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A typical firmware-controlled device, a television remote control.

In electronics and computing, firmware is a term often used to denote the fixed, usually rather small, programs and data structures that internally control various electronic devices. Typical examples of devices containing firmware range from end-user products such as remote controls or calculators, through computer parts and devices like hard disks, keyboards, TFT screens or memory cards, all the way to scientific instrumentation and industrial robotics. Also more complex consumer devices, such as mobile phones, digital cameras, synthesizers, etc., contain firmware to enable the device's basic operation as well as implementing higher-level functions.

There are no strict boundaries between firmware and software, as both are quite loose descriptive terms. However, the term firmware was originally coined in order to contrast to higher level software which could be changed without replacing a hardware component, and firmware is typically involved with very basic low-level operations without which a device would be completely non-functional. Firmware is also a relative term, as most embedded devices contain firmware at more than one level. Subsystems such as CPUs, flash chips, communication controllers, LCD modules, and so on, have their own (usually fixed) program code and/or microcode, regarded as "part of the hardware" by the higher-level(s) firmware.

Simple firmware typically resides in ROM or OTP/PROM, while more complex firmware (often on the border to software) typically employs flash memory to allow for updates, at least in modern devices. Common reasons for updating firmware include fixing bugs or adding features to the device. Doing so usually involves loading a binary image file (provided by the manufacturer) into the device, according to a specific procedure; this is sometimes intended (by the device manufacturer) to be done by the end user.

Contents

Origin of the term

Ascher Opler coined the term "firmware" in a 1967 Datamation article.[1] Originally, it meant the microcode – contents of a writable control store (a small specialized high speed memory), which defined and implemented the computer's instruction set. If necessary, one could re-load the firmware to specialize or modify the instructions that the central processing unit (CPU) could execute. As originally used, firmware contrasted with hardware (the CPU itself) and software (normal instructions executing on a CPU). It was not composed of CPU machine instructions, but of lower-level microcode involved in the implementation of machine instructions. It existed on the boundary between hardware and software, thus the name "firmware".

Later application of the term broadened to include any type of microcode, whether in RAM or ROM.

Still later, popular usage extended the word "firmware" to denote anything ROM-resident, including processor machine-instructions for BIOS, bootstrap loaders, or specialized applications.

Until the mid 1990s, updating firmware to a new version typically involved replacing a storage-medium containing firmware, usually a socketed ROM. As of 2009 firmware-upgraders have largely abandoned this approach in favor of using firmware's capability to overwrite itself in a convenient, purely electronic operation.

Firmware as of 2010

The concept of "firmware" has evolved to mean almost any programmable content of a hardware device, not only machine code for a processor, but also configurations and data for application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), programmable logic devices, etc.

Personal computers

ROM BIOS firmware on a Baby AT motherboard

In some respects, the various firmware components are as important as the operating system in a working computer. However, unlike most modern operating systems, firmware rarely has a well-evolved automatic mechanism of updating itself to fix any functionality issues detected after shipping the unit.

Currently, one can fairly easily update the BIOS in a modern PC; devices like video cards or modems often rely on firmware dynamically loaded by a device driver and may thus get transparently updated through the operating system update mechanisms. In contrast, firmware in storage devices rarely gets updated, even when flash (rather than ROM) storage is used; there are no standardized mechanisms for detecting and updating firmware versions. However, in practice, such devices have a low rate of functionality issues compared to parts where the firmware may be updated. The reasons for this probably belong to the realm of psychology; a partial explanation could postulate that project managers may not invest the resources to error-proof code which that can be easily updated, as compared to when it "must be" correct in the very first production-run. A difference in complexity may be another factor, as devices with either fixed or "not easily updated" firmware tend to be simpler, and vice versa.

Computer peripherals

Most computer peripherals are themselves special-purpose computers. While external devices have firmware stored internally, as of 2010 modern graphics cards and peripheral expansion cards often have parts of the firmware loaded by the host system at start-up, as this provides greater flexibility. Such hardware may therefore fail to function fully until the host computer has "fed" it the requisite firmware, typically via a specific device driver (more exactly: via a start-up subsystem within a device driver package). Modern device drivers, whether for internal or external "peripheral" devices, may also expose a direct graphical user-interface for configuration, often using parts of a normal application program interface in addition to lower level operating system calls, hooks, and/or other interfaces designed for device drivers.

