Over the last year, I've tried to avoid becoming a computer "expert" because I've wanted to approach every problem surrounding the purchase and use of a computer the way most others out there do: with ignorance.

Some of you probably think I've been awfully successful at it. But I have to confess that even my Herculean efforts have not been enough to keep me from inadvertently absorbing tiny bits of knowledge that have put distance between me and my fellow ignoramuses.

One such instance came to my attention just the other day when someone asked me what software was.

Now, it's not as if I have neglected the topic. In fact, I've defined software, discussed what makes it good and bad, and talked about how to select it a number of times.

The problem was, I'd come to understand how software fits in the scheme of things computer-wise without ever realizing it, thanks to my continued contact with the subject.

That's when I thought I ought to make one final effort to explain what software really means to a computer user.

Most important is that you start with the understanding that a computer is a tool--nothing more, nothing less. True, it is a powerful tool and it has the potential to help you do a lot of things more efficiently and quickly than you ever have before. But when you pull it out of the box and put it on a table, it's going to sit there with about as much initiative as a hammer.

To get it to work for you, you have to program it yourself or buy software.

To program it, you have to know at least one computer language and a lot about the task you want to accomplish. That means taking classes or buying books and teaching yourself.

Then you'll have to spend more time analyzing your problem and deciding how to write the program so the computer will tackle it in an efficient way. Finally, you have to write the program.

Programming can be a lot of fun--if you're so inclined. If you're not, however, there is only one alternative: software.

Software is a computer program, written by someone else, that is designed to get the computer to accomplish a general task, such as making your computer act as if it were a typewriter. ou can pay someone to write software specifically designed to do what you need, or you can shop around the local computer stores or browse the computer magazine ads and buy commerically available software.

If you hire someone, it's going to cost an arm and a leg but (hopefully) you'll get something that does exactly what you need done. If you buy commercial software, you're going to save a lot of money, but the result is often like buying a suit off the rack. The fit may not be exactly right, and that means you could end up having to shorten the cuffs or lengthen the sleeves a bit. As you'll see, that may not always be possible.

That's because, essentially, there are two kinds of software: those that are designed to accomplish a very specific task and those that are more general in their approach to solving a problem.kind of software that is specific is one that, say, transforms your computer into that typewriter or makes it pretend it's a starship. Both are very specific types of tasks. Generally, they are designed so that there is very little leeway for modifications by the user.

In other words, what you see is pretty much what you get when you take it off the store shelf.

Software that is general in approach requires you to make modifications so that you can use it. VisiCalc is one such piece of software.

You buy it and then plug it into your computer, which then displays a spreadsheet, just like the one Scrooge's poor nephew used to labor over with a quill pen.

The program leaves the specifics up to you. For instance, you will have to instruct the computer how to handle your entries--you might tell it to add whatever you put in space A1 to space B2 and then subtract the result from space C1--but once that is done, the program will not forget and it will carry out those instructions with every entry you put in space A1 from then on.

That means you can play with your numbers and see what is the best way to spend your money. But it means you still have to invest some time beyond just learning how to get the computer turned on and the software up and running on your screen.