventures, from Angels, VCs and just kids playing with web sites.  These words have become interchangeable within each group, mainly because the general population really does not see a difference, but tech people know there is a difference.

I know I will embarrass myself here because there are sticklers who are more specific about these words and their use.  I am just pointing out the blurring of the lines and how the web has changed the language and meaning of these words for users, who find themselves having to explain things to people on calls to their technology companies whether its the phone company, cable or third party provider.

Words have a funny way of changing over the years.  I am writing this blog entry as would William Safire in the New York Times Sunday addition I used to read as a kid.  He would cover all the new words he has heard and give a history to where they came from in their origin often citing the Oxford Dictionary.  I read it every week carefully.

Plugin, Add-on, Extension

All three words seem to convey the same existential meaning, a piece of a software that creates new value that can be added or not added to your existing piece of software.  This is not the same as an App.  These are extra stuff.  I am sure they had historic meanings for each and when they first came into use.  And of course WordPress uses Plugin and Joomla uses Add-ons.  Quite honestly these 3 are becoming completely interchangeable.

Feature, Function

Somewhere along the way, while programmers know technically what a function is, the actual user does not see the difference in these things that you get when you plugin or add-on stuff.  They just see a new piece of working software that does something.  For end users these words are synonymous, though programmers would beg to differ.

Widget, Drop-in

Once again thank WordPress for coming up with the word Widget, which is a little different than a feature.  These are things that you put in your software yourself and they go to work.  There are occasionally drop-in apps around that kind of work like a widget.  The widget reference I think is different than other extension type applications, in that it is specific to a place on the page.

Pop-up, Pop-Under, Light-box, Hover

These are things that just annoy us that show up when we arrive or leave a website. I am including a Light-box here, because that is a thingy that shows functionality as well, but takes over your screen with a dark silhouette in the background.  The Light-box is a pop-up of sorts, but it uses a local function, so it is technically not a pop-up.  A hover, as you know comes up with a mouse on-over.  These 4 words have kind of merged into one thing for users, extra things or functionality that occurs on an action.  But users like everything don’t always get the difference.

Template, Theme, Skin, Brand

What has happened with these four words is they have come to virtually mean the same thing to people, whereby the look and feel or Brand of the software can change, yet the guts or application remains the same.  Everybody talks about where to get their newest theme.  Yet, we know as programmers that a template is more than just a visual  But what has happened in WordPress is Themes have programming in them.  So the lines are getting blurred.

Program, Application, Platform, System, App

Most of these are old technology words.  That have various technical meaning to programmers, yet to the user, there is no difference.  These words refer to the computer program.  Even the word App has now on it’s own come out and stands for specifically a Mobile or Smartphone app.  The word Platform for PHP and .Net programmers has come to mean which method they are using to program…  Not important to end users though.

Smartphone, Tablet, Ipad, Iphone, Mobile, Cellular, Cell

Even I, having worked for a cellular phone company for 10 years at one point, I see the words merging here.  We know there is a difference between Tablet and Smartphone, but have you see the Ipad Mini or the Galaxy S4. What is happening is all these words refer to some type of nice UI device you can carry around and get to your stuff, surf the web, make a call, etc.  Does it really matter in the end what you call it all, as long as it provides what you are looking for.

Cloud, Hosting

I have myself been guilty of merging these 2 words of late.  The word cloud has come to mean, in my eyes, now pretty much all hosting.  I am completely technically wrong, but am I theoretically wrong?  Not sure. I have put down cloud on a couple VC pitches recently and I am just waiting for somebody to challenge me.  They haven’t.  They get it.  Cloud is inclusive of hosting (in my eyes).  You can argue with me if you want here!

I probably missed a few item here or there.  But hopefully you get the overall drift of these words. They have meaning for everybody in several ways, yet they are merging in meaning overall.  Within the programming world, you have specific conventions, but in the outside world of everyday people, they are just terms we use to help us communicate, so what if accidentally call your Nexus an iPhone?  You will just nod your head, and say “yes”, you meant my Iphone?