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A diagram showing how the user interacts with application software on a typical desktop computer. The application software layer interfaces with the operating system, which in turn communicates with the hardware. The arrows indicate information flow. Operating system placement (software).svg
A diagram showing how the user interacts with application software on a typical desktop computer. The application software layer interfaces with the operating system, which in turn communicates with the hardware. The arrows indicate information flow.

Computer software, or simply software, is a collection of data or computer instructions that tell the computer how to work. This is in contrast to physical hardware, from which the system is built and actually performs the work. In computer science and software engineering, computer software is all information processed by computer systems, programs and data. Computer software includes computer programs, libraries and related non-executable data, such as online documentation or digital media. Computer hardware and software require each other and neither can be realistically used on its own.


At the lowest programming level,[ clarification needed ] executable code consists of machine language instructions supported by an individual processor—typically a central processing unit (CPU) or a graphics processing unit (GPU). A machine language consists of groups of binary values signifying processor instructions that change the state of the computer from its preceding state. For example, an instruction may change the value stored in a particular storage location in the computer—an effect that is not directly observable to the user. An instruction may also invoke one of many input or output operations, for example displaying some text on a computer screen; causing state changes which should be visible to the user. The processor executes the instructions in the order they are provided, unless it is instructed to "jump" to a different instruction, or is interrupted by the operating system. As of 2015, most personal computers, smartphone devices and servers have processors with multiple execution units or multiple processors performing computation together, and computing has become a much more concurrent activity than in the past.

The majority of software is written in high-level programming languages. They are easier and more efficient for programmers because they are closer to natural languages than machine languages. [1] High-level languages are translated into machine language using a compiler or an interpreter or a combination of the two. Software may also be written in a low-level assembly language, which has strong correspondence to the computer's machine language instructions and is translated into machine language using an assembler.


An outline (algorithm) for what would have been the first piece of software was written by Ada Lovelace in the 19th century, for the planned Analytical Engine. [2] She created proofs to show how the engine would calculate Bernoulli Numbers. [2] Because of the proofs and the algorithm, she is considered the first computer programmer. [3] [4]

The first theory about software—prior to the creation of computers as we know them today—was proposed by Alan Turing in his 1935 essay On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem).

This eventually led to the creation of the academic fields of computer science and software engineering; Both fields study software and its creation. Computer science is the theoretical study of computer and software (Turing's essay is an example of computer science), whereas software engineering is the application of engineering and development of software.

However, prior to 1946, software was not yet the programs stored in the memory of stored-program digital computers, as we now understand it. The first electronic computing devices were instead rewired in order to "reprogram" them.

In 2000, Fred Shapiro, a librarian at the Yale Law School, published a letter revealing that John Wilder Tukey's 1958 paper "The Teaching of Concrete Mathematics" [5] [6] contained the earliest known usage of the term "software" found in a search of JSTOR's electronic archives, predating the OED's citation by two years. [7] This led many to credit Tukey with coining the term, particularly in obituaries published that same year, [8] although Tukey never claimed credit for any such coinage. In 1995, Paul Niquette claimed he had originally coined the term in October 1953, although he could not find any documents supporting his claim. [9] The earliest known publication of the term "software" in an engineering context was in August 1953 by Richard R. Carhart, in a Rand Corporation Research Memorandum. [10]


Blender Game Engine, a free software. BgeCarSc.jpg
Blender Game Engine, a free software.

On virtually all computer platforms, software can be grouped into a few broad categories.

Purpose, or domain of use

Based on the goal, computer software can be divided into:

Nature or domain of execution

Programming tools

Programming tools are also software in the form of programs or applications that software developers (also known as programmers, coders, hackers or software engineers) use to create, debug, maintain (i.e. improve or fix), or otherwise support software.

Software is written in one or more programming languages; there are many programming languages in existence, and each has at least one implementation, each of which consists of its own set of programming tools. These tools may be relatively self-contained programs such as compilers, debuggers, interpreters, linkers, and text editors, that can be combined together to accomplish a task; or they may form an integrated development environment (IDE), which combines much or all of the functionality of such self-contained tools. IDEs may do this by either invoking the relevant individual tools or by re-implementing their functionality in a new way. An IDE can make it easier to do specific tasks, such as searching in files in a particular project. Many programming language implementations provide the option of using both individual tools or an IDE.



