What is software: A program, system, or application?

Published on 2021-10-22 by Tessa Anaya

What is software? The term leads to a lot of confusion. Is it a program, an application, or a system? Many of the terms used to refer to software are used interchangeably; no wonder there’s uncertainty. At Capterra, we navigate between the software types and uses on a daily basis. In this article, we’ll use our software knowledge to help you understand what software is, the types of software, and their uses.

what is software, uses, types and definition

What is software?

Software is a collective term for:

  • computer programs
  • applications
  • operating systems

It is a set of data-containing programs that perform operations and tasks. Software communicates with a computer and instructs it to carry out a specific task or group of tasks. Software is intangible, meaning it has no physical components. However, it can be used in tandem with devices, making them carry out the tasks they are designed to. For example, a Bluetooth speaker can be connected to your computer, but it is the supporting software that commands the speaker to play.

In addition, software allows users to communicate with these devices as well. Users can give commands to devices by using software, like a puppet master making a puppet dance. In this example, software would be the strings of the puppets, directing their actions.

Computers, smartphones, and tablets use software, but so do a large number of consumer products. When software is integrated into a device or appliance, like in a calculator, television, car, or washing machine, it is called embedded software.

Hardware is the physical components of the computer, such as the monitor, keyboard, or mouse, as well as the non-visible elements such as the motherboard and hard disk.

In contrast, software is the digital portion of technology that relies on hardware. Neither can be used without the other, and software is needed to make the programs operate. For example, your physical computer screen will show you the photo you are editing, but it is the photo editing software that allows you to perform the edit.

What are the types of software?

Although there are many types of software, it can more or less be divided into two categories: system software and application software. System software controls the basic functionality of a device or computer. Application software consists of user-downloaded programs that are installed on the computer. System software handles vital operational tasks, while application software handles more niche, specialized tasks.

the main types of software are shown in an infographic and separated into categories

System software

System software is used to manage a computer and its operating system. This software is what gets the computer to run. System software contains three smaller divisions of software types: system management software, system support software, and programming software.

A system management program is the operating system of a computer, often abbreviated as OS. Well-known operating systems include Microsoft Windows, Linux Mint, and Mac OS.

Operating systems are in charge of interfacing with and connecting to hardware components. It is also responsible for file management and the oversight and control of the programs currently running. Application programs interact closely with the operating system, and therefore must be tailored to it.

System support software supports the operation and management of the operating system and other downloaded applications. These tools aim to facilitate a smooth interaction between the computer and the software being used. This includes database management programs and software to store, organize, and access information from any database.

Programming software is the program used to develop the software itself, for custom software as well as standard software. These tools are used by software developers and programmers to revise, edit and detect errors in the code using programming languages such as Python, Java, C++, or others.

Application software

Application software is software designed to help users perform tasks on their computers, tablets, and smartphones. Application software carries out a wide variety of functions for personal, office, and business uses.

Private software is intended for private use by consumers. Examples include games, gaming, shopping apps, and other individual-focused services.

Office software includes the basic programs that most offices use. The most common examples of office software are word processing programs, calculation programs such as Excel, email operators such as Outlook, and presentation software.

Business software consists of programs that companies use to run their enterprise and its operations. Business software looks different in every industry, but some common examples include project management tools, customer relationship management (CRM) programs, and accounting systems.

How is software created?

With a clear understanding of what software is and the most common types, the question of how software gets made may arise. The action of creating a software is called programming, which is usually carried out by a software developer.

Programming languages must be used to develop software. With these languages, software developers write code that can later be converted into a program. This code is what tells the computer to carry out certain tasks.

Application development software is used to assist creators develop custom solutions for an organization’s technology and informational structure. Typically, application development software is geared to work with a variety of common programming languages and platforms.

Open source and closed source software

When speaking about software development, two main types exist: open source software and closed source. The difference is simple; open source software uses a free source code which can be publicly accessed and adapted to a developer’s needs. Open source software can be tailored to the specific needs of an organization, providing solutions to companies who may have trouble finding a one-size-fits-all solution.

Closed source software is far less customizable. The code behind this software is private, which means no changes can be made to it because it is owned by the license holder. Closed source software offers standard programs with standard functionalities.

For companies who wish to develop customized solutions, no-code and low-code software may be viable options. Low-code software requires only a minimal use of code to create and develop applications. No-code software allows software to be built without the need for code at all, making software development accessible to those without coding skills.

software development explained for businesses
Using a drag-and-drop method, businesses can develop custom applications without writing a line of code. (Source)

What is Software as a Service (SaaS)?

When software comes with a price tag, there are two ways of paying for it. Either you can buy the license for a product or you can ‘rent’ the software. When renting a software, it is called Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). In this model, the software is not owned but offered as an online service. Providers of SaaS may operate under a monthly payment model or a pay-per-use model, and they are responsible for the maintenance and management of the software.

In addition to SaaS, there is also Cloud Computing. Where SaaS focuses specifically on making software available, Cloud Computing is concerned not only with software but also with making infrastructure and hardware available online.

Payment models differ depending on the software you choose, and you will either have to pay a one-time fee or a recurring payment. Free software does exist and can carry out some basic business functions, but usually has limited functionality. For example, free eCommerce software can be a huge advantage to new web shop owners. As the shop — and its responsibilities — grow, some software providers offer a paid version which will offer more features at a cost.

Want to know more? Explore our directory with all kinds of software.

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Content Analyst at Capterra, dedicated to helping SMBs access the insights that elevate their organizations. B.A. in English, University of Michigan. Based in Barcelona.

Content Analyst at Capterra, dedicated to helping SMBs access the insights that elevate their organizations. B.A. in English, University of Michigan. Based in Barcelona.