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
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
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
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
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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
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