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Software refers to the programs that run on a computer, and which make the hardware useful. Software comes in two basic forms known as operating systems and applications programs.
Operating systems are the software that configure and present computer hardware to the user, and which in doing so co-ordinate basic activities such as memory management, capturing data from the keyboard and mouse, generating an image on the display screen, printing, and networking. In one of their early PC manuals, IBM once described a computer's operating system as like a policeman that directs the traffic (of computer activity) at a busy intersection.
Applications programs can only run when an operating system is present, and are those pieces of software (such as word processors, spreadsheets, web browsers and graphics packages) that deliver specific, valued functionality to the user.
Sometimes a third category of software is labelled as "utilities". Where used, this term refers to more "minor" applications programs that enable effective computer management and/or security. Falling into category would be software such as virus checkers and firewalls (both as discussed in the security section).
The following provides a brief overview of operating systems and applications. More significantly, it also discusses the choices that are for the first time facing users -- and in particular IT managers -- now that "open source" and "software as a service" (SaaS) are presenting themselves as real alternatives to commercial and/or locally-installed software purchases.
A computer's operating system determines which traditional, locally-installed applications it can run. The main choices of desktop or laptop operating system today are Windows, Mac OS or Linux, although alternatives such as Google Chrome OS and Android are becoming more mainstream possibilities. It is possible to have multiple operating systems installed on one computer, and even to run one operating system within another. However, the vast majority of computers only ever have one operating system.
As reported by Ubergizmo, by April 2011 31.71 per cent of PCs were running Windows 7, 31.56 per cent were running Windows XP, 19.07 per cent were running Windows Vista, 14.87 per cent were running Mac OS X, 0.70 per cent were running Linux, and 2.09 per cent were running something other operating system.
The fact that Windows XP has only recently been overtaken by Windows 7 in the above rankings has to signal just what a mess Microsoft has made of Windows over the last decade. Anybody purchasing a professional version of Windows 7 today still has the option of running a Windows XP mode precisely because if they could not they would have to abandon too many perfectly serviceable older applications. Many new netbook computers are still even shipping with Windows XP, whilst in companies many IT departments are quite understandably continuing to invoke downgrade rights that allow new hardware delivered with Windows 7 to be 'reverted' to the company's Windows XP standard.
The reason that so many computers world-wide still run a two-generations-old operating system is two-fold. Firstly, Microsoft utterly misjudged the market with Vista and delivered a bloated operating system that in all practical respects was worse than the one it was intended to replace. Indeed it is not hard to predict that when, in ten years time, people look back at the gradual fall of Microsoft, they will cite the launch of Vista as the beginning of the end of the years in which one company could tell us all what to do on our desktops.
The second reason that so many people are still running Windows XP is that the benefits of upgrading remain slight for the cost incurred. In fact, were it not for the fact that it is now difficult (if not impossible) to purchase a copy of Windows XP -- and that next-generation computer motherboards are unlikely to support it -- it would be reasonable to suggest that Windows XP would remain the world's most popular operating system for at least another five years.
Over the next decade the trend will be for more reliable, secure, lower-power computers that increasingly access applications, data and even raw processing capacity from the cloud. This happens to fly in the face of the development of bloated, over-complex operating systems like Windows. Users will increasingly not care about their operating system experience -- if indeed that many ever did. Rather, what most people will want most of the time will be rapid access to a web browser. And the dominant next-generation operating systems will be those that recognise this.
As noted in the figures above, those personal computers not running Windows are almost all running either Mac OS (if they are Apple Macs), or one of the many versions of Linux. Linux is a free, "open source" operating system originally created by Linus Torvalds. Because it is "open source", Linux has been developed into a number of "distributions" by companies including Red Hat, Novell (which supplies a variant of Linux called SuSE) and Mandriva. For those wishing to try out Linux, all major distributions can be downloaded as a "live CD" or USB key from which a computer will boot into Linux without writing anything to the computer's hard disk. More discussion of the choices involved in opting to run the Linux operating system (and hence Linux applications programs) appears in the "Open Source Alternative" section below.
The problem faced by Linux is that it is not promoted with the marketing dollars available to Microsoft or Apple. Some computer manufacturers -- most notably Dell -- have sold new PCs with Linux rather than Windows as the operating system. Many early netbooks also came with Linux installed, and as a result booted up and got on to the Internet far faster than most Windows 7 and even Windows XP netbooks today. However, so far Linux has never managed to go mainstream.
The above may, however, be about to change with the launch of Google Chrome OS. This is a new Linux-based "cloud operating system" from Google that is completely integrated with the Google Chrome web browser.
