Computer software, or just software, is any set of machine-readable instructions (most often in the form of a computer program) that directs a computer's processor to perform specific operations. The term is used to contrast with computer hardware, the physical objects (processor and related devices) that carry out the instructions. Hardware and software require each other; neither has any value without the other.
Firmware is software that has been permanently stored in hardware (specifically in non-volatile memory). It thus has qualities of both software and hardware.
Software is a general term. It can refer to all computer instructions in general or to any specific set of computer instructions. It is inclusive of both machine instructions (the binary code that the processor understands) and source code (more human-understandable instructions that must be rendered into machine code by compilers or interpreters before being executed).
On most computer platforms, software can be grouped into a few broad categories:
- System software is the basic software needed for a computer to operate (most notably the operating system).
- Application software is all the software that uses the computer system to perform useful work beyond the operation of the computer itself.
- Embedded software resides as firmware within embedded systems, devices dedicated to a single use. In that context there is no clear distinction between the system and application software.
Software refers to one or more computer programs and data held in the storage of the computer. In other words, software is a set of programs, procedures, algorithms and its documentation concerned with the operation of a data processing system. Program software performs the function of the program it implements, either by directly providing instructions to the digital electronics or by serving as input to another piece of software. The term was coined to contrast to the term hardware (meaning physical devices). In contrast to hardware, software "cannot be touched". Software is also sometimes used in a more narrow sense, meaning application software only. Sometimes the term includes data that has not traditionally been associated with computers, such as film, tapes, and records.
Computer software is so called to distinguish it from computer hardware, which encompasses the physical interconnections and devices required to store and execute (or run) the software. At the lowest level, executable code consists of machine language instructions specific to an individual processor. A machine language consists of groups of binary values signifying processor instructions that change the state of the computer from its preceding state. Programs are an ordered sequence of instructions for changing the state of the computer in a particular sequence. It is usually written in high-level programming languages that are easier and more efficient for humans to use (closer to natural language) than machine language. High-level languages are compiled or interpreted into machine language object code. Software may also be written in an assembly language, essentially, a mnemonic representation of a machine language using a natural language alphabet. Assembly language must be assembled into object code via an assembler.
The first theory about software was proposed by Alan Turing in his 1935 essay Computable numbers with an application to the Entscheidungsproblem (decision problem). Colloquially, the term is often used to mean application software. In computer science and software engineering, software is all information processed by computer system, programs and data. The academic fields studying software are computer science and software engineering.
As more and more programs enter the realm of firmware, and the hardware itself becomes smaller, cheaper and faster as predicted by Moore's law, elements of computing first considered to be software, join the ranks of hardware. Most hardware companies today have more software programmers on the payroll than hardware designers, since software tools have automated many tasks of Printed circuit board engineers. Just like the Auto industry, the Software industry has grown from a few visionaries operating out of their garage with prototypes. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were the Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet of their times, who capitalized on ideas already commonly known before they started in the business. In the case of Software development, this moment is generally agreed to be the publication in the 1980s of the specifications for the IBM Personal Computer published by IBM employee Philip Don Estridge. Today his move would be seen as a type of crowd-sourcing. Computer hardware companies not only bundled their software, they also placed demands on the location of the hardware in a refrigerated space called a computer room.
Until that time, software was bundled with the hardware by Original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) such as Data General, Digital Equipment and IBM. When a customer bought a minicomputer, at that time the smallest computer on the market, the computer did not come with Pre-installed software, but needed to be installed by engineers employed by the OEM. Computer hardware companies not only bundled their software, they also placed demands on the location of the hardware in a refrigerated space called a computer room. Most companies had their software on the books for 0 dollars, unable to claim it as an asset (this is similar to financing of popular music in those days). When Data General introduced the Data General Nova, a company called Digidyne wanted to use its RDOS operating system on its own hardware clone. Data General refused to license their software (which was hard to do, since it was on the books as a free asset), and claimed their "bundling rights". The Supreme Court set a precedent called Digidyne v. Data General in 1985. The Supreme Court let a 9th circuit decision stand, and Data General was eventually forced into licensing the Operating System software because it was ruled that restricting the license to only DG hardware was an illegal tying arrangement. Unable to sustain the loss from lawyer's fees, Data General ended up being taken over by EMC Corporation. The Supreme Court decision made it possible to value software, and also purchase Software patents.
There are many successful companies today that sell only software products, though there are still many common software licensing problems due to the complexity of designs and poor documentation, leading to patent trolls.
With open software specifications and the possibility of software licensing, new opportunities arose for software tools that then became the de facto standard, such as DOS for operating systems, but also various proprietary word processing and spreadsheet programs. In a similar growth pattern, proprietary development methods became standard Software development methodology.