Hardware and software are essential elements of any system. Together, they create the vast array of physical tools that humans use to increase productivity and achieve organisational goals, along with the interfaces and processes necessary to make those tools functional. While we typically think of hardware and software in the context of computers, the terms can be applied to systems even at the most basic level. For example, in the process of smelting, we could consider the furnace the hardware and the knowledge and expertise required to interact with that furnace to smelt metals the ‘software’. In practice however, hardware and software are used primarily to refer to information technology - though as other tools become increasingly automated and interconnected electronically the terms are growing to incorporate the new capacities of our systems.
What is hardware?
Hardware refers to the various physical elements of a system. In IT systems this consists of devices which have the necessary components to receive data or commands and to do something with them. There are many examples of IT hardware which we interact with on a daily basis, such as:
Hardware can be used for inputting, storing, processing, controlling or outputting data and information. With the advent of automated assembly lines and 3D printers and with the growing sophistication of construction and production tools, hardware now extends to cover a huge range of physical tools which are used in many industries. Whereas we used to consider the output of a system to be things like sounds or information on a screen, the output of a computing system now can be a functional car.
What is software?
In the broadest terms, software is the collection of processes and instructions that enable a user to interact with hardware. The term software is often used interchangeably with ‘program’, to mean the systems which tell the hardware what to do and when to do it. Without software, hardware is basically useless.
In most systems there are two layers of software which allow the user to interact with the hardware in the way the way they want to - the application software and the operating system. The chain can be represented like this:
The user interacts with application software
The application software interfaces with the operating system
The operating system directs the hardware
Every program you run on your computer is a piece of application software, such as Microsoft Office, MYOB, Adobe Creative programs, Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and Skype. The uses of application software are nearly limitless, and as industries continue to innovate new ways for computers to interact with tools and the physical world the limits that do exist just keep getting smaller.
Your operating system, on the other hand, provides the platform for your application software to run and the framework for you to interact with them in. The most popular options come from Microsoft and Apple, though there are alternatives. The operating system not only provides a basic graphical user interface for the computer, so that you can interact meaningfully with the system, it also provides the background processes to allow every physical element of the computer to function.