Firmware and software are two terms that fit into modern embedded systems and computers.

The world is transforming into a digital world where most work is done via computers. Software and hardware are the most common terms used when discussing computers. 

Many elements dedicate themselves to the making of modern tech devices. There are various kinds of software and hardware, and you may come across firmware.

In the electronic industry, firmware and software are evenly popular. Differentiating between these terms can be tricky as they can sometimes have the same purpose.

For example, for manual installation of an Android OS update, it could refer to Firmware. This means while flashing the OS update on your Android phone, the software is built for device-specific hardware or firmware.

If that looks confusing, let me get comprehensive on this topic.

In this article, I’ll explain the differences, similarities, and some use cases of software and firmware.

Here we go!

What Is Firmware?

What Is Firmware

In the computer world, firmware is used as a specific class of computer software that offers low-level control for specific hardware of any device. Firmware contains essential functions of the device and provides hardware abstraction services to the higher-level software, say, operating systems. 

For those devices which are less complex, firmware act as the complete operating system that performs the control, monitors, and data manipulation functions. It is held in non-volatile memory devices, including EPROM, EEPROM, Flash memory, and ROM. 

An American scientist Ascher Opler coined the phrase “Firmware” in 1967. He used the term to describe a microprogram between software and hardware. 

While updating the firmware requires ROM to be physically replaced, or EPROM reprogrammed using a particular procedure. Some firmware memory devices can not be changed after permanent installation. 

Furthermore, the vital reason behind updating the firmware is to fix bugs, add features to the device, and more. You can simply think of firmware as the “software for hardware.” Although software is a different term, they are connected but are not interchangeable. 

Manufacturers of the devices often release regular updates to keep the hardware running and compatible with the new media. Network router manufacturers also release firmware updates on your devices to enhance network performance. The same goes for smartphone manufacturers, camera makers, and more. You just need to visit the manufacturer’s website to download such updates. 

All the firmware is divided into three main categories based on the hardware integration level. They are:

  • Low-level firmware is considered an intrinsic part of the device’s hardware. Low-level firmware is stored on read-only and non-volatile chips, such as ROM. therefore, it can not be rewritten or changed. Devices including low-level firmware in their system have only one-time programmable memory. 
  • High-level firmware: High-level firmware allows updates but is a little more complex than low-level firmware. It resides on the flash memory chips. 
  • Subsystem firmware: It comes as a part of the embedded system. An example of subsystem firmware is a server’s power subsystem. The power subsystem is the piece of the server hardware that works semi-independently from a server. 

Example: BIOS or unified extensible firmware interface, USB drives, sensors, small computers, smart cards, etc. 

How Do Firmware Updates Work?

Firmware updates are often offered to prevent firmware hacks, improve security, fix bugs, roll out new features, and interact with the latest media. It consists of codes that tell the hardware to behave in a new and modified way. 

How Do Firmware Updates Work

Some internet-connected devices regularly check for new firmware and download and install it. But, others require users to visit the website to download and install the firmware updates. The frequency of updates could vary as per device usage. The firmware in the intelligent devices may not require frequent updates.

Smartphones commonly upgrade firmware alongside software updates, so the phone keeps running, and users won’t need to update firmware versions. Many electronic devices are also asked to remain on while updating firmware. 

What Is Software?

Software is the data, programs, or instructions used to perform computer operations to execute specific tasks. It is just the opposite term of hardware that describes the physical aspects of the computer system. It’s intangible.  

You can also refer to software as the generic term used to describe scripts, programs, and applications that run on any device. Thus, the software is a variable part of the computer. The main categories of software are:

What Is Software
  • Application software: It is the software that fulfills specific computer needs or performs some essential tasks.
  • System software: The software type is designed to run the device’s hardware. In addition, it provides a platform for the applications to run. 
  • Programming software: This software provides the programming tools that a software developer needs. It also refers to the term middleware that comes in between system and application software. Furthermore, you will get driver software that operates your computer devices and peripherals. 

In the early 1980s, software was sold on floppy disks. Later, it was sold on CDs and DVDs. Most of the software has been purchased or directly downloaded over the internet. You can easily find different kinds of software from vendor websites. 

Let’s see some of the types of software designs below:

  • Architectural design: This software design is the main foundation of the software, which identifies the structure of the system, the main components, and their relations with one another by using architectural design tools. 
  • High-level design: It is defined as the second layer of software design that focuses on the implementation of the system, along with the components, in the form of modules supported by a software stack. In addition, it describes the relationships between various modules and functions of the system and data flow. 
  • Detailed layer: It is defined as the third layer of the software design process that focuses on the implementation details for the specified software architecture. 

Software quality can be measured by some characteristics, including accessibility, compatibility, functionality, performance, portability, installability, localization, efficiency, maintainability, security, usability, testability, reliability, and more. 

How Does Software Work?

How Does Software Work

All software gives data and directions to the computer to work and meet the users’ needs. As discussed above, application and system software can work in different ways. 

Application Software

Application software contains many programs which perform specific roles for end users, such as navigating websites and writing reports. It performs tasks for other applications also. Although application software is software, it can’t run on its own. It requires running a computer’s operating system and other supporting system software. 

