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What is Software? Types & Examples You Need to Know

By Tibor Moes / January 2023

What is Software? Types & Examples You Need to Know

What is Software?

People use software every day. Unless you’re not using technology in any way, using software is as much second nature to you as breathing. But just because you use something daily doesn’t mean you understand it.

Some software is designed to look simple and be easy to use. That doesn’t mean that peeling back its layers won’t reveal something incredibly complex.

Understanding software and its many types could help you figure out what you should or shouldn’t use. So, what is software?

Summary: In simple terms: Software is the part of the computer that you can’t touch. It’s the computer code. If a book is hardware, the writing in it is software. In more complex terms: Software is a set of instructions that dictate how a computer should behave or perform certain tasks. It is written in computer code of various degrees of complexity and comes in many forms, depending on how it was created and what it accomplishes.

Tip: Software can be used for good and bad. Don’t become a victim. Protect your devices against malicious software (malware) with antivirus software and safeguard your online privacy with a VPN.

Software Types

Computer software can be broken down into four categories based on its purpose and how users interact with it.

Application Software

Application software usually comes in the form of a software package designed to perform specific functions for either users or other software applications.

This type of app can be self-contained or a collection of independent programs that run an application for specific users.

Application software is arguably the most commonly used type and known among everyday users.

Application Software Examples

There are many familiar productivity programs in this category.

  • Spreadsheet software like Microsoft Excel and Google Sheets

  • Word processors like Microsoft Word

  • Multimedia software like Photoshop or mobile camera apps

  • Internet browsers like Chrome, Edge, Firefox, etc.

  • Database software with management and organizational attributes like FileMaker or MySQL

  • Email programs like Gmail

  • Video games

System Software

Programs classified as system software are used to run application software and hardware components featured in computers and mobile devices.

In essence, system software coordinates the various functions and tasks of hardware and other software components. Furthermore, it offers a necessary platform for other types of software to exist and run.

System software can be further broken into two categories: operating systems and firmware.

An operating system is a platform that enables computers’ hardware components to function and perform tasks. In addition, it gives users an interactive interface and allows application software to work.

Windows, macOS, and Linux are the most notable operating systems.

On the other hand, firmware is a type of system software that dictates how certain devices or components can interact with each other and operate. It’s also known as semi-permanent software.

Firmware doesn’t always depend on the end user for the installation. An excellent example of this is built-in BIOS firmware.

While completely upgradeable and modifiable, BIOS firmware comes pre-installed and is independent of the OS. Without BIOS firmware, a computer wouldn’t be able to boot as its components wouldn’t have a clue about how to interact.

Another type of vital system software is the boot system software that enables devices to load the operating system into the RAM and give users access to the OS interface.

Driver Software

Depending on who you ask, driver software sits in a category of its own. But due to how it functions, it can be considered a system software subtype.

The scope of driver software is to control and operate devices or peripherals that users connect to their computers and mobile devices. Without driver software, these devices might have limited functionality or be incapable of running.

In most cases, operating systems come with several built-in drivers. These are enough to enable using vital components like the mouse, keyboard, printer, integrated graphics card, CPU, monitors, speakers, etc.

However, some devices require third-party drivers to unlock their full potential and ensure smooth functionality. It’s also worth noting that some drivers differ between operating systems, and computers with multiple OS installed must have the OS-specific drivers to work properly.

Driver Software Examples

The most important drivers include the following:

  • Motherboard drivers

  • BIOS drivers

  • GPU or display drivers

  • CPU drivers

Programming Software

Application, system, and all other types of software are created using programming software. While this may confuse the everyday user, programming software is intended for developers, not end users.

Programmers who write code using various programming languages need programming software to write, test, develop, debug, and compile their creations.

You can think of programming software as translators for specific languages like C++, Java, or Python. This type of software takes the developer’s inputs, simplifies the code, and converts it into a machine language code that the computer can understand and use.

Programming Software Examples

There are several crucial programming software types of applications.

  • Compilers

  • Debuggers

  • Linkers

  • Malware

A compiler is a program that can translate human-written code into machine code that hardware components recognize.

