What Does Software Mean?

Software, in its most general sense, is a set of instructions or programs instructing a computer to do specific tasks.


Software is a generic term used to describe computer programs that run on PCs, mobile phones, tablets, or other smart devices.

Software is often used to describe all the functional aspects of a computer that do not refer to its physical components (hardware). Scripts, applications, programs and a set of instructions are all terms often used to describe software.

Everything that “runs” on a computer, from an operating system, to a diagnostic tool, video game, or app can be defined as software.

Techopedia Explains Software

The theory of software was first proposed by Alan Turing in 1935 in his essay: Computable numbers with an application to the Entscheidungs problem. However, the word software was coined by mathematician and statistician John Tukey, in a 1958 issue of American Mathematical Monthly in which he discussed electronic calculators' programs.

The Four Categories of Software

Programming software

Programming software is a set of tools to aid developers in writing programs. The various tools available are compilers, linkers, debuggers, interpreters and text editors.

System software

System software serves as a base for application software. System software includes device drivers, operating systems (OSs), compilers, disk formatters, text editors and utilities helping the computer to operate more efficiently.

It is also responsible for managing hardware components and providing basic non-task-specific functions. The system software is usually written in the C programming language.

Application software

Application software is intended to perform certain tasks. Examples of application software include office suites, gaming applications, database systems and educational software.

Application software can be a single program or a collection of small programs. This type of software is what consumers most typically think of as "software."

Malicious software (malware)

Malicious software is intentionally developed to damage computers and/or disrupt other software. Harm is often caused unbeknownst to users who inadvertently installed malware since this type of software usually acts in secret.

Examples of malware are:

  • Spyware
  • Computer viruses
  • Trojan horses
  • Worms
  • Adware

In a nutshell, without software, a computer won’t perform any function and will simply be a useless, inert machine. Different types of software also exist in direct mutual relations.

For example, an application software such as a word processing software cannot work unless an operating system runs it, and the OS cannot be developed unless a programming software was used in the first place.

Software needs to be installed before it can function, usually by copying it on a computer or smartphone drive from a physical support (CD, DVD, floppy disk, etc.) or by downloading it over the Internet.

When the user operating the computer doesn’t want the software anymore, it can be permanently removed by uninstalling it (although some malware may require other software, like an antivirus, to be removed).

Software can be purchased online or in shops, or come for free. Trial versions or shareware allow the users to test the software for free for a limited number of uses or a certain time, after which they can choose to buy it.

Freeware and open source software, instead, can be used without paying anything — the latter even providing the source code used to make the program so that anyone can modify or improve it.


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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.