Users often see things differently from programmers. People who use modern general purpose computers (as opposed to embedded systems, analog computers and supercomputers) usually see three layers of software performing a variety of tasks: platform, application, and user software.


Computer software has to be "loaded" into the computer's storage (such as the hard drive or memory). Once the software has loaded, the computer is able to execute the software. This involves passing instructions from the application software, through the system software, to the hardware which ultimately receives the instruction as machine code. Each instruction causes the computer to carry out an operation—moving data, carrying out a computation, or altering the control flow of instructions.

Data movement is typically from one place in memory to another. Sometimes it involves moving data between memory and registers which enable high-speed data access in the CPU. Moving data, especially large amounts of it, can be costly. So, this is sometimes avoided by using "pointers" to data instead. Computations include simple operations such as incrementing the value of a variable data element. More complex computations may involve many operations and data elements together.

Quality and reliability

Software quality is very important, especially for commercial and system software like Microsoft Office, Microsoft Windows and Linux. If software is faulty (buggy), it can delete a person's work, crash the computer and do other unexpected things. Faults and errors are called "bugs" which are often discovered during alpha and beta testing. Software is often also a victim to what is known as software aging, the progressive performance degradation resulting from a combination of unseen bugs.

Many bugs are discovered and eliminated (debugged) through software testing. However, software testing rarely—if ever—eliminates every bug; some programmers say that "every program has at least one more bug" (Lubarsky's Law). [13] In the waterfall method of software development, separate testing teams are typically employed, but in newer approaches, collectively termed agile software development, developers often do all their own testing, and demonstrate the software to users/clients regularly to obtain feedback. Software can be tested through unit testing, regression testing and other methods, which are done manually, or most commonly, automatically, since the amount of code to be tested can be quite large. For instance, NASA has extremely rigorous software testing procedures for many operating systems and communication functions. Many NASA-based operations interact and identify each other through command programs. This enables many people who work at NASA to check and evaluate functional systems overall. Programs containing command software enable hardware engineering and system operations to function much easier together.


The software's license gives the user the right to use the software in the licensed environment, and in the case of free software licenses, also grants other rights such as the right to make copies.

Proprietary software can be divided into two types:

Open-source software, on the other hand, comes with a free software license, granting the recipient the rights to modify and redistribute the software.


Software patents, like other types of patents, are theoretically supposed to give an inventor an exclusive, time-limited license for a detailed idea (e.g. an algorithm) on how to implement a piece of software, or a component of a piece of software. Ideas for useful things that software could do, and user requirements, are not supposed to be patentable, and concrete implementations (i.e. the actual software packages implementing the patent) are not supposed to be patentable either—the latter are already covered by copyright, generally automatically. So software patents are supposed to cover the middle area, between requirements and concrete implementation. In some countries, a requirement for the claimed invention to have an effect on the physical world may also be part of the requirements for a software patent to be held valid—although since all useful software has effects on the physical world, this requirement may be open to debate. Meanwhile, American copyright law was applied to various aspects of the writing of the software code. [14]

Software patents are controversial in the software industry with many people holding different views about them. One of the sources of controversy is that the aforementioned split between initial ideas and patent does not seem to be honored in practice by patent lawyers—for example the patent for Aspect-Oriented Programming (AOP), which purported to claim rights over any programming tool implementing the idea of AOP, howsoever implemented. Another source of controversy is the effect on innovation, with many distinguished experts and companies arguing that software is such a fast-moving field that software patents merely create vast additional litigation costs and risks, and actually retard innovation. In the case of debates about software patents outside the United States, the argument has been made that large American corporations and patent lawyers are likely to be the primary beneficiaries of allowing or continue to allow software patents.

Design and implementation

Design and implementation of software varies depending on the complexity of the software. For instance, the design and creation of Microsoft Word took much more time than designing and developing Microsoft Notepad because the latter has much more basic functionality.

