Application Software
- Types

Here are a few significant applications that you should be familiar with, along with a few notes about some useful features or hidden dangers.

Word Processor

This application allows the user to create, modify, and print documents containing text, and sometimes images. Some examples include Microsoft Word, Word Perfect, or Emacs. Most modern word processing software allows the user to view the text on the monitor just as it will appear on the printed page. This capability is called What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get, or WYSIWYG. Word processors have several advantages over simply using paper and pencil or a typewriter. First, a budding writer can edit the text with ease on a word processor, moving words around, deleting phrases, fixing spelling mistakes, or completely reorganizing the structure of a manuscript. These same edits on a typed document would be daunting. Global changes, such as changing the name of a main character in a novel, can be done in a few keystrokes, whereas if done by hand, it would take hours, if not days. Second, the text can be formatted to look like a published work, complete with various fonts, styles, emphasis, and so forth. Third, it is easy to duplicate previous work. For example, imagine that you have written a letter to a business asking for a refund on a defective item. If you save this letter (in an electronic file in the computer's storage area), you could easily edit the letter if you need to write to another business regarding a different defective item. Starting from the existing letter is quicker.

For Discussion:

1) Identify several goals of writing. Why do we write? What do we hope to accomplish by writing? To whom do we write?

2) Consider the writing tasks listed below and answer these four questions for each task:

  • Does word processing software make this task more or less difficult, compared to writing by hand or with a typewriter?
  • How might the final document differ because this task was accomplished with a word processor on a computer, compared to writing by hand?
  • How important is this task in accomplishing the goals identified in the first step?
  • What hidden dangers might we face because we use a word processor for this task. For example, using a word-processor with spell-checking built into the program might produce writers who are poor spellers themselves.

Writing Tasks for questions above:

  • Narrowly-focused editing, such as inserting a word, changing a letter, deleting a sentence, or changing the order of a few words.
  • Widely-focused editing, such as changing the order of several paragraphs, moving chapters around, reorganizing the plot line, or introducing a character in a novel at an earlier point.
  • Marking up an existing document with suggested changes, such as when a teacher grades a term paper or when a corporate product development team passes around a proposal for comments.
  • Copying a section of text from another document
  • Correcting spelling mistakes

For discussion:

Consider the following types of writing. First, identify which types can be done well using a word processor (compared to writing by hand), and which might suffer in quality if written with a word processor? Second, and perhaps more important, for each type, identify the reasons why the word processor makes a difference (either positive or negative).

  • poetry
  • laboratory report
  • reminder note
  • grocery list
  • novel
  • love letter
  • business proposal
  • resumé
  • Internal Revenue Service (IRS) U.S. Individual Income Tax Form 1040
  • business card


This application allows the user to organize, analyze, and chart data. A spreadsheet is made up of rectangular cells that form rows and columns. Each cell can contain text, numbers, or a formula. Text can be formatted, but usually with fewer options than with a word processor. Numbers can also be formatted, often with a multitude of options. Formulas allow the user to specify that the cell should display the result of a computation (often using the values from neighboring cells). For example, a formula might display the sum of all the cells above the current cell, in order to calculate the total sales for the year (assuming the cells above the current cell are monthly sales totals). Data can be charted in a variety of formats. The user can create pie charts, bar charts, line graphs, and so forth, based on the data in the spreadsheet. In fact, some people consider the chart making capability to be the greatest strength of spreadsheets (more than their number-crunching features).

The ability to specify complex formulas for each cell, where each formula can depend on other cells (which might themselves be formulas) constitutes a form of programming, but in a visual format that is intuitive for many people than traditional computer programming languages. For example, consider the computation shown in the table below. On the left we see the computation of total sales over 6 months in a spreadsheet. First, the labels for Months, Sales, and Total were typed and formatted. Then the number "1" was entered into cell B4, and then a formula was used to compute the cells below it. For example, the formula in cell B5 is "=B4+1". The sales figures were typed into cells C4 down to C9. Finally, the formula for adding up the sales was entered in cell C10, "=SUM(C4:C9)" which means "add up the numbers in the cells C4 down to C9" and display the result.

