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You probably think you already know what software is. It's that CD a friend gives you with the latest game to run on your computer. Were life only so simple (and copyright laws so liberal) that you could live happily ever after with such beliefs.

Life, alas, is not so simple, and neither is software. The disc isn't software. Software is nothing you can hold in your hand. Rather, it's the hardware that stores the software. The real software is made from the same stuff as dreams, as evanescent as an inspiration, as elusive as the meaning of the current copyright laws. Software is nothing but a set of ideas, ideas that (one hopes) express a way to do something. Those ideas are written in a code the same way our words and sentences code our thoughts. The codes take the form of symbols, which may appear on paper or be represented as pulses in electrical circuits. No matter. The code is only the representation of the ideas, and the ideas are really the software.

So much for the philosophy of software. Not many people think about software that way. Most approach it more practically. Software is something your computer needs. You might say your computer needs software to run its programs, but that's like saying you need food to eat dinner. The food is dinner. The software is the programs.

Ouch. No matter how bad that sounds, that's the way most people think. As a practical matter, they're getting close to the truth, but software is more than programs even at a practical level. Software is more than the box you buy and little silver disc that comes inside it. Software is not a singular thing. It is an entire technology that embraces not only what you see when you run your computer but also a multitude of invisible happenings hiding beneath the surface. A modern computer runs several software programs simultaneously, even when you think you're using just one, or even when you don't think anything is running at all. These programs operate at different levels, each one taking care of its own specific job, invisibly linking to the others to give you the illusion you're working with a single, smooth-running machine.

What shows on your monitor is only the most obvious of all this software—the applications, the programs such as Microsoft Office and Grand Theft Auto 3 that you actually buy and load onto your computer, the ones that boldly emblazon their names on your screen every time you launch them. But there's more. Related to applications are the utilities you use to keep your computer in top running order, protect yourself from disasters, and automate repetitive chores. Down deeper is the operating system, which links your applications and utilities together to the actual hardware of your computer. At or below the operating system level, you use programming languages to tell your computer what to do. You can write applications, utilities, or even your own operating system with the right programming language.


Software earns its name for what it is not. It is not hardware. Whatever is not hard is soft, and thus the derivation of the name. Hardware came first—simply because the hard reality of machines and tools existed long before anyone thought of computers or of the concept of programming. Hardware happily resides on page 551 of the 1965 dictionary I keep in my office—you know, nuts, bolts, and stuff like that. Software is nowhere to be found. (Why I keep a 1965 dictionary in my office is another matter entirely.)

Software comprises abstract ideas. In computers, the term embraces not only the application programs you buy and the other kinds of software listed earlier but also the information or data used by those programs.

Programs are the more useful parts of software because programs do the actual work. The program tells your computer what to do—how to act, how to use the data it has, how to react to your commands, how to be a computer at all. Data just slow things down.

Although important, a program is actually a simple thing. Broken down to its constituent parts, a computer program is nothing but a list of commands to tell your hardware what to do. Like a recipe, the program is a step-by-step procedure that, to the uninitiated, seems to be written in a secret code. In fact, the program is written in a code called the programming language, and the resultant list of instructions is usually called code by its programmers.

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