Debuggers are programs that enable programmers to find and fix coding errors.

Linkers are applications that make the compiler outputs usable by combining them into executable files. This basically allows end users to use an app outside its programming software environment.

Malware is another type of programming software because it can change how other software or hardware components behave. Common malware examples include worms, viruses, ransomware, Trojans, etc.

How Application Software Works

Application software is directed at end users and other applications and can be used to perform very specific tasks. However, this type of software needs an operating system and various other supporting system software types to function.

Therefore, application software or desktop applications use computer memory to perform tasks and require storage space. But they’re not dependent on internet connectivity unless they need specific system software to work with an internet connection.

Web programs always need internet access because they aren’t reliant on system software and hardware. Users can use them by simply accessing the server hosting the web program from a compatible browser on their computers or mobile devices.

Contrary to most application software, like desktop-installed programs, web applications should be compatible with any operating system. That’s because whatever hardware and system software components the web programs need to function are on the host server.

How System Software Works

In contrast, system software acts as a bridge between hardware and application software components. It basically runs in the background and doesn’t require direct user interaction.

The system software makes sure the hardware components behave properly and allows users to interact with complex application software.

Main Differences Between System and Application Software

To better understand how these different types of software function, it’s essential to go over their main characteristics.

System software is generally written in a low-level machine code and interacts more closely with the hardware components. Additionally, the system software is bound by specific hardware criteria and manages processes and resources.

Furthermore, system software runs in the background at all times and rarely requires third-party installations.

Application software is installed by the user and only runs when the end user starts the program. Compared to system software, application software is written in more complex coding languages that need simplification.

Unlike system software, application software doesn’t directly interact with the hardware, although some apps require specific hardware or resources. Instead, it runs in the foreground and relies on system software to allocate the required resources and facilitate hardware-to-hardware-to-software interactions.

Another important distinction is that system software is mandatory for a system to function, while application software is always optional.

Computer Hardware vs. Computer Software

While many people have a basic understanding of computers to differentiate between hardware and software components, confusion and using the terms interchangeably are common.

Therefore, it’s essential to understand what hardware actually is and how it interacts with software.

Hardware includes every physical device or component in a computer, mobile device, or connected peripherals. It’s used to store and execute various software according to the instructions provided by said software.

This means that the basic function of the software is to instruct hardware components on how to behave, while hardware components are designed to perform tasks at a machine level.

Unlike their physical counterparts, computer software programs or logical programs aren’t susceptible to wear or total failure. The software can be everlasting, albeit many programs become obsolete, their support gets discontinued, or they go out of style and use.

What Is Software Design and Implementation?

Before any type of software makes its way into a system, someone has to design it. This means it goes through the software development lifecycle (SDLC) or a framework of multiple design stages and tasks.

Like any other product or service, software design starts with planning based on the goal of that specific software. This could be as simple as identifying the needs of the end users, the support requirements of other applications, or the needs of certain computer hardware.

The implementation step accounts for the bulk of the development work and testing. This is where coders use programming languages to create the program.

Another stage is all about maintenance. Although software can be everlasting, it’s still prone to systematic failure and at risk of becoming outperformed by other programs. Thus, it needs consistent maintenance to fix errors, make improvements, etc.

Software Design Types

Each type of software design is aimed at transposing specific end-user requirements into a format that computer programmers can understand and use to work on their coding and implementation. While design type is an iterative process, there are three distinct categories of software design.

  • Architectural

  • High-level

  • Detailed

An architectural design is used to identify the system’s structure, main components, and how all elements interact with each other.

High-level design is a secondary design layer and focuses more on how the system’s components can work together in various modules supported by specific software stacks. In essence, this design layer instructs the optimum data flow relationships between system modules and functions.

Detailed design is considered the third layer and is about applying the finishing implementation touches for a specific architecture on which the software must run.

Software Deployment

Although all computer programs are either application or system software in one form or another, it’s important to understand that software solutions can be deployed in many ways.

The most prevalent deployment methods are software as a service or SaaS and on-premise.

