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.
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“In economics, hope and faith coexist with great scientific pretension and also a deep desire for respectability.”
—John Kenneth Galbraith (b. 1908)