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What is software? Definition and meaning

Software refers to programs that run on computers and perform specific functions. It is the entire set of programs, procedures and related documentation associated with computer systems. Without it a computer, smartphone, laptop or tablet would not work, they would be as useful to you as a manual typewriter – in fact, the typewriter would be more useful because you could write letter with it.

When you buy a computer, the physical parts of it – including the screen, keyboard, modem, speakers, and CPU (central processing unit) – are the hardware, while the computer programs within it, the parts with encoding and instructions, are the software.

It is made of one or more computer programs. It may refer to just one specific program, or all of a system’s programs and applications, including the operating system itself.

Software versus HardwareEverything on the left-hand side of this image is hardware – things you can touch, physical things, solid things, pieces of equipment. Everything on the right-hand side is software – thing you cannot touch, abstract things, things that make it possible for us to use the hardware so that we can do things.

If you want to use WhatsApp on your smartphone or Facebook on your laptop, you have to first download the relevant computer programs. All the programs that make your applications (Apps) work belong in the software category.

If we look at music, the physical instruments that we can touch and see – guitars, trumpets, pianos, violins, cellos, etc. – are the hardware, while the manuscripts (musical notes written on paper) are the software, the instructions.

According to, software means:

“Computer instructions or data. Anything that can be stored electronically is software, in contrast to storage devices and display devices which are called hardware.”

Software is variable – Hardware is invariable

Think of software as the variable part of a computer and hardware as the invariable part – the part that remains the same.

Bill Gates and Steve Jobs software quotesBill Gates, the richest man in the world (most years), co-founded Microsoft, which became the world’s largest PC software company. Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was co-founder of Apple Inc. Jobs was more famous than Gates for innovative hardware, such as the iPhone, iPod, iMac and iPad.

Software is typically divided into application software – programs that do the type of work that a user is directly interested in – and system software – including operating systems and any program that supports the application program.

The programming that mediates between applications and systems is often referred to as middleware. Middleware could also be programs that allow files in one operating system to be used and viewed in another operating system.

The term ‘software’ started becoming common in the 1960s to distinguish computer hardware – the physical parts of a machine that we can touch and see – from the programs installed within it so that people can write letters, send messages, store files or play games.

The term was first proposed by Alan Turing (1912-1954), a pioneering English computer scientist, mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst and theoretical biologist, widely considered to be the ‘father of theoretical computer science and artifiial intelligence’.

John Tukey (1915-2000), an American mathematician best known for the development of the Box Plot and FFT algorithm, is believed to be the first person ever to use the term in print (1958).

Craig Venter software quoteCraig Venter is an American biochemist, biotechnologist and geneticist. He was the first person to sequence the human genome, and also the first to transfect a cell with a synthetic genome. British magazine New Statesman listed Venter as the 14th most influential figure in 2010. (Image: Wikipedia)

Software refers to all the instructions that a technical device – computer, smartphone, etc. – follows. Before it was stored in disks, USB flash drives, or downloaded online, it came on ‘soft media’ like magnetic discs, magnetic tape or paper punch cards.

Firmware: is a style of computer program for a specific piece of hardware, and is generally stored on a Flash memory or ROM chip within the electronic device. In your computer, there is firmware for a modem or CD drive.

Software categories

With the continuous development of new programs and applications, the concept of categories has become a challenging topic. There is no universally-agreed upon set of categories. Computer software can be placed into categories according to common functions, types or field of use. The three broad classifications are:

Application software: computer programs for performing tasks such as word processing, drawing, playing or listening to music, accounting, scheduling, etc.

System software: this is a generic term for computer programs that are used to start and run computer systems.

Computer Programming Tools: are programs that developers use to create, debug, maintain, or otherwise support other applications and programs. The term generally refers to simple programs that can be combined to accomplish a task, much as a mechanic might use several hand tools in his or her workshop to fix a car engine.

Modern automobiles

Many major car manufacturers across the world report software problems. Sometimes the car simply won’t start, the airbags may inflate when there is no accident or not work when they are needed, or something in the system makes the lights suddenly come on.

New technology is great because it allows us to do more things or have mundane tasks done for us. However, it does come with one huge disadvantage – the chances of something going wrong are greater compared to 40 years ago.

If the program for opening and closing my car window suddenly has a glitch, there is no manual-window handle I can use – I simply cannot control that window any more until the software glitch is fixed.

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