The Programs that Make Your Computer Go
Written on September 3, 1996 by Robert & Karen Vanderzweerde
Appeared in Greenmaster Magazine on October/November 1996
In our last column, we discussed the various hardware components of your
computer system. The term "hardware" is used to describe the physical
parts of the computer -- the things you can touch and see, although you may have to open
the computer to see them all.
While hardware is interesting, it isn't much use by itself. The
truly amazing part of your computer system is the software, and it is software that gives
your computer the power to perform useful tasks for you -- and you can't even see it!
There are two categories of software -- the operating system and your
The operating system is the unsung hero of the software world.
Operating systems link the various devices of your computer and your application software,
and make the computer do what it should. The operating system knows where to find
the keyboard, printer, disc drive and screen, and controls the messages that need to flow
between them. Without the operating system to manage things, nothing would happen
when you try to use your computer. The abilities of the operating system limit the
abilities of the application software.
You must have an operating system for your computer to be useful. If
you have a MacIntosh computer, then you will have Apple's operating system pre-loaded onto
your computer. If you have a PC, then you have several choices of operating system,
and which one you select will determine what type of application software you can run.
The original operating system for PC's was called MS-DOS (often just
called DOS). Early versions of DOS required the user to understand basic DOS
commands. Many early PC users had experience with large computer systems or were
willing to learn the necessary instructions. As PC's grew in popularity, users started to
demand that the operating system become less technical and more "user-friendly."
WINDOWS was developed as an interface between the application software and the
WINDOWS still uses MS-DOS as the operating system; its role is to provide
a simplified method for the user to tell DOS what it needs to do. By using a
graphical interface and a mouse, WINDOWS made the PC user's life easier.
WINDOWS 95, the latest operating system product, replaces the
MS-DOS/WINDOWS combination. It is a new operating system with the WINDOWS interface
built right in. New features and technical improvements make it possible for new
application software development by using 32-bit code (older systems used 16-bit code).
The new code will let larger programs run better and faster, when they are
developed or re-developed in 32-bit code, so you will see both regular and WINDOWS-95
versions of popular software. WINDOWS 95 also has the ability to help you install
new peripheral devices if they are "plug and play" compatible, and to let you
run several programs at once.
While most of the news lately has been about WINDOWS 95 and its related
products, there are also other operating systems available for PC's. A product from
IBM, called O/S2 (also called WARP), was developed before WINDOWS and was once seen as the
replacement for DOS. While there are many O/S2 users, it never gained the popularity
that WINDOWS has, even though many programmers believe it was the better product.
You may also hear of UNIX based systems.
Since WINDOWS and WINDOWS 95 have a large share of the market, almost all
new application software is written to work on these systems. If you choose an
alternative operating system, your software choices will be limited, and you should have a
compelling reason for such a choice.
If you need to choose between WINDOWS and WINDOWS 95, the decision can be
hard. Because WINDOWS 95 is a new product, it is not "stable" (there are
still some problems to be worked out). I have been using WINDOWS 95 on my laptop
computer for about 6 months, and have had 3 unexplained "crashes". I like
the new features -- it was very easy to install my new fax/modem card, with the "plug
and play" capability. If you are a new user, WINDOWS 95 is a little easier to
use, but you may find the unexplained crashes hard to deal with. If you use WINDOWS
or WINDOWS 95 at work, then you will probably find it easier to keep your system at home
consistent with what you use at work.
You also need to remember that software is usually "backward
compatible" but not "forward compatible". Programs written to run on
the new WINDOWS 95 systems (32 bit) will not run on old WINDOWS or DOS (16 bit) -- you
cannot squeeze 32 bits down to 16 bits. You can, however, run old programs (16 bit)
on WINDOWS 95 (32 bit) -- you can squeeze 16 bits into 32 bits.
Application software are the programs that do useful things for computer
users, such as word processing packages, spreadsheets, presentation software, data bases,
electronic mail and schedulers, personal information systems, accounting software,
communication and fax software, and games.
When you purchase software, you must make sure that your hardware and
operating system are compatible with the software. The system requirements are
usually clearly printed on the box the software comes in. For example, it will not
do you any good to purchase software that requires 16 megabytes of memory if you only have
4 megabytes. You must also have enough free space on your hard drive to store the
Software will come ready for you to install on your computer either from a
series of diskettes or from a compact disk (CD). Don't buy the CD version if you
don't have a CD player attached to your computer. Follow the instructions supplied
with the software. You should also send in your registration card that comes with
your software. This proves that you are a registered owner of the software, and you
will then get information about updates, new products, user groups, and newsletters from
Many of the popular software products are sold bundled together as a
"suite." A suite usually includes word processing , spreadsheets, and
presentation packages. There is also a related data base product that is part of a
more expensive suite. For example, the Microsoft Office suite includes Word (word
processing), Excel (spreadsheet), and PowerPoint (presentation package). The
Microsoft Office Professional suite adds Access (database). There are similar suites
from other vendors, including Corel Office (owned by Corel and based on WordPerfect) and
SmartSuite (owned by IBM and based on Lotus 1-2-3).
The advantage to buying software suites are:
cost savings over purchasing each component individually
reduced learning time, as programs have similar commands and appearances
easy importing and exporting (passing information from one program to
There are so many interesting programs available that you can easily spend
a lot of money buying software for your computer. Before you invest, see if you can
try the program for 30 days, or have a friend who has it show you how it works. It
can be tempting to borrow software diskettes from a friend or from your office and install
it on your computer without buying the software for yourself. This is fraud, and a
violation of the license under which the original license was sold.
It is estimated that "bootlegged" software costs the software industry millions
of dollars each year. Software producers have formed the Software Audit Bureau, and
are actively prosecuting companies and individuals who have stolen software. Don't
be one of them!