Software refers to the programs that run on a computer, and which make the hardware useful. Software also 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).
A computer's operating system determines which locally-installed applications it can run. For desktop or laptop computers, today the main choices of operating system today are Windows, Mac OS, Linux or Chrome OS, while a tablet or smartphone will typically run Android, iOS or Windows. It is possible to have multiple operating systems installed on one computer, and even to run one operating system within another on a so-called "virtual machine". However, the vast majority of computers only ever have one operating system.
These days, while most users could not really care less about their operating system, others have very strong opinions and will zealously argue why the system they run is best. Inside the Windows camp, there are also heated deabtes concerning the relative merits of running Windows 7 (for which extended service updates cease on 14 January 2020) and Windows 10 (which many loathe due to a perception that it captures too much user data and offers too little user control). In the following video I capture something of the essense of this debate:
Not least due to concerns associated with the evolution of Windows from being a product to being a service, there is an increasing interest in Linux. This is an open-source operating system for which many free distributions or "distros" are now available. For many users, a Linux distro is now offers a perfectly reasonable alterative to Windows -- a subject I cover in these two videos:
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.
You can learn the basics of using any spreadsheet package in this video:
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 Chrome, Firefox) and Microsoft's Internet Explorer and more recent Edge browsers.. Indeed, as cloud computing become the norm, so the only software many computers may ever run may be an operating system and a web browser. This is indeed what a Google Chrome Book already does!
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 Photoshop Elements. Another good option here is Affinity Photo, as I review in this video:
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. Here the dominant high-end packages include Adobe Premiere Pro, Avid Media Composer, and Final Cut Pro (which is only available for Mac).
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 following video details just some of the great free software packages that are now availble:
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.
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.
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 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 become more popular. Offering as they do a solid alternative to the Windows (and Mac) operating systems and 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.
As I show in this video, it is now even possible to carry in your pocket a USB drive 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 drive 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.
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 is probably going to be a very good thing indeed.
Software refers to the programs that run on a computer system.
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