Most people buy computers in order to run applications. There are many different examples of software application, including word processors and spreadsheet, database and graphics packages. Some are combined together in 'office' suites, such as the StarOffice applications you can find on the Open University's Online Applications disk.
Word-processing software, such as Microsoft Word, allows you to create, edit and store documents. You can produce very professional-looking documents using a word processor, with different typefaces (known as 'fonts') and incorporating graphics, such as drawings and photographs.
Spreadsheet software, such as Excel, allows you to perform calculations based on the numbers and formulae that you enter. You can keep track of a household budget on a spreadsheet, but what makes a spreadsheet a powerful tool is its modelling ability. Depending on how a spreadsheet has been set up, when new values are entered, the whole spreadsheet can be automatically updated. Spreadsheets are often used in business organisations to model financial activities.
Database software, such as Microsoft Access, stores information in a form that can be organised and searched. Databases range in size and complexity. An example of a small database might be an address book that you keep on your own computer to store the names and contact details of friends and family. There are much larger databases in use by institutions containing specific types of information, such as library catalogues, banks' records of customers' accounts, and hospital medical records.
Graphics and image editing software allows you to create and edit drawings and images. Digital photography has become very popular and image-editing software allows you to crop and resize your photos, touch-up blemishes and then print the results.
Education and training software is intended to help children and adults learn. There are a number of programs intended to teach children basic mathematics and English skills. Other examples include programs designed to train people in computer skills or to help them learn new languages.
Games represent a large sector in the computer software market. While many run on dedicated game consoles rather than PCs, some make use of the PC's computing power to achieve high-quality graphics and complex game play. In fact, technological developments for games have resulted in improvements for personal computers. You can play games alone on your PC, but others provide multi-player environments via the internet.
Email software manages your electronic mailbox on your computer to allow you to compose, send, read and delete messages. Email applications often include tools such as a filing system for storing messages, a calendar and an address book.
Web browser software allows you to view web pages and, among other things, use the links in them to 'jump' from one page to another and from one part of a page to another. The two most popular browsers at the time of writing are Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox.
There are also other applications which provide a means of sending and receiving data. For example, screen readers 'read' the accessible text aloud, while speech recognition software enables the computer to respond to the human voice.