Firmware refers to software that has been permanently installed in a machine, device, or microchip, usually by the manufacturer. Without it, the electronic device will not work. Unlike standard software, firmware is meant to control, operate, or maintain the hardware in the background, and not interact with human users.

It usually requires special equipment to embed firmware into a device, and you normally will not be able to alter or erase it without the manufacturer’s help. Because it is planted into the hardware, firmware is also called “embedded software” or “embedded system.”

Other interesting terms…

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While a device’s firmware hardly ever changes, there are at least two reasons for updating it. These are fixing bugs or adding features to the device.

Watch this video to learn more about firmware:

Origin of Firmware

The term “firmware” was coined by Ascher Opler in a 1967 Datamation article. Datamation was a computer magazine published in printed form in the U.S. between 1957 and 1998. Back then, firmware pertained to the contents of a small specialized high-speed memory that houses a microcode that defines and implements the computer’s instruction set.

Firmware differs from hardware and software. It was not made up of instructions for the central processing unit (CPU). Instead, it uses a lower-level microcode that implements machine instructions. It exists between hardware and software, hence the name “firmware.”

Today, the word “firmware” refers to any computer program tightly linked to hardware, including processor machine instructions for simple electronic devices like microwave ovens, remote controls, or computer peripherals.

Devices That Use Firmware

A lot of devices found in most people’s homes use firmware, including the items listed below.

Personal Computers

A personal computer (PC)’s firmware components are just as important as its operating system (OS). But unlike an OS, firmware cannot update itself automatically to fix issues detected after the unit gets shipped.

Consumer Products

Today’s portable music players like iPods get firmware upgrades. Some device manufacturers use firmware updates to add new playable file formats (codecs). Other features that such updates may change include graphical user interfaces (GUIs) or battery life. Almost all mobile phones have a firmware over-the-air firmware upgrade capability these days.

Automobiles

Starting 1996, most vehicles began using onboard computers and various sensors to detect mechanical problems. By 2010, they also employed computer-controlled antilock braking systems (ABSs) and computer-operated transmission control units (TCUs). All these run because of firmware.

How Do Firmware Work?

In a traffic light, the firmware tells it to change lights at regular intervals. A computer without firmware would not know how to detect its hard drive or video card. If a hard drive does not have embedded firmware, it would not know how fast to spin or when to stop. If a wireless network card does not have firmware, it would not know how to use a particular radio frequency to connect to Wi-Fi.

Types of Firmware

Three types of firmware exist, namely:

  • Low-level firmware: Stored on nonvolatile memory chips like read-only memory (ROM). As such, it cannot be rewritten or updated and is considered an intrinsic part of the hardware.
  • High-level firmware: Used with flash memory chips to allow for updates. It often has more complex instructions than low-level firmware, making it closer to software than hardware.
  • Subsystem: A device or unit that is a semi-independent part of a larger system. It has embedded microcode-like high-level firmware and so often resembles the system.

Firmware Examples

As mentioned above, firmware comes in various forms, depending on what hardware it is part of.

In a PC, the basic input/output system (BIOS) is an example of a firmware. It lets the program that the microprocessor uses to start the device when you turn it on. It also lets the PC’s OS communicate with connected devices, such as your keyboard, mouse, printer, and other peripherals.
The programs embedded into heart defibrillators, light controls in a building, vehicles, and most household appliances sold today that tell them to turn on and off, run faster or slower, get brighter or dimmer, open or close, or give off more or less cold or heat with the flick of a switch are all firmware examples.

Firmware Hacking: What Is It?

Firmware hacking occurs when third parties create unofficial or modified firmware versions to provide new features or unlock hidden functionality. A firmware hack uses a device’s firmware update facility to install or run. Some, though, resort to exploits to run because the device’s manufacturer tried to lock the hardware to stop it from running unlicensed code. Most firmware hacks come in the form of free software.

What Is a Firmware Update?

A firmware update comes from the device manufacturer. It is a piece of code that upgrades the device without requiring hardware modifications. It is meant to improve the way a system works with the addition of new features that enhance user experience.

Over time, firmware updates or upgrades reduce the need for bug fixes and device repairs. They also lessen your system’s chances of getting hacked, as some manufacturers opt to release firmware updates to fix huge vulnerability issues in their hardware. An example would be the replacement firmware update that Dell released in May 2021 to fix its earlier version.

This video tells you more about the importance of firmware updates:

A firmware makes computers work. Without it, the hardware would not know how to do its job.