What is Software?

Posted By BrokenClaw on November 1, 2007

Software is the term used to describe the sets of instructions that make computers worthwhile. The word software is an invention of computer science, to differentiate it from hardware. It can refer to the whole collection of instructions on a computer, or it can refer to a specific task. Software which does a specific task is called a program.

You can think of software as the recipe for computer operations. Like a recipe, it doesn’t exist in any physical form. You can create it, remember it, read if from a card, write it down, type it out, tell someone about it, but other than that, it’s just a concept. So it is with software. Software can be divided into different types.

The operating system is the foundation that makes it possible for all other software to run. For more information, read the complete article, The Operating System.

A program which is designed to interact with the user is also called an application (often shortened to app). The process of starting an application is called opening or launching. These same terms are used to describe the process of viewing a document, photo, or video file. In other words, when you open a document, you are really opening the word processor to view and/or edit the document. Most of these processes occur in the background, because the computer knows what program to launch, based on the file type.

Some examples of applications are:

  • the web browser you are using right now
  • the word processor you use to type a newsletter
  • the photo program that opens when you import photos from your digital camera
  • the media player that launches when you click on a video
  • the anti-virus program that launches automatically when you start your computer
  • the genealogy program you use to document your family tree

Computer games are usually just called games, because they don’t do anything ostensibly useful, and therefore are not considered to be applications.

Of course, there are many applications which are written for specific businesses, government agencies, schools, and health care organizations. Software designed for multiple users in these settings is often called enterprise software, because it is spread across the entire enterprise. In these settings, the users often create their own software within an application, such as scripts for doing repetitive tasks or templates for printing forms and writing policy manuals.

photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Today, a lot of software comes already installed on a new computer. Additional software, such as photo editing and printing tools or music management tools, comes with each peripheral device. By its very nature, software can be easily purchased and downloaded over the Internet. For those reasons, most casual computer users today have never purchased boxed software from a store. The software aisle in the “big box” electronics stores is a mere shadow of the rows and rows of software displays of years gone by.

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