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The term User for computer hardware and software customers has been universal for as long as I can remember. It has always applied to both hardware and software customers - There were "Lotus Users" and "WordPerfect Users", just as Commodore and Sinclair Users.

I struggle to think of other industries that refer to their customers as "Users", besides the computer technology industry.

It shouldn't be about technology. I don't recall CD and VCR producers calling their customers Users when those high-tech products were introduced, and I think the same applies to Nintendo and Atari (game consoles) too.

And it shouldn't be about things that are objectively tools. I have never heard of someone buying a hammer or drill referred to as a Craftsman or Dewalt User.

Other industries selling high-cost durable goods, such as automobiles, don't have Users either, though they often have "Owners". It seems to me that paying as much for a micro in the 1980's as a decent car cost should have qualified you as both a valued Customer and an Owner, so why a User?

Notably, the term does make perfect sense in 2020, where we have countless Facebook and Twitter Users who do not warrant being called Customers, since they pay no fees, and certainly are not the Owner of anything. So that actually fits - they simply Use.

There ought to be some objective history and reasoning behind the ubiquitous term User, instead of simply being called a customer, like in all other industries. From where did this demand to be called a User originate?

Update: If, as many suggest, the term User originated because it was an early and specific role, what did that role originally convey in terms of the person's competence, privileges, or restrictions regarding the machine? And does the same role definition thus roughly translate into similar expectations for a customer purchasing an early micro-computer for the home or office?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Chenmunka Jun 18 at 8:44
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    The people who use Facebook, Twitter, etc. are actually the Product. – UuDdLrLrSs Jun 18 at 14:39
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    drugs also have users afai have noticed. – Gnudiff Jun 18 at 20:49
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    @Gnudiff Came here to say that Why Software Sucks gets a lot of mileage out of that! – Soren Bjornstad Jul 13 at 16:46

19 Answers 19

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'User' and 'customer' aren't the same.

The user is the person (always a person) who uses a computer system to do something.

The customer is the person or organization who pays for the hardware and software used by the user.

The customer can be identical to the user (private or freelance personal computer user). The customer can be the user's boss (small firm) or organization (large company); it can also be a different unit of an organization from the one the user is in (IT buys software, business uses software). There are scenarios without customers (free-as-in-beer software), and scenarios without users (custom software that never gets used because by the time it's finished, the business case has changed).

Note that the term 'user' goes back to at least 1961, when DECUS, the Digital Equipment Computer Users' Society, was founded.[1] At that time, the only computer DEC was selling on the open market was the PDP-1, at a price of US$120,000 [2]. This price was so high that the customer always was an organization of some sort; however, it was also so low (compared to other computers at the time) that a diverse group of people -- not just operators, but also programmers, researchers, students, etc. -- could use the computer directly. It appears a collective noun was needed, though I don't know if the term originated at DEC. From then on, the terms 'user' and 'user group' seem to have stuck [3], eventually entering common use.

[1] Notably, the SHARE IBM user group pre-dated DECUS by 6 years, but did not call itself a user group at that time.

[2] equivalent to $1,030,000 in 2019

[3] Note all the user groups popping up in the 1960s and 1970s.

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    @BrianH The term 'user' goes back to at least 1961, when DECUS, the Digital Equipment Computer Users' Society, was founded. At that time, computer users definitely were not customers. I guess the terms 'user' and 'user group' just stuck, becoming ever more common. – Michael Graf Jun 16 at 14:29
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    This also highlights why it was so important to market the new machines as personal computers in the 8-bit era. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jun 16 at 15:49
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    Though I hate to admit that IBM had anything before DEC, GUIDE -- Guidance for Users of Integrated Data-Processing Equipment -- was apparently created in 1955, and unless it's a backronym, used the word "User" from the start. As I recall it, GUIDE was the more buttoned-up counterpart to SHARE. – another-dave Jun 16 at 22:27
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    @BrianH I don't have good statistics, but I believe that the vast majority of "WordPerfect Users" were not customers - of course there were many people who ran WordPerfect on their personal machines at home, but IMHO they were far outnumbered by WordPerfect users in an office setting. If the producer wants to adress both groups, then "user" seems to be the only appropriate term. – Peteris Jun 17 at 9:33
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    Should mention multi-user systems too. I'm old enough that we had a VAX in college with dumb terminals. All us students were 'users' of a single system. It would seem ridiculous to call us 'customers' because we had no relationship with the vendor. – Jason Goemaat Jun 17 at 13:30
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TL;DR:

User simply coins what is it about, the generic usage of something - differentiating it from any other role. And let's be honest, a computer is such a generic device, that it's use can be manyfold - from typist to gamer and accountant to engineer. So any more specific name would miss out other practices.


In Detail:

Notably, the term does make perfect sense in 2020, where we have countless Facebook and Twitter Users who do not warrant being called Customers, since they pay no fees, and certainly are not the Owner of anything. So that actually fits - they simply Use.

And it does as well make perfect sense with computing up and into the '80s, were, if at all, only a very tiny minority of people using computers also owned them.

There ought to be some objective history and reasoning behind the ubiquitous term User, instead of simply being called a customer, like in all other industries.

Beside the historical part of not owning at all, naming implies a viewpoint which changes according to who observes what.

  • Owner only means you bought something, but says nothing about its application. An owner may never use the computer he bought for his accounting department.