At least on mobile devices, Google's Chrome OS is a direct competitor to Microsoft Windows. As Google argue, most of the time we turn on our computers, wait for our operating system to load, and then run a web browser. The idea behind Chrome OS is simply to cut out the stage of loading the operating system. Computers running Chrome OS simply boot very quickly straight to the Internet, with all applications accessed from the cloud. The boot time for a Chrome OS-based computer is in fact around six to ten seconds.
Unlike Microsoft Windows, as a Linux-variant Chrome OS is free. However, unlike a conventional personal computer operating system, Chrome OS cannot be obtained on a disk or downloaded to be installed on any computer. Rather, end-users can only obtain Google Chrome OS by buying a Chromebook (and in time a tablet and quite probably a desktop PC) that has it pre-installed. In turn this means that Chrome OS will only ever be available on new hardware on which it can be guaranteed to operate well, and which in particular has been optimised to run securely, reliably and at high speed.
As Google put it, a Chrome OS access device is a "totally rethought computer that will let you focus on the Internet, so you can stop worrying about your computer". In fact, Chrome OS does not even need anti-virus software. This is because all program code executes out in the cloud. Google also intends to monitor what happens in web applications accessed by Chrome OS to prevent malicious activity. The forthcoming battle between Windows and Chrome will indeed be a very interesting to watch.
Applications programs are what a computer user needs to run to do productive work. When personal computers first went mass-market in the 1980s, the most widely used applications programs were "office software" packages comprising word processors, spreadsheets and databases. Whilst word processors are still the most widely used of these applications, early spreadsheets (such as VisiCalc and Lotus 1-2-3) initially had the greatest impact as they quite literally allowed computational tasks that used to take days or weeks to be completed in minutes.
Next on the scene came desktop publishing (DTP) packages that revolutionized publishing by allowing the electronic rather than manual layout of words and images. It is worth remembering that the computer terminology "cut" and "paste" derive from the ways in which the layout of published documents used to involve the physical cutting out and pasting together with glue of text and images that were only combined for press via photographic processes.
With the rise of the Internet, two of the most critical applications programs have become e-mail packages (such as Outlook Express) and web browsers (such as Internet Explorer, Chrome, Opera or Firefox). Indeed, as cloud computing takes hold -- as detailed in the section after next -- the only software many computers may ever run could be an operating system and a web browser.
Graphics packages are today also a major category of applications programs, and come in a very wide range of guises. For a start there are presentation packages (such as PowerPoint) used to create slides and give lectures. Then there are photo editing packages that manipulate the tiny rectangles or "pixels" that make up the "bitmapped" images created by digital cameras or scanners. The dominant professional photo editing software is Adobe PhotoShop (so much so that the verb "to photoshop" has entered the language). However, even if they are using the new verb, most people manipulate images in less sophisticated -- and far less costly! -- photo editing packages such as PaintShop Pro or PhotoShop Elements.
Another category of graphics packages are used to create and manipulate vector-based images. Whereas a bitmapped image created by a digital camera and edited in a package like PhotoShop can only be enlarged so far before a loss of detail (because the individual pixels that make up the image become too big), vector-based images (sometimes called structured graphics) are defined mathematically and can be re-scalled to any size with no loss of detail. Vector-based graphics software includes Adobe Illustrator (used for illustrations in publishing) and computer-aided design (CAD) software such as AutoCAD (used for creating engineering designs and other forms of technical plans).
Finally on the graphics side there are 3D modelling and animation applications. Here, packages including 3D Studio Max, Maya, SoftImage and LightWave are used to build 3D computer models that are then textured with bitmap images (often created or manipulated in PhotoShop) and which are then rendered as bitmapped "photographic" output.
Next in common usage there are applications packages that work with multimedia content. These comprise software for playing and editing audio and video. As with still graphics packages (and the two types of software are already converging!), the variety of software available is extremely diverse, ranging from free software like Windows Media Player, Realplayer and Apple's Quicktime Player, to high-end video editing and manipulation software costing hundreds or thousands of pounds, and including Final Cut Pro, Adobe Premiere Pro and Avid.
Those people needing to create web pages will probably also be using a web authoring package such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver (although many web programmers write raw code directly into a text editor).
A final set of applications packages are those dedicated to business activities such as accounting (eg Sage Accounts) and project management (such a Microsoft Project).
It used to be that computer software was either purchased as a commercial product or written by the user or their organization. However, over the past few years the use of communally-created "open source" software has become a real alternative. Open source software is created with little or no intellectual property restriction on its use and distribution, and can be downloaded for free.
