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Electronic Recycling

Firmware… What’s that?

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Close-up of a green circuit board featuring intricate pathways, mounted electronic components, and embedded firmware.
Close-up of a circuit board with the word "firmware" illuminated, highlighting its digital pathways and electronic components.

Firmware is everywhere. It’s in our computers, our smartphones, and our smartwatches. It’s in our TVs, traffic lights, and washing machines. Firmware is one of those critical components you’ve probably never heard of. Yet this particular item’s existence is crucial to how many things work. So, what exactly is Firmware?

Nothing new

In 1967, Ascher Opler, a computer scientist, wrote an article entitled “Fourth Generation Software,” in which he discussed the concept of having a workable link between a user’s wish to process certain information and the electronics needed. In the article, Opler focused on microprogramming, which refers to small, economical computer programs designed to handle low-level objectives. He indicated that a firmware manufacturer or programming company could satisfy a user’s need for input/output control using a slow-write/fast-read (SW/FR) micro memory, whereby data would be available permanently, but modification would be challenging.

Opler’s vision of Firmware could be construed to mean a miniature operating system. A Burroughs Business Machines newspaper ad from 1969 hyping the company’s electronic billing computer proclaimed, “Firmware does a lot of the work that computers had to do before. But Firmware doesn’t cost like computers cost. And the Firmware is tiny.”

The BIOS system

Close-up of a bios chip on a computer motherboard with detailed circuitry in the background.

Another term for Firmware is BIOS, or the Basic Input/Output System, which is a descriptor of a computer system’s basic functions. The BIOS is often associated with the IBM PC, although it actually predates this well-known manufacturing system. IBM intended the BIOS to be proprietary, but other companies, like Compaq, found ways to get around that idea. However, when building software for disparate machines—a computer, a video game, etc.—BIOS helps determine operating system rules and drivers for each machine.

During the late 2000s, the BIOS firmware morphed into the Unified Extensible Firmware Interface (UEFI), which, though advanced, works much like the BIOS system, allowing computer components to talk to various kinds of software.

In simple terms

Firmware makes hardware work in the way the manufacturer intended. Software developers design firmware programs to suit individual devices, allowing those devices to operate correctly. The Firmware in a traffic light tells the light to change from red to yellow to green at regular intervals. As with washing machines, TVs, and surveillance cameras, Firmware is the software that controls function. Without it, the device or appliance would not work. The most basic explanation of Firmware is that it is a vital link between a device’s hardware and its operating system; that is, Firmware provides the instructions that enable the hardware to “talk” to the operating system. Firmware is present in computer motherboards (BIOS or UEFI), solid-state drives, hard disks, Blu-Ray drives, network cards, routers, and your mouse and keyboard.

You are probably familiar with the acronym ROM – Read-Only Memory. Firmware is usually stored in a unique type called “flash ROM,” which is rewritable memory. The manufacturer writes the data initially, but you can rewrite it. To do so, however, you will need a firmware updating tool that will work on the particular hardware device.

Not a simple task

Manufacturers typically issue firmware updates and the software tools required to implement those updates. You can go online to the manufacturer’s website and download the new Firmware. But keep in mind that this is more challenging a job than it sounds. Writing the new Firmware incorrectly can ruin your device, which will no longer work properly.

Getting friendly with Firmware

Due to the nature of our business here at Urban E Recycling, we have an abiding interest in electronic devices and what makes them tick. Firmware may not be the subject you’re likely to discuss with friends over dinner, but it’s there in the smartphone you use to make the reservations. And that’s just for starters.

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