So What’s All This “Firmware” Stuff, Anyhow?

Most people who have any contact with a computer these days will probably have come across the terms “hardware” and “software”:

“Hardware” is physical stuff – things you can touch, and see, and would hurt if you dropped them on your toe!

If you need to change “hardware” it means getting out screwdrivers and the like, and fiddling with cables, plugs, and other such mechanical & electrical stuff.

“Software” is more nebulous; in the old days, it at least came on a disk (or disks) in a box with a big manual (that you never read); but, nowadays, you can just download it – so it has no physical existence at all.

“Software” can be changed – added, removed, reconfigured – with just a few clicks of the mouse; no effort or tools required at all! It is this ease of changeability that gives rise to the “soft” in “software”

So where does “firmware” come in? “Updating firmware” is a topic that sometimes appears in the obscure pages at the back of the instructions for some high-tech gadgets; or, if your gadget is misbehaving, you might be asked about its “firmware version”…

As the name might suggest, “firmware” is a kind of hybrid; somewhere in between “hardware” and “software”.  Firmware is a special type of software that is fixed into a piece of hardware.  Thus it is not so easy to change (or update) as software, but easier to change (or update) than hardware; to put that another way, it is “harder” than software, but “softer” than hardware!

Firmware is usually associated with Embedded Systems (see previous blog entry), as they tend to lack the interfaces and storage of a “normal” computer for loading & storing software in the “normal” manner – hence their operating programs (or “software”) have to be fixed into the hardware as “firmware”!

All clear now?


Beware that your spell-checker doesn’t accidentally change your firmware into
formwork – which is something completely different…!

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.