Software is usually designed and created (aka coded/written/programmed) in integrated development environments (IDE) like Eclipse, IntelliJ and Microsoft Visual Studio that can simplify the process and compile the software (if applicable). As noted in a different section, software is usually created on top of existing software and the application programming interface (API) that the underlying software provides like GTK+, JavaBeans or Swing. Libraries (APIs) can be categorized by their purpose. For instance, the Spring Framework is used for implementing enterprise applications, the Windows Forms library is used for designing graphical user interface (GUI) applications like Microsoft Word, and Windows Communication Foundation is used for designing web services. When a program is designed, it relies upon the API. For instance, a Microsoft Windows desktop application might call API functions in the .NET Windows Forms library like Form1.Close() and Form1.Show() [15] to close or open the application. Without these APIs, the programmer needs to write these functionalities entirely themselves. Companies like Oracle and Microsoft provide their own APIs so that many applications are written using their software libraries that usually have numerous APIs in them.

Data structures such as hash tables, arrays, and binary trees, and algorithms such as quicksort, can be useful for creating software.

Computer software has special economic characteristics that make its design, creation, and distribution different from most other economic goods.[ specify ] [16] [17]

A person who creates software is called a programmer, software engineer or software developer, terms that all have a similar meaning. More informal terms for programmer also exist such as "coder" and "hacker" although use of the latter word may cause confusion, because it is more often used to mean someone who illegally breaks into computer systems.

Industry and organizations

A great variety of software companies and programmers in the world comprise a software industry. Software can be quite a profitable industry: Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft was the richest person in the world in 2009, largely due to his ownership of a significant number of shares in Microsoft, the company responsible for Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office software products - both market leaders in their respective product categories.

Non-profit software organizations include the Free Software Foundation, GNU Project and the Mozilla Foundation. Software standard organizations like the W3C, IETF develop recommended software standards such as XML, HTTP and HTML, so that software can interoperate through these standards.

Other well-known large software companies include Google, IBM, TCS, Infosys, Wipro, HCL Technologies, Oracle, Novell, SAP, Symantec, Adobe Systems, Sidetrade and Corel, while small companies often provide innovation.

See also

Related Research Articles

Computer programming is the process of designing and building an executable computer program to accomplish a specific computing result. Programming involves tasks such as: analysis, generating algorithms, profiling algorithms' accuracy and resource consumption, and the implementation of algorithms in a chosen programming language. The source code of a program is written in one or more languages that are intelligible to programmers, rather than machine code, which is directly executed by the central processing unit. The purpose of programming is to find a sequence of instructions that will automate the performance of a task on a computer, often for solving a given problem. Proficient programming thus often requires expertise in several different subjects, including knowledge of the application domain, specialized algorithms, and formal logic.

Computer program Instructions to be executed by a computer

A computer program is a collection of instructions that can be executed by a computer to perform a specific task.

In computing, a device driver is a computer program that operates or controls a particular type of device that is attached to a computer. A driver provides a software interface to hardware devices, enabling operating systems and other computer programs to access hardware functions without needing to know precise details about the hardware being used.

Operating system Software that manages computer hardware resources

An operating system (OS) is system software that manages computer hardware, software resources, and provides common services for computer programs.

Embedded system computer system with a dedicated function within a larger mechanical or electrical system

An embedded system is a computer system—a combination of a computer processor, computer memory, and input/output peripheral devices—that has a dedicated function within a larger mechanical or electrical system. It is embedded as part of a complete device often including electrical or electronic hardware and mechanical parts. Because an embedded system typically controls physical operations of the machine that it is embedded within, it often has real-time computing constraints. Embedded systems control many devices in common use today. Ninety-eight percent of all microprocessors manufactured are used in embedded systems.

Keystroke logging, often referred to as keylogging or keyboard capturing, is the action of recording (logging) the keys struck on a keyboard, typically covertly, so that person using the keyboard is unaware that their actions are being monitored. Data can then be retrieved by the person operating the logging program. A keystroke recorder or keylogger can be either software or hardware.

In computing, cross-platform software is computer software that is implemented on multiple computing platforms. Cross-platform software may be divided into two types; one requires individual building or compilation for each platform that it supports, and the other one can be directly run on any platform without special preparation, e.g., software written in an interpreted language or pre-compiled portable bytecode for which the interpreters or run-time packages are common or standard components of all platforms.