Open source software is created collaboratively by wide networks of programmers who freely share their labours and "source code" in the "public domain", hence allowing others to alter, improve and borrow from their work. Open source software was originally written by programmers wanting to challenge the power of monopoly commercial software companies (like Microsoft) and hence to put the user back in control. However, many commercial organizations (including Sun, Novell, and Mandriva are now also heavily involved in open source software development. These companies largely make their money in this area from selling their expertise in software support and development to companies, rather than from the sale and licensing of boxed (or downloaded) product.
As already discussed, all personal computer owners can now decide to run a version of the open source operating system Linux as an alternative to Windows or Mac OS. If they choose to do this they must also run Linux applications programs. However, for people not wishing to abandon the commercial operating system provided "free" with their computer, some open source applications programs that will run under Windows or Mac OS are now available.
The most significant open source application is OpenOffice. This duplicates the functionality of Microsoft Office, including the ability to load and save Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. For many private individuals and small businesses, OpenOffice is an excellent choice. It is also increasingly being adopted by educational establishments and across the public sector more generally.
Whilst not always strictly open source in nature, it should also be noted that there is an increasing volume of quality software being provided for free. Google, for example, now provides as Google Pack an assortment of downloadable and online software (including a photo editing program and a virus checker) that for many can go a long way to meeting all of their applications program requirements.
As yet another alternative to using either traditional commercial or open source software, applications programs are now also starting to be made available via the world-wide web. The idea here is that rather than installing software on each computer, users will simply go to a website that offers the software functionality they require. Such "software as a service" (SaaS) online delivery is a key aspect of both Web 2.0 and cloud computing, and is almost certainly the future of mainstream end-user computing.
Accessing applications from the cloud involves a substantial paradigm shift. This is because applications and the data they manipulate are physically stored on the service supplier's web servers, rather than on the user's personal computer or their company's server(s). Some security issues hence have to be considered. However, the flexibility offered to a user in being able to access their applications and data from any computer with a web browser can clearly be highly beneficial and can offer alternative security benefits in its own right. A small business using SaaS, for example, can't be brought to its knees by an office fire that destroys all of its data if its documents are hosted elsewhere.
Accessing your e-mail over the web is now commonplace and seen as providing value added. Many people now also store their photographs and back-up files online. Advancing this trend to accessing office applications across the web is therefore not likely to be resisted by a significant proportion of computer users. For corporate IT departments, SaaS can also significantly reduce software and hardware support costs. As with open source operating systems and processes, early adoption is most likely amongst private individuals, small businesses, and across the public sector.
Links to a great many free and for-a-fee SaaS applications can be found in the Cloud Computing Directory. You can also see a quick demo of some of the best free software a as service applications in the following video:
Today most people who have gone near a computer know at least something about what a word processor, a web browser, an e-mail package, a spreadsheet, and a photo editing package can do and how to operate them. Just what computer software can accomplish is simply no longer shrouded in the technobabble. Moving data between applications is now also almost entirely transparent and something that we take for granted, even though it was often a nightmare only a decade ago. Both of these facts are clearly a good thing. However, what is not so good is the extent to which many users and even companies still believe they have no choice in what operating system and which applications programs they use.
The monopoly of Windows, Internet Explorer and Microsoft Office is still largely holding water (and to its credit is one of the reasons why software is so much better understood and data transfer is so much more flexible than it was a decade or more ago). However, we stand today on a new horizon where choice will once again be an option. What is therefore now required is sufficient education to ensure that individuals and organizations understand both that this choice exists and what it's implications are.
Linux -- and almost certainly Google Chrome OS -- will continue to take hold. Offering as they do a solid alternative to the Windows operating system and Windows applications, there are also absolutely no reasons why they should not. A high proportion of websites (including this one) are hosted on servers running Linux, not Windows. Decisions to make this happen have been taken on a sound technical, support and commercial basis, and there is no reason to believe that the decisions governing what software will be run on individual and corporate personal computers will not be taken in the same way.
It is now possible to carry in your pocket a USB key that holds all of your Linux operating system, applications programs and data, and which hence allows "your desktop" to be available on any computer that you are allowed to plug the USB key into. However, even this is not as flexible as being able to access your applications and data from any web-enabled device. Software as a service and the associated Cloud Computing Revolution are therefore something not to be ignored and that will make a very significant impact on the way we compute. Indeed, even Microsoft's CEO Steve Balmer has now claimed to be "betting the company" on cloud computing.
Given that words, still images, audio, video and 3D models can now all be effectively manipulated as digital content, the tasks undertaken with our software applications will probably not now change substantially. However, what will change will be how and where and from whom we access those applications -- and whether we come to expect software applications to be products or services, free or for a fee. Due to developments like open source and SaaS, whilst standards will maintain, nobody will monopolise the software industry of tomorrow. And that's probably going to be a very good thing indeed.