System software and application software are two very different types of software. It can be confusing if you’ve never heard those terms used before, but I’d bet that you are already familiar with various system software and application software – you just don’t know what the terms mean.
In today’s article, I will explain what system software and application software are and what each one does. I will also give you some application software examples & system software examples – so you understand what each one is.
System software is a type of software that is designed to provide a platform for running and operating other software, namely application software. You need system software to run application software.
An example of system software would be the Windows Operating System. Using the system software – Windows – you can operate application software, such as Microsoft Word.
Every computer or machine has hardware, but that hardware is not enough to run applications like Microsoft Word. You need system software to run the hardware and operate applications on it.
In other words, your laptop’s hardware (the actual physical parts) is useless without system software – the Windows OS (Operating System). Think of the hardware as the body and system software as the mind or soul – it operates the body.
However, system software is not limited to operating systems like Windows, Mac, or Android. A game engine is also a system software.
That is because the game engine provides a platform for individual games to run on. That makes the game engine a system software as opposed to application software.
Computational science software is also system software. The same goes for utility programs, which assist in system maintenance.
Application software, on the other hand, is a type of software or program that is designed to complete a specific task. For example, Microsoft Word is application software, and it allows you to write documents.
An internet browser like Google Chrome is also an application software because it allows you to complete a specific task – like conduct Google searches.
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Before I give you examples of both types of software, I will quickly go over some differences between system software and application software to help you understand what each one does.
The main difference is that system software is designed to use the hardware of the machine. Application software, on the other hand, is designed to help the user complete tasks – like Microsoft Word, which helps you write documents.
System software is independent of application software – it runs with or without applications. On the other hand, you can not run application software without having working system software – for example, you can’t run Microsoft Word without Windows, Mac, or another system software working.
System software needs to run whenever the machine is turned on. It turns on when you turn on your computer and stops running when you turn it off.
However, application software can be turned on and off at any time (as long as the system is running).
While system software interacts very closely with the hardware of your machine, application software doesn’t. System software uses the memory and processing aspects of the hardware much more.
A device driver, programming language translator, or utility program that supports the operating system might also be considered system software. After all, all of those software types are important for the operating of the system, even if they don’t make up the main system software.
System software is usually written using low-level language while application software is written using a high-level language like Java or C++.
System software is usually installed when setting up the machine, and it is often installed by the manufacturer. On the other hand, while some devices come with application software preinstalled, application software, in general, is usually installed by the user via download, a USB, a CD, and so on.
Think of it this way: If you can uninstall the application software or disable it and you can still continue using your computer, it is probably not system software, even if it came preinstalled on your device.
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First, I will go over some system software examples. Some of these system software examples are very well known, while others might be less well known.
The Windows Operating System is perhaps one of the most well-known system software. Many laptops and desktops use the Windows OS.
Using the Windows OS, you can install various application software, like Microsoft Word, Google Chrome, Firefox, and many other applications.
The vast majority of computers run on Windows, with more than 75 percent and up to 87 percent of computers using Windows. The second closest operating system is MAC, which is popular but only makes up a smaller percentage of the market share.
Since Windows interacts closely with your device’s hardware to run applications on it, it is system software. If you don’t have Windows, MAC, or another system software installed, you won’t be able to do anything on your computer, let alone run application software.
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The Mac Operating System, along with Windows, is one of the most popular operating systems. It only makes up less than 15 percent of the market share, but it is still one of the oldest and most widely used system software, after Windows.
Most application software can be run using either Windows or Mac.
The Chrome OS is not very well known or widely used, but it is a web-based system software and operating system that powers Chromebooks. Using the Chrome OS, you can run application software – mainly Google Chrome but also various Android apps, like the Microsoft Word Android app.
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Ubuntu is another operating system running on Linux. It is free and open-source, which is what makes it so attractive to many.
Using Ubuntu, you can download various application software from the Ubuntu Software Centre. The Ubuntu system software allows you to run application software like Firefox, Skype, and Telegram.