  • Customer is simply the viewpoint of a merchant during a sales transaction.

After that it's about, well, using the thing a customer bought and now owns. So, how do you call owners handling their (non-computer) assets?

  • Driving a car:
    • Driver
  • Riding a bike
    • Biker
  • Watching TV
    • Viewer
  • Listening to a Radio
    • Listener/Audience
  • Using a stove
    • Cook
  • Using a plane/bus/...
    • Passenger

...and so on.

For computers one could have called them 'Computer' which would have made sense - except the term were taken for the machine itself (and people before), so that wouldn't work. Also, computer application is so manyfold and new at the same time, that it might have been hard to coin a single term to cover it all. So they were simply 'people using computers', shortened to users.

It might be helpful to look back to another times changing introduction the Automobile. Before one settled on the archaic 'driver' (again) other names from Automobilist and Conductor to Motorist were tried for some time, because, let's be serious, no-one 'drives', in it's genuine sense, a car. It's steered or operated.

Pilot for a plane is another nice twist over time.


Addendum:

Add on from a comment by Brian:

Sure. I agree with this distinction. [between customer and user] But it doesn't explain why millions of customers who bought their own gear seemingly wanted or preferred to be called Users, or why the producers saw that as the more appropriate way to address them

It's important to keep in mind that the role of Customer is exhausted after the bill is payed. Also, not the user selects the naming, but the ones writing manuals and advertisements. So tell me how a manual for a memory board should address its user? There is no way they know what the board will be used for. Similarly, the manufacturer of a computer or the publisher of a spread sheet software.

While it may work with one time reads, like on a fridge, to call the reader a 'customer', it gets more inappropriate when time passes, and even more when it's documentation (books, magazines, etc) that are in no relation with the seller.

User is simply a colloquial term unspecific enough to cover everyone in front of a device made for anything.

And last, but not least, at the time "millions of customers who bought their own gear" became a thing, the term was already coined and in wide use. Try to get people to not say 'driver' when referring to a vehicle operator, just because they now own one as well.


And while writing this I realize more and more that this is not a question for RC.SE at all, but maybe some language site, like RichF suggests.


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    I certainly only want to be a passenger on a plane with a Pilot. – Brian H Jun 16 at 13:48
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    @MichaelGraf true, then he becomes a repeated customer, isn't it? As we all know, repetition can only happen if a process has a definite end, as it's needed to allow a start over. A logic step supporting that the customer role ends after the deal is done. – Raffzahn Jun 16 at 14:41
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    @BrianH Still today, but Customer does not describe the application and use of something bought, but only the seller-buyer relation. If I buy a car, the seller might still see me as past and hopefully repeated (!) customer, but in relation to the (my) car I'm the driver, not a customer. And I'm as well not the customer of some magazin about my car, but a reader - you see it's all about the relation, and the relation Seller to buyer is only one of them and a rather temporary. Also, If I buy a TI 99 at Kohl's, I'm not a TI customer, but one of Kohl's. So no reason for TI to call me customer. – Raffzahn Jun 16 at 21:38
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    So, how do you call owners handling their (non-computer) assets? Convention implies "Computerer" – Tom W Jun 17 at 14:40
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    "For computers one could have called them 'Computer' which would have made sense - except the term were taken for the machine itself (and people before), so that wouldn't work." -- so, a perfect word would be 'computerer'. :-) – Jeremy Tammik Jul 8 at 8:49
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Customers buy things. Users just use them.

The term 'user' arose in the days of the mainframe computer where many users connect to a single computer, often using the same shared terminals during the day. The individuals need tracking so 'users' and 'user accounts' were eventually born.

The notion of others in the workplace being called 'customers' was a later thing. I first saw it at work in the early 90's, with training on 'customer-driven quality' from the premise that 'all of us are each other's customers'. Prior to that, I didn't see customer used anywhere outside of the sales environment. It would have been a weird choice to use in the days when 'user' was adopted.

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    Not to mention the users of public services being rebranded as customers. – Nemo Jun 17 at 18:18
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The term "computer user" is analogous to "automobile driver". (It is an even better fit, because "driver" specifically excludes passengers.) Many people, in many cases most, who use computer hardware or software are not the purchasers, customers, operators, programmers, administrators, or gamers. I can think of no better term for "user" which encompasses almost every aspect of interacting with a computer. Would you prefer "interactor"?

If you would like an in-depth etymological answer, consider re-asking this question in the English Language and Usage SE.

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  • Thanks. I am mostly looking for an in-depth answer based on computing-specific history. And it's not so much the term is not appropriate. It's so appropriate as to be "obvious". But does that imply it was simply a crowd-sourced term and not one with a history of usage within the smaller community of early computer adopters? – Brian H Jun 16 at 13:21
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    @BrianH, What is the difference between "crowd sourced" and "with a history of usage within the community?" – Solomon Slow Jun 16 at 13:25
  • @SolomonSlow I didn't state they were mutually exclusive. – Brian H Jun 16 at 13:29
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    @BrianH Heck, not even Germany makes words by law (I explicite not use French as example here). even less does English. Terms get coined by usage in situations. It's a language interaction. There is never a why. Words are a thing to be used, at most questioned for their meaning and origin, but not reasons of origin (past the obvious). – Raffzahn Jun 16 at 13:30
  • @Raffzahn "not even Germany makes words