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 be able to 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 the firmware into a device, and you normally will not be able to alter or erase it without help from the manufacturer. Because it is planted into the hardware, firmware is also called “embedded software” or “embedded system.”

Other interesting terms…

Read More about “Firmware”

While a device’s firmware is hardly ever changed, there are at least two reasons for updating firmware. 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 is 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 differed from hardware and software. It was not made up of instructions for the central processing unit (CPU) but 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

Beginning in 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 are because of the 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 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.

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