Desktop computers and laptops are not the only machines that require system software to be operated. Mobile phones and tablets require system software as well.
Android is, by far, the most popular mobile system software. It powers over 70 percent of phones, while iOS is a close runner-up.
Using the Android system software, you can run application software like the Google Chrome app, the Whatsapp application software, the mobile Facebook app, the Instagram app, and many others.
These are all application software – after all, they require a functioning mobile system software to work, but the Android OS is independent of them and will work without application software, regardless of which application software comes preinstalled on your phone.
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The iOS system software is the second most popular mobile system software. It allows you to run other types of applications, not all of which are available on Android devices.
In addition to phones, many tablets – iPads – use the iOS system software.
Blackberry was once one of the most popular – if not the most popular – mobile system software. However, it now only accounts for a tiny percentage of mobile phones.
The Blackberry operating system software has its own applications that can be run on it.
Each PlayStation version has its own system software for operating the device. For example, the PlayStation 3 has its own system software, while the PlayStation 4 has its system software, which is an operating system called Orbis OS.
The PlayStation 4 system software allows you to run applications. That application software allows you to complete tasks like play games, listen to music, and browse the web.
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Xbox consoles use the Xbox system software to run. Actually, the Xbox system software has historically been based on the Microsoft Windows system software.
The newer system software of the newer Xbox versions are more compatible with Windows system software, as they are less modified.
Nintendo devices have their own system software. For example, the Nintendo Switch has a system software based on the Nintendo 3DS system software, and it is called Horizon.
Using the Nintendo Switch system software, you can do tasks like play games and chat with friends.
I mentioned that programming language translators can be considered system software, but what are they?
As I explained before, application software is written in high-level code, such as Java and C++. This type of code is easy for humans to understand, which is why applications are written with it.
On the other hand, system software uses low-level code. What programming language translators do is translate high-level code from application software, such as Java, to the type of code that the computer and system software can understand.
This allows the system to run the application. This low-level code is not understandable by humans, but it is what the processor understands.
Programming language translators are usually installed by the manufacturer. They are considered system software since they help facilitate the running of your machine and don’t help you complete a specific task like an application software such as Microsoft Word or Google Chrome does.
It is software that is related to the system and its operations.
A device driver, also called a hardware driver, is also generally considered a system software as it enables the system to operate normally.
They enable hardware devices to communicate with the operating system of your computer. Any hardware device that the operating system does not recognize needs a hardware driver so it can communicate with the operating system and so that commands can be issued back and forth.
A motherboard chipset would need a driver, and so would an external printer.
Many devices and machines come preinstalled with generic drivers that help their various parts work. For example, you usually don’t need a special driver for your keyboard because there is usually a generic driver that will allow it to work; the same goes for your mouse.
These drivers (which are just a collection of files) are usually considered to be system software. They are definitely not application software.
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Firmware is a type of software that is also generally considered to be system software. Firmware is software that is embedded in your computer and remains there forever, hence the name firmware.
Without firmware, your device wouldn’t work properly. Firmware is essentially a program containing a set of instructions that tell your device how to work.
For example, firmware tells your hard drive when to stop.
Sometimes, firmware is referred to as a “middleman.” That is because firmware acts as a middleman between the actual operating system and the hardware on your device, allowing the operating system to interact with the hardware and run it.
As such, firmware is considered system software, not application software.
As mentioned, utility programs can also be considered system software. They help facilitate the system, even if they are not actual system software – in other words, even if they are not the software the system operates on.
An antivirus would be the perfect example of a utility program that provides diagnostic functions for the smooth operation of the operating system. Firewalls, data backup and restoration software, disk partition, disk defragmentation, and similar software can also fall under the category of system software, being that they are utility programs.
I will mention that some people might not consider them to be system software, but they generally fall under the broader term “system software” for most purposes.
I will now move on to application software examples. Here are some types of application software and what they do.
I already mentioned Microsoft Word as being a great example of application software. It serves a purpose – it allows you to write, read, and edit documents.