These are the desktop applications installed on the user’s computer to use computer memory to carry out some tasks. They take up space on the hard drive and won’t need any internet connection to perform tasks. 

On the other hand, web applications need an internet connection to work. They won’t rely on the system software or hardware to work. Devices containing web browsers let users launch web applications quickly. 

System Software

The system software has booked a seat between application software and computer hardware. It runs in the background and handles the essential functions of your computer. This coordinates system software and hardware so that you can run high-level software to perform specific tasks. 

System Software

System software starts working when a computer boots up and runs continuously as long as the computer system is on. It is written in low-level machine code or assembly language. Thus, it runs independently and allows the computer system to function well. 

Firmware vs Software: Similarities

Firmware vs Software: Similarities

The terms firmware and software are interchangeable terms in the context of embedded systems. In the embedded systems industry, it has some similarities. In other ways, you will find firmware is a type known as low-level software. 

You can even see job listings mentioning “ Embedded Software Engineer” or “Embedded Firmware Engineer” with the same job description. This happens because the application side of the system is developed with the system side.   

For example, when working with the barebone design (without an operating system), you will have only some microcontroller vendor-specific files (CPU that supports drivers and headers) and a few third-party drivers (for display and TCP/IP). These files can handle the hardware side of the software.

With drivers and headers, you can write application software; later, all the files are combined into a binary file. If you are an operating system like FreeRTOS or VxWorks, RTOS takes responsibility for memory management and context switching. Despite that, you need to write application software with the help of Microcontroller drivers, third-party drivers, and RTOS files. 

Firmware vs Software: Differences

Let’s deep dive into some differences between firmware and software.

FirmwareSoftware
It is a type of software that controls the hardware and updates regularly. It is a set of instructions to the computer system.
Firmware is the low-level software placed between the operating system and hardware.The software sits on top of the operating system and doesn’t directly interact with the hardware.
It includes low-level firmware, high-level firmware, and subsystem firmware.It includes application, system, programming, middleware, and driver software.
Its size is tiny.Its size can be massive, although virtually.
It is intended not to be modified.It can be customized or modified depending on the preferences or needs of the users,
It is programmed only one time.You can install and uninstall the software as many times as you want.
You will get firmware in the hardware’s flash storage.It is stored on the secondary storage device of the computer system.
Low-level programming language is used during the development.Both high-level and low-level programming language is used during development.
It runs directly on memory chips which are non-volatile secondary memory like EEPROMS and flash.It is copied from removable media, such as DVDs, USBs, etc., and installed in the storage devices like SSDs or hard disks.
Examples are UEFI and BIOS firmware which computer motherboard manufacturers provide. Also, OpenSource Router firmware like OpenWrt and DD-WRT.Examples are operating systems like Linux, Android, Windows, etc., and applications like Browsers, apps, Games, MS Office, etc. 

Firmware vs Software: Use Cases

Use Cases of Firmware

Use Cases of Firmware

You will get firmware in the range of computing equipment, including complicated devices. Some real-world uses of firmware are as follows:

  • Personal computer: A computer’s firmware comes embedded in a small memory chip. Computer peripherals, such as video cards, graphics, etc., also contain firmware.
  • Home appliances: Washing machines and dishwashers utilize firmware. It enables the machine to communicate with a computer configuring the settings and controls. 
  • Storage Devices: Hard drives, portable storage devices, and USB drives contain firmware that allows devices to function with the computer system.
  • Smart cards: Smart cards also contain firmware to embed instructions in the chip to offer basic functionalities, encryption, and authentication. 
  • Automotive: Vehicles contain sensors, small computers, and embedded systems with firmware that helps them perform their tasks.
  • Mobile devices: Laptops, tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices contain firmware that enables the hardware to run with multiple software. 

Use Cases of Software

Use Cases of Software

I guess almost every user to date knows software. Whatever they are installing and downloading on their computer or other devices is in the form of software. It’s already added to everyone’s routine to use any software. It has wide-ranging applications across the globe.

In terms of application software, the examples are:

  • Word processing software: MS Word, Notepad, and Wordpad
  • Spreadsheet software: Microsoft Excel, Apple Numbers, etc.
  • Database software: MS Access and Oracle, etc.
  • Simulation software: Scientific simulators and flight simulators
  • Enterprise software: Customer relationship management system (CRM)
  • Multimedia software: Media player and Real player
  • Educational software: Encarta, BritannicaMathematical, Google Earth, NASA World Wind
  • Presentation software: Keynotes and Microsoft Powerpoint
  • Information worker software: Resource management tools, documentation tools, etc.
  • Application suites: Microsoft Office, OpenOffice, etc. 
  • Content access software: Web browsers, accessing content through media players, and more

In terms of system engineering, the examples are:

  • Operating systems like Windows, macOS, and Linux
  • Device drivers
  • Firmware
  • BIOS and UEFI
  • Programming language translator
  • Utilities

Conclusion

Firmware is generally used to microcode the embedded system in most hardware, whereas software refers to high-level programs. Replacing firmware is tricky, but in the case of software, you will never face much hassle. 

However, firmware is system software that controls a device’s hardware. Software, as a whole, is a set of instructions that allow your computer or other devices to perform tasks. I hope the key differences and similarities between firmware and software are apparent by now.

You may also be interested in learning about the Internet of Things (IoT).