CeePrompt! Computer Connection 

Originally published Monday, January 26, 1998

You and your computer can make beautiful music

The last column on the next generation operating system, Windows 98, sparked a great deal of interest among readers, but also brought to my attention the general confusion that exists when it comes to understanding the difference between system software and application software. Here's a sampling of some e-mail comments I received: "I don't think I'll upgrade since I've been using 6.1 and it works great for me!" "I just upgraded to 97 from 95, so what's so different in 98?"

Both these readers were referring to word processing software, WordPerfect and Word respectively, and confused their operating system software with their business application software. Perhaps a review of the computer system, "The Basics 101", is in order to clarify the primary computer system components and provide a greater understanding of how this amazing machine makes beautiful music.

What we commonly refer to, as "the computer" is actually a system comprised of many components. From a purist's perspective, the "computer" is only one element of the system that solves, or "computes" the complex mathematical equations that comprise commands or instructions.

A computer system is like a fine orchestra that breaks down into four basic elements: hardware, software, information (data) and people. Hardware comprises the tangible parts of your system and is categorized as either input, output, processing or storage hardware. Think of computer hardware as the musical instruments in the philharmonic.

The mouse and keyboard are examples of input hardware that are used to enter data into your computer system. The printer and monitor are output devices that display your work and final product. Input and output devices such as scanners, printers and keyboards are collectively referred to as peripheral devices since they reside outside the core computer unit and connect to the back of the unit via ports or slots.

Storage hardware such as hard disks, floppy disks, CD-ROMs and tape drives are used to house the programs and data that reside on your system. Processing hardware is composed of integrated circuitry, or chips, that are often called the brains of the computer system. These chips execute millions of complex instructions simultaneously in only nanoseconds.

Software, on the other hand, is much less tangible than hardware, hence the name! Software is the musical compositions written for your listening pleasure. It is the instructions or programming that determine what your computer system can do. Without software, all the best computer hardware is useless. Software is divided into two general types: systems software and applications software.

Systems software dictates the fundamental operations of your computer from start up to shut down. Unix, DOS, OS/2, and Windows 95 are all operating systems and examples of systems software that rules over the entire assemblage.

Consider the operating system as you would the conductor who orchestrates all the musicians and instruments in concert. The conductor can't make music on his own, but without him, the orchestra doesn't perform either.

In contrast, application software allows you the user to accomplish tasks using the computer. You can't "do" an operating system, but you can, however, "do" WordPerfect, Word, Excel, Quicken or America Online. These are all examples of application software and great "Works" you can perform on your computer system, like Beethoven's Fifth.

System software and application software are distinctly different. You only have one operating system platform, such as Windows 95, on your PC, but you may have hundreds of applications installed that you use daily. And while you can limp along without your word processor or database program, your computer won't even boot without an operating system, or system software in place.

Hardware drivers are another example of system software that tell each instrument how to behave in concert with the rest of your orchestra. Every peripheral device has it's own set of instructions, often provided by the manufacturer, so that it will cohabitant peacefully with the other system elements.

Data is the information that is processed by the computer. It is digitized and represented by tiny switches that are either off or on. Much like musical notes, data is measured in mathematically defined units called bits and bytes.

You, the user, are the last element in this symphonic system. Without you, it's just a machine that sits in the corner and does nothing. Whether novice, or expert, you're the musician! Mastering the computer takes as much time, patience and practice as learning a musical instrument. A good understanding of your basic computer system components is your first lesson.

Cathi Schuler owns a computer literacy training/consulting company, Cee Prompt! She is a co-author of computer textbooks and can be reached by e-mail at cschuler@uop.edu or cschuler@ceeprompt.com or by mail c/o The Record, P.O. Box 900, Stockton, CA 95201. She is on the Internet at: http://www.ceeprompt.com. Click here for past archived columns.
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