Calculating Sales in a Spreadsheet Calculating Sales in a Programming Language
Visual loop in spreadsheet
sales(6) = (11233, 12377, 9453,

10023, 9899, 11656);

total = 0;

for month 1 .. 6 loop
   total += sales(month);
end loop;

print total;

Compare the spreadsheet method to the program shown on the right side of the table above. Here, an array is declared called "sales" with 6 entries, as shown. Next, a variable called total is initialized to zero. A loop is used to compute the total by iterating through the 6 months. Total is incremented by the amount of sales for each of the months 1 through 6. Note that the "+=" symbol means make total larger by the amount of sales in the specified month. Finally, the total is printed after the loop is completed. The spreadsheet uses a visual format to specify which months to include, while the programming language uses a more symbolic notation. (In case you are interested, the spreadsheet on the left is Microsoft Excel, while the programming language on the right is actually a mixture of the languages C and Ada in order to make it a little easier to understand for a novice).

For Discussion:

When performing computations with numbers, there are several tools that one could turn to:

  • paper and pencil
  • calculator
  • spreadsheet
  • programming language

Consider the following tasks that require computations with numbers. For each task, decide which approach from the list above would be the best approach:

  • balancing a checkbook
  • completing an income tax form
  • tracking an inventory of goods for a large store
  • analyzing the results of a survey containing 50 multiple choice questions given to 500 people
  • keeping track of a personal monthly budget
  • tracking game statistics for a high school basketball team
  • computing a weather forecast based on data from radar and satellite imagery along with local condition reports from dozens of weather stations, including temperature, wind direction and speed, humidity, and air pressure


Database applications allow users to ask directed (very specific) questions about a set of data. For example an Internet movie database might contain records of movie titles, descriptions, ratings, director, and so forth. Users might be able to generate a list of all movies starring Tom Cruise, with a rating of 4 stars or better, produced between 1990 and 2000.. The database application must not only include the capability to organize the data, but must also provide appropriate methods for users to ask about the data. This might be a form with checkboxes or menus, or it might be an interface that allows the user to type questions in English.

Electronic mail

Electronic mail (also known as "e-mail") is a form of communication modeled on postal delivery, and thus the language used to describe the various objects and actions are similar to postal mail. In both systems, one writes letters, addresses them, and sends them, and sometime later the recipient receives the letter in their mailbox. Although physical items cannot be sent by e-mail, one can often add "attachments" to a letter, allowing delivery of any digital item, such as a picture or sound. E-mail has several advantages over the postal service:

  • much faster (mail can be delivered within seconds)
  • allows sending one letter to multiple people simply by specifying each person in the address line
  • little or no cost to the user (but only if they have access to the Internet in some way, which may require paying a fee)

For discussion:

1) Identify some drawbacks of e-mail compared to the postal service. Are there any problems that come along with the advantages listed above?

2) Identify at least four types of communication for which e-mail would be a poor medium of choice. Explain why, and indicate what mode of communication might be more suitable.

Presentation Software

This type of application is similar to a word processor, but usually includes more extensive capabilities for adding diagrams, line art, images, and other graphical objects to the document. The documents can also contain animated objects, which move about the page in some prescribed manner, such as titles which scroll in from the left as each page is displayed. The documents created with these applications, as the name implies, are usually intended for presentation purposes, such as overhead slides used during a conference presentation. One popular presentation software package is Microsoft PowerPoint. You may even hear the slang phrase "doing a PowerPoint talk", meaning the person is giving a presentation using a laptop and projector to display slides (created using PowerPoint) on a screen while the talk proceeds.

Software that aids in creating webpages (sometimes called Web authoring software) often has similar capabilities, allowing the user to add images and other graphics to a page which will be displayed on the World Wide Web. In addition, these packages must also specify the targets of hyperlinks, i.e., describing where the Web browser should go when a user clicks on a link. Some word processors and presentation software packages have an export feature that will generate a webpage.


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These pages were written by Steven H. VanderLeest and Jeffrey Nyhoff and edited by Nancy Zylstra
©2005 Calvin College, All Rights Reserved

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