You’ve likely heard the terms “firmware” and “software” thrown around — sometimes interchangeably. While there’s a dramatic overlap between firmware and software in modern technology, there are still some differences between the two. Firmware is a type of low-level software often more closely linked to the functional hardware, while “software” as a term generally refers to things you can interact with, like an operating system or application.
The difference between the two is much less relevant than it once was, but here are some ways to think about each.
What is firmware?
Firmware originally described the low-level software necessary for hardware to work with software — the intermediary between the actual microprocessors and the operating system and software a user runs. It’s a type of software that lives on hardware and contains specific instruction sets that allow the hardware to interface with higher-level software like the operating system. All hardware requires some form of firmware to work. Firmware often lacks a user interface that can be accessed from higher-level software, like the operating system.
Firmware is like the engine in a car: You can’t see it while you’re driving and you don’t interact with it directly, but you know it’s crucially important. In the same way, you don’t really “use” firmware, but it’s fundamental to basically every device on the planet! Firmware doesn’t have to be “firm” – it can and often is updated to add new features or fix bugs. And like an engine, its complexity and updateability can vary wildly depending on the use case.
Examples of firmware
The type of firmware most people are likely to know about is the BIOS found on a computer’s motherboard. Since it’s embedded on the motherboard’s ROM (read-only memory), it’s typically inaccessible using the operating system and requires a system reboot for direct access to that ROM.
The BIOS is one of the few forms of firmware that has a graphical interface that allows for modifications to the way the hardware functions. Most of the time the firmware merely contains a dedicated instruction set and other code for the hardware, so you can’t see it or use it.
What is software? Is firmware a type of software?
Software is any program (or group of programs) run by a computer. The apps on your smartphone or tablet are software, but so is the Windows operating system on your laptop. In fact, firmware is really just another type of software, just one that has a more specific role (enabling hardware functions). While it may seem odd, nothing about firmware fundamentally differs from software – it is a program run by a computer.
Why differentiate between software and firmware at all? In most situations, there isn’t a reason. Firmware as a term may be used when discussing device drivers or IoT products, where the “firmware” is essentially every piece of code on the device – as these products often lack user-facing operating systems. Consider an Amazon Echo speaker or a simple Bluetooth step tracker.
In general, though, differentiating between software and firmware is unnecessary.
Examples of software
The browser you’re reading the post in right now? That’s software. So is the operating system the browser is installed onto. Microsoft Word, Photoshop, Android, Windows, and Google Chrome as all examples of software. If it’s installed on your computer right now, it’s software.
Easy enough, right?
Firmware vs operating system: are they the same thing?
After reading more closely about firmware, it might be easy to confuse its role with that of the operating system. To be clear: they are not the same thing. The operating system, like Windows or Android, is the software layer that sits just above firmware. It works closely with the firmware to ensure the hardware functions and is the primary interface between the user and applications.
The operating system is the main management engine for the system, including all applications on the computer, drivers, memory and process management, and peripheral integration (like keyboards and mice).
The bottom line: firmware and software are almost the same thing
While the term “firmware” still holds a very specific meaning, there’s very little reason to use it outside specific technical contexts. The lines between firmware and software have blurred over time, especially as firmware has become more updatable. For all but the most specific forms of communication, just using “software” is usually fine.
Firmware is a type of software that lives on hardware and contains instruction sets that allow the hardware to interface with the operating system.
Software is any program or group of programs run by a computer.
The operating system is the software layer that sits just above firmware. It works closely with the firmware to ensure the hardware functions and is the primary interface between the user and applications.
The type of firmware most people are probably familiar with is the BIOS on a computer’s motherboard. It’s one of the few forms of firmware that has a graphical user interface that allows for modifications to the way hardware functions.
The operating system, web browser, Microsoft Word, Photoshop, Android, and Windows are all common types of software. If it runs on your computer, it’s software.
Firmware is a type of software that lives in hardware. Software is any program or group of programs run by a computer. Hardware is the physical device (including the processors, RAM, monitor, and more) that runs firmware and software.