Network software, which operates over a network rather than on an individual computer, may perform tasks that supplement, enable or replace end-user software. Network-based antivirus software supplements desktop antivirus software. Network messaging server software enables end-user computers to send instant messages back and forth. And server application software, such as Customer Relationship Management software, replaces end-user contact management software. All network software shares the common goal of increasing productivity and improving security for network users.
Although computer networks began to emerge in the 1970s, network-based software did not begin to spread widely until personal computers became commonplace in home and office settings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, the advent of the visual browser for the Internet in the mid 1990s marked the true turning point for network software because it effectively changed the definition of network from a tool useful mostly by businesses into a tool useful to home users and consumers worldwide.
Network-based versions of desktop software exist for numerous software types, with the greatest number of varieties concentrated in areas such as communications and security. Network software for communications includes email, instant message, teleconferencing and video conferencing applications. Network software for security includes antivirus, spam filtering, firewall and data-access management applications. Although they are less common, network software versions of office productivity tools, such as spreadsheets and word processors, are beginning to proliferate.
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The advantages of network software compared to desktop software include centralized management and reduced end-user technical support problems. For example, if a particular desktop software application stores all its data on a network share, the danger of data being lost when an end-user accidentally damages his computer diminishes.
The centralized nature of network software entails that if the network application fails, all the users trying to connect to the application will be unable to do so. The failure of a single network software application can result in widespread productivity decreases.
The types and uses of network software can evolve as wireless networking technology becomes more widely available. Without the restrictions imposed by the need for cabled connections such as Ethernet, network coverage can widen rapidly, allowing more and more users to access networks where cabled networks were previously unavailable.
The terms "network software" and "networking software" are often used interchangeably. However, networking software most often refers to the software that enables networking. Novell and Microsoft, for example, are two widely known developers of networking software. Network software, by contrast, is software that operates once the network is already enabled.