Skip to main content
Workforce LibreTexts

4.1.1: Overview of Purpose and Functions of Software

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    In the unit “Understanding the Computer System Unit,” our focus was on the physical/mechanical components of a computer. It is quite easy to see why these components are called hardware. But where did the term “software” come from? That is, why is software—the set of instructions that direct what the hardware does with the data stored on the hardware components—called soft?

    Though there is some confusion over who first used the term “software,” American mathematician John Tukey is generally credited with its coining. The first use in an engineering context is in an article published by Richard R. Carhart, who worked for the Rand Corporation (“John Tukey,” 2013). But his reference seems to apply more to personnel handling computer hardware than to computer instructions. Regardless of the original coining of the term, software refers to the instructions and data stored in, stored on, or utilized by the hardware components of a computer.

    In this module we will briefly examine the following topics:

    • The relationship between software and hardware: These two “wares” cannot perform their intended functions without each other. If you think of a car and all its physical pieces as hardware, then the software is the person who drives the car. For now, at least, it takes a person to drive the car to a desired destination. So it takes hardware to enable software to function, and it takes software to instruct the hardware how to manipulate the input to produce the desired output when one uses a computer.

    • The major categories of software and the purpose of each category: You are most likely familiar with the terms “application software” and “operating system.” Both of these are critical pieces that a user must consider when purchasing a computer or purchasing a software application to use on the computer. There is a third category of software called “firmware” that is also critical to the functions of both hardware and the other software running on a computer.


    1. John Tukey (2013, July 24). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

    4.1.1: Overview of Purpose and Functions of Software is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

    • Was this article helpful?