SaaS relies on cloud computing and enables the delivery of many software computing services via the internet. This means that end users don’t have to install applications on their devices or keep up with potentially expensive hardware requirements to use their favorite programs.

Cloud computing services often include storage, networking, analytics, business intelligence services, etc. Individuals and corporate users can benefit from SaaS and access complex software with all of its functions and update paths by simply connecting to the internet and buying that service from a SaaS provider.

On-premise software is quite the opposite. It may or may not need an internet connection to work, but it must definitely be installed on local hardware like personal laptops, mobile devices, company servers, etc.

Using on-premise software has advantages, too, despite the growing trend of switching to SaaS, even at an enterprise level. On-premise software gives total control to the end-user or a company’s own IT staff. Therefore, access is easier to restrict, and resource configurations can be easily customized to fit the user’s needs.

However, access to SaaS is usually obtained through a subscription, where users only pay for the number of resources used. Therefore, businesses can reduce their overall spending even for vital business operations.

Organizations don’t have to invest as much in hardware components, storage, or maintenance and can run resource-hungry software without paying for expensive systems.

The cost of a full, in-house system adds up when also factoring in power consumption, short component lifespans, the need for backups, needing experienced IT specialists, etc.

Additionally, the scaling is virtually limitless when switching to cloud computing.

How to Determine Software Quality

The average user tests a program or application and determines its quality based on its performance. But an exceptional piece of software can run poorly on a computer or device that lacks resources or doesn’t have the best system software.

Similarly, not all system software is created equal, and performances may differ depending on the system.

That’s why software quality measures more than performance and looks at multiple factors that determine its ability to meet functional and nonfunctional requirements.

This is achieved through software testing that identifies the scope of the software and how well it performs certain processing functions, calculations, data manipulation, etc.

Then, testers account for nonfunctional requirements like security, usability, recovery, portability, and other attributes.

Usually, there are 14 quality-determining factors for all types of software.

  • Accessibility

  • Compatibility

  • Efficiency

  • Functionality

  • Performance

  • Security

  • Maintainability

  • Installability

  • Portability

  • Reliability

  • Scalability

  • Usability

  • Localization

  • Testability

Software Types by Distribution Method

There is another way to categorize software not by what it does but rather by how it’s distributed. The two most common types are commercial and freeware.

Commercial software is any type of software you have to pay to use, whether it’s a lump sum payment or a subscription.

Freeware is free software like an internet browser, mobile apps, drivers, or even adware that enables you to use an app for free as long as you accept to view advertisements.

Shareware is a different type that has limited functionality for the end user. It contains trial versions of various apps, demos, etc.

Lastly, you have open-source software. Unlike commercial software, open-source software is free to use and can be modified by anyone. Many programming software applications and some operating systems are open-source and have large user communities constantly working on improving them.

A Part of Everyday Life

Software has been a part of most people’s lives since the late ’50s. The general public and average user perhaps didn’t realize it until every household and classroom received a computer. But software is used to run everything from mobile devices and personal laptops to server rooms, cars, medical devices, and everything in between.

And in the early 2000s, SaaS came onto the scene and forever changed the landscape of how people can access and use software via cloud computing.

Software pretty much runs everything that isn’t technology-driven, hence the importance of making it more accessible and better moving forward.



Frequently Asked Questions

Why is it called software?

The term software was coined to make a distinction between physical components and logical components. Hence, because hardware was coined first, software was used to describe the logical instructions that dictate how their physical counterparts should operate.

Who wrote the first software?

Tom Kilburn is widely recognized as the writer of the first functioning software in the summer of 1948. He wrote it for the University of Manchester’s Manchester Baby computer.

Why is software important?

Software enables computer components to interact, communicate with one another, and perform tasks. Without software, even the most high-end computer systems would be collections of useless components.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor is a Dutch engineer and entrepreneur. He has tested security software since 2014.

Over the years, he has tested most of the best antivirus software for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, as well as many VPN providers.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

This website is hosted on a Digital Ocean server via Cloudways and is built with DIVI on WordPress.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.

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