The Windows API, informally WinAPI, is Microsoft's core set of application programming interfaces (APIs) available in the Microsoft Windows operating systems. The name Windows API collectively refers to several different platform implementations that are often referred to by their own names ; see the versions section. Almost all Windows programs interact with the Windows API. On the Windows NT line of operating systems, a small number use the Native API.

System call in computer science, the mechanism used by an application program to request service from the operating system or another application program

In computing, a system call is the programmatic way in which a computer program requests a service from the kernel of the operating system on which it is executed. This may include hardware-related services, creation and execution of new processes, and communication with integral kernel services such as process scheduling. System calls provide an essential interface between a process and the operating system.

An application server is a server that hosts applications.

System software is software designed to provide a platform for other software. Examples of system software include operating systems like macOS, GNU/Linux and Microsoft Windows, computational science software, game engines, industrial automation, and software as a service applications.

Web application Application that uses a web browser as a client

A web application is an application software that runs on a web server, unlike computer-based software programs that are stored locally on the Operating System (OS) of the device. Web applications are accessed by the user through a web browser with an active internet connection. These applications are programmed using a client–server modeled structure—the user ("client") is provided services through an off-site server that is hosted by a third-party. Examples of commonly-used, web applications, include: web-mail, online retail sales, online banking, and online auctions.

Hardware abstractions are sets of routines in software that provide programs with access to hardware resources through programming interfaces. The programming interface allows all devices in a particular class C of hardware devices to be accessed through identical interfaces even though C may contain different subclasses of devices that each provide a different hardware interface.

Application software computer software designed to perform a group of coordinated functions, tasks, or activities for the benefit of the user

Application software is a program or group of programs designed for end users. Examples of an application include a word processor, a spreadsheet, an accounting application, a web browser, an email client, a media player, a file viewer, simulators, a console game or a photo editor. The collective noun application software refers to all applications collectively. This contrasts with system software, which is mainly involved with running the computer.

Direct3D and OpenGL are competing application programming interfaces (APIs) which can be used in applications to render 2D and 3D computer graphics. Hardware acceleration of this process has been commonplace since approximately 1999. As of 2005, graphics processing units (GPUs) almost always implement one version of both of these APIs. Examples include: DirectX 9 and OpenGL 2 circa 2004; DirectX 10 and OpenGL 3 circa 2008; and most recently, DirectX 11 and OpenGL 4 circa 2011. GPUs that support more recent versions of the standards are backward-compatible with applications that use the older standards; for example, one can run older DirectX 9 games on a more recent DirectX 11-certified GPU.

Protection ring layer of protection in computer systems

In computer science, hierarchical protection domains, often called protection rings, are mechanisms to protect data and functionality from faults and malicious behavior. This approach is diametrically opposite to that of capability-based security.

Portability in high-level computer programming is the usability of the same software in different environments. The prerequirement for portability is the generalized abstraction between the application logic and system interfaces. When software with the same functionality is produced for several computing platforms, portability is the key issue for development cost reduction.

Kernel (operating system) main component of most computer operating systems

The kernel is a computer program at the core of a computer's operating system with complete control over everything in the system. It is an integral part of any operating system. It is the "portion of the operating system code that is always resident in memory". It facilitates interactions between hardware and software components. On most systems, it is one of the first programs loaded on startup. It handles the rest of startup as well as input/output requests from software, translating them into data-processing instructions for the central processing unit. It handles memory and peripherals like keyboards, monitors, printers, and speakers.

overview of and topical guide to software:

In computer science, bare machine refers to a computer executing instructions directly on logic hardware without an intervening operating system. Modern operating systems evolved through various stages, from elementary to the present day complex, highly sensitive systems incorporating many services. After the development of programmable computers but prior to the development of operating systems, sequential instructions were executed on the computer hardware directly using machine language without any system software layer. This approach is termed the "bare machine" precursor to modern operating systems. Today it is mostly applicable to embedded systems and firmware generally with time-critical latency requirements, while conventional programs are run by a runtime system overlaid on an operating system.


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