You don’t need Microsoft Word for the smooth operation of your operating system. However, you do need your operating system to run Microsoft Word, and it serves an end purpose for the user, making it an application software.
Another application software I referred to a few times is Google Chrome. Whether you are installing it on a Windows operating system or an Android operating system, it is an application that allows you to browse the web and read articles on the web.
Firefox is another popular web browser. Like Google Chrome, it is application software that allows you to browse the web.
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Skype is application software that can be installed on devices like Windows, Android, and iOS machines. Using Skype, you can communicate with other people over the internet using voice calls, video chats, and text messaging.
Windows Media Player is application software that is designed to allow you to play videos and other media. It is not system software, despite having the name Windows in it, even if it comes preinstalled on your device.
That is because it is not essential for the operation of your machine. Even if Windows Media Player didn’t work, you would still be able to run various applications on your device.
VLC Media Player is another application software that falls under the category of media players, like Windows Media Player. It is free and open-source and allows you to play most types of media files.
Microsoft Access, despite having the name Microsoft in it, is application software. It falls under the category of database management systems, which are software that collect and organize files, documents, and data on your computer.
Photoshop is one of the most popular image editing application software tools. It allows you to edit and manage your photos, but it is application software, not system software.
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Facebook is application software that can be used to connect with friends using the Facebook social media platform. You can use Messenger to chat with friends, comment on friends’ posts, watch videos, and more.
Facebook is available on the website – that’s not application software. However, it is also available on an app for devices like Windows PCs, Android phones, and iOS phones – and that is application software.
WhatsApp is another application software you can download on various devices to chat with friends and make video and voice calls. The desktop app and mobile app are application software.
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iTunes is an application software you can download on various devices. It allows you to listen to music and podcasts.
Netflix is a very popular application software that allows you to stream movies and films from your desktop or phone. Along with Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, it is one of the most popular streaming-on-demand application software.
It is also available on the web.
Before I wrap up this article, I would like to quickly go through the various types of software available. As I already explained, the two main types of software are system software, necessary for the operating system, and application software, designed to help users complete specific tasks and which rely on system software to work.
However, both system software and application software can fall under one of the categories I will list below.
Freeware is software that is free to download and use. Usually, it includes application software, but some system software may be free as well.
Skype, for example, is freeware, because you can download it for free and use it without paying. The same goes for WhatsApp, Telegram, Windows Media Player, Google Chrome, Firefox, and many others.
Open source software is a specific type of software. The owners of open source software make the source code of the software open and available to everyone, hence the name open source.
Since the source code is freely available, everyone is welcome to view it. In addition, people are able to take the source code and alter it to create a different version of the software; they can then distribute it.
Many application software are open source, but system software can be open source as well. For example, I mentioned that Ubuntu was open source.
Although Ubuntu is system software, it is open-source, and you can view and edit its source code. Since it is open-source, it is also free for everyone to use, copy, distribute, and modify.
However, not all freeware is open-source – software can be free without having its source code made public, and since the source code is private, you can’t edit it. Freeware might be free, but it is copyrighted, so you can’t copy and distribute it like you can with open-source software.
Proprietary software is the opposite of open-source software. It is owned by a company and individual, and you may or may not have to pay to use it.
You definitely can not access the source code.
Shareware is like freeware but it is not entirely free. Instead, it is being “shared” with you for a specific amount of time.
Usually, shareware will have a free trial, after which it will stop being shared with you.
Malware, spyware, and adware are examples of software that you don’t want to have. They are distributed, usually without consent, via download links and sketchy websites, and they infect your computer to show you ads, spy on your activities and location, and steal your information.
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Hopefully, you now understand the difference between system software and application software and the different categories of software, such as freeware vs open-source software.
If you are reading this article, you are using some type of system software and application software – for example, you might be using Windows or Mac (system software) and the Google Chrome or Safari web browser (application software).
Benjamin Levin is a digital marketing professional with 4+ years of experience with inbound and outbound marketing. He helps small businesses reach their content creation, social media marketing, email marketing, and paid advertising goals. His hobbies include reading and traveling.