Consumer products

As of 2010 most modern portable music players support firmware upgrades. Some companies use firmware updates to add new playable file formats (encodings); iriver added the Vorbis format this way, for instance. Other features that may change with firmware updates include the GUI or even the battery life. Most mobile phones have a firmware upgrade capability for much the same reasons; some may even be upgraded to enhance reception or sound quality, illustrating the fact that firmware is used at more than one level in complex products (in a CPU-like microcontroller versus in a digital signal processor in this particular case).

Automobiles

Since 1996 most automobiles have employed an on-board computer and various sensors to detect mechanical problems. As of 2010 modern vehicles also employ computer-controlled ABS systems and computer-operated Transmission Control Systems (TCS). The driver can also get in-dash information while driving in this manner, such as real-time fuel-economy and tire-pressure readings. Local dealers can update most vehicle firmware.

IEEE Definition

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Standard Glossary of Software Engineering Terminology, Std 610.12-1990, defines firmware as follows:

"The combination of a hardware device and computer instructions and data that reside as read-only software on that device.
Notes: (1) This term is sometimes used to refer only to the hardware device or only to the computer instructions or data, but these meanings are deprecated. (2) The confusion surrounding this term has led some to suggest that it be avoided altogether."

Examples

Examples of firmware include:

Firmware "hacking"

Sometimes third parties may write an unofficial new or modified version of firmware to provide new features or to unlock hidden functionality. Examples include:

Most firmware hacks are free and open source software as well.

These hacks usually take advantage of the firmware update facility on many devices to install or run themselves. Some, however, must resort to exploits in order to run, because the manufacturer has attempted to lock the hardware to stop it from running unlicensed code.

See also

References

  1. ^ Opler, Ascher (January 1967). "Fourth-Generation Software". Datamation 13 (1): 22–24. 
  2. ^ a b c "Custom Firmware Rocks!". 2009-08-05. http://www.maximumpc.com/article/features/frimware_hacks?page=0%2C1. Retrieved 2009-08-13. 
  3. ^ "Magic Lantern firmware for Canon 5D Mark II". http://magiclantern.wikia.com. Retrieved 2009-08-13. 
  4. ^ "SamyGO: replacing television firmware". LWN.net. 2009-11-14. http://lwn.net/Articles/361445/. Retrieved 2009-12-11. 

Simple English

In computing, firmware is a computer program that is "embedded" in a hardware device, for example a microcontroller. It can also be provided on flash memory or as a binary image file that can be uploaded onto existing hardware by a user. Some firmware can also be modded or changed by some really ordinary computer users through curious tools.

As its name suggests, firmware is somewhere between hardware and software, neither too hard or soft. Like software, it is a computer program which is done by a microprocessor or a microcontroller. But it is also linked to a piece of hardware and has no meaning without it.

In the past, firmware was stored in ROMs but now it is stored in media that cannot be written to such as EEPROMs and Flashs.

Firmware in many machines such as routers can now be updated without the need for additional hardware, often by downloading a new version from web to update the device, using instructions provided by the device manufacturer.

The easiest firmware to update is usually the system boot-related firmware, such as the BIOS in PCs. Some devices, such as video adapters and modems, frequently rely on firmware that is loaded by the operating system device drivers, and thus is updated by the operating system not by the user. Some computer viruses and hackers use operating system firmware update facilities to damage the firmware. An electronic device is said to be "bricked" if it is unable to start due to firmware issues.

Examples

Examples of firmware include:

  • The BIOS found in IBM-compatible Personal Computers;
  • The platform code found on Itanium systems, Intel-based Mac OS X machines, and many Intel desktop boards is EFI compliant firmware;
  • Open Firmware, used in computers from Sun Microsystems and Apple Computer;
  • The iPod's control menus;
  • The Nintendo DS's program that loads when you start it.

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