System software is computer software designed to provide a platform to other software. Examples of system software include operating systems, computational science software, game engines, industrial automation, and software as a service applications.
In the early days of computing most application software was custom-written by computer users to fit their specific hardware and requirements. In contrast, system software was usually supplied by the manufacturer of the computer hardware and was intended to be used by most or all users of that system.
The line where the distinction should be drawn is not always clear. Many operating systems bundle application software. Such software is not considered system software when it can be uninstalled usually without affecting the functioning of other software. Exceptions could be e.g. web browsers such as Internet Explorer where Microsoft argued in court that it was system software that could not be uninstalled. Later examples are Chrome OS and Firefox OS where the browser functions as the only user interface and the only way to run programs (and other web browsers can not be installed in their place), then they can well be argued to be (part of) the operating system and hence system software.
The operating system (prominent examples being Microsoft Windows, macOS, Linux, and z/OS), allows the parts of a computer to work together by performing tasks like transferring data between memory and disks or rendering output onto a display device. It provides a platform (hardware abstraction layer) to run high-level system software and application software.
A user interface "allows users to interact with a computer." Either a command-line interface (CLI) or, since the 1980s a graphical user interface (GUI). Since this is the part of the operating system the user directly interacts with, it may be considered an application and therefore not system software.
For historical reasons, some organizations use the term systems programmer to describe a job function which is more accurately termed systems administrator. Software tools these employees use are then called system software. This so-called Utility software helps to analyze, configure, optimize and maintain the computer, such as virus protection. In some publications, the term system software also includes software development tools (like a compiler, linker or debugger).
System software of video game consoles
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