What is a computer?

It may seem like a silly question. But it actually isn’t. Have you ever thought about this? What is a computer? The answer is, “anything that carries out a computation can be called a computer”. So what about the calculators we use? Can they also be called computers?

what is a computer

Yes. Calculators are definitely computers. The main difference between them with the computers we see is that the function of calculators is fixed. They can’t be programmed. It may not be a sophisticated device like the modern day computers. It accepts user data, processes it, outputs the result. So it’s essentially a computer.

So, computers can be broadly classified into two, fixed function computers and programmable computers.

Fixed function computers

A fixed function computer is a device which does computations, but the functions of which are fixed. We can’t reprogram it. It does single or multiple functions, but we, users can’t change the function which is programmed into it. Consider the case of a CD/DVD player. It reads from the optical media, displays the video or plays the audio, all of these operations require computations. So there is a microprocessor in the device. It is initially programmed to do the specific set of operations. The end users cannot change it.  Almost all the electronic appliances we see today fall under the category of fixed function computers.

Programmable computers

These are the devices which we can program. The devices which we call a computer today, a laptop, a smartphone, tablets, all fall under this category. We can program these devices as per our requirement. When we play a song on a computer, it’s carrying out the instructions of the music player software. When we run a word processing software to create a document, it’s performing as per the instructions of the software. Same way, we can build our own programs to make the computer do something. It is called programming. The portable devices like mobile phones are definitely programmable computers. Although miniature in size, they have all the qualities to be called computers.

What is a computer?

Theoretically, a device which does a computation can be termed as a computer. But practically, we don’t call them computers. We don’t call a calculator, a computer. So, a computer today is a device which can run a program and behave accordingly. We must be able to program it according to our needs. Or we must be able to run the programs that others developed. Whichever device enables us to do so can be called a computer.

What do you think of this article about “what is a computer”. Did I miss any relevant points? Please add your comments here. Thanks for reading.

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