Although the term “firmware” has really only recently made its way into common vernacular, it was first coined fifty years ago in an article in the publication Datamation. At the time, Ascher Opler wrote about contents in a writable control store (that is to say a small, specialized high speed memory type) which contained writable microcode that could define and implement a computer’s instruction set and, furthermore, could be reloaded in a way which had the potential to modify or specialize instructions for the execution by the central processing unit.
To put it more simply, firmware was conceived as a type of intermediary between the physical hardware of the CPU and its normal execution instructing software. Firmware was a basic, lower-level microcode involved solely in the implementation of machine instructions.
Over the next few decades, of course, the term “firmware” evolved and is now more closely linked to the hardware upon which it is installed and less of its middle-ground stance it once had. Of course, there are more components, today, which use firmware and more types of computerized device that rely upon it.
Up until probably the last few years, the personal computer was probably the firmware-reliant device you were most likely to use. As a matter of fact, the firmware on the computer you are using at any given time is probably just as important as the operating system that allows you to use the programs you need.
With that in mind, then, it has also become increasingly important that computers receive firmware updates. This ensures that the microcodes necessary to ensure the operating system does its job are consistent with the newest information from software you could be trying to use.
While it would be easy to correlate personal computers of yesterday with the mobile phones of today, almost all consumer products which rely heavily on digital information need firmware (and firmware updates). Even something as simple as a portable music player or a cybersecurity camera of Hikvision needs firmware updates to ensure not only safety but also that it can run the newest playable formats.
The most recent type of consumer product to need firmware (and updates) are automobiles. Of course, cars have employed on-board computers since 1996: not just for things like navigation but in detecting fuel levels, tire inflation, and more. From anti-lock brakes to crash detection to transmission controls, today’s automobiles rely on firmware to keep you safe and on the road.