Pell Center

The Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina is a multidisciplinary research center focused at the intersection of politics, policies and ideas.

What is hardware and software?

Almost forty percent of the world’s population uses the Internet in some capacity. The rapid influx of technology has not given slow adopters and even laymen time to become acquainted with the jargon surrounding it. For the unfamiliar it is taxing to see this technological flux as a necessity, especially when even as little as thirty years ago much of what we use today did not even exist. Weekly What Is attempts to break down this jargon until every day terms.

If software were a person, it would not be eligible for Social Security. To get full benefits of the US retirement program software will have to wait another five years. The term was first coined in 1953 by Paul Niquette, but took another few years to catch on. Software is a young gun in the terminology world and unlike clouds or cookies, it has not been re-purposed. However it is a sibling, only half the equation, something you will never see without its older brother, hardware. To explain one without the other would be doing a disservice to both. Every part of a functioning computer fits into the category of hardware or software. First we have to understand the foundation, hardware, then the director, software. Finally, we can see how they both work together.

Hardware is the foundation of your computer. Every component part, the physical aspects of the computer, is hardware. When you use a computer, you interact with it through input/output devices. A fancy name for parts that will send information to the computer, or put out information sent from the computer (Both are considered computer hardware.) Input devices, such as mice and keyboards and output devices like monitors and speakers, are the most easily recognizable pieces of computer hardware. Other examples include Central Processing Units (CPU), motherboards, random access memory (RAM) Hard disk drives and any other chips or cards. When you build a computer you cannot simply plug hardware together and form a working computer. Hardware requires direction in order to function, which is the purpose of software.

Software is a set of instructions meant to direct hardware. There are within the category of software, two sub-categories under which all types of software fall, system and application. System software handles the basic workings of a computer. Your operating system is the most important piece of system software on your computer; it blends together hardware and software to create the environment you use. The difference between application software and system software is not such an easy one to see. Application software allows the user to do tasks on the computer. Making a text document (Microsoft word), recording a song (Garage Band), browsing the web (Google Chrome) and editing a picture (Photoshop) are all functions of application software. While both are types of software, application software must first go through the system software to get results from the hardware.

Now we have a process involving four parts the hardware, the system software, the application software and the user. When we use a computer, we are primarily using application software, which then communicates with the system software and the system software then communicates with the hardware. This process is similar to a ladder. Imagine you are on your roof fixing a few broken shingles when you realize you forgot your hammer in the toolbox. You walk over to the ladder climb down, grab the hammer, climb back up and fix the shingle. This is how words go from your brain to the screen. When you go to type “Francis Quigley Pell Center Blogs” in to Google a few different things are happening. For the sake of this example, we will ignore the Internet aspects of what is going on and simply stick to the way those words go from your brain to the search bar. There is a reason why typing in “Francis Quigley Pell center blogs” appears in the search bar in just the manner you spelled it out on the keyboard. This happens because typing on a keyboard is an input. That input moves through the software to the hardware. After receiving the directions from the software the hardware creates an output, which then travels back up the chain, from the hardware to the, system software and back to the application software, creating the desired effect. Moving up and down the ladder is the same way that inputs and outputs move up and down the computer hierarchy, from the top (the user) to the ground (the hardware) and back.

The computer is a unification of three separate aspects working together to keep the machine working. Each of the three pieces can affect the performance of the computer. Installing new software on old hardware will make the software perform slower, just as installing old software on new hardware will not take full advantage of the hardware and may actually handicap the performance of the computer. The categories function dependently on one another.

Since we have gone through in detail, let’s quickly review. Hardware is the physical electrical parts of your computer; software is what directs those parts. Software comes in two types application and system. System is what controls the hardware and application is what you use. Every computer part can be broken down to either software or hardware. Software is like a pilot, and hardware like a plane. The plane can fly, but only if it has proper directions, just as the pilot can fly so long as he has a plane.

Weekly What is breaks down a new technology related word every Friday.

Special thanks to Keith Monteiro for his consulting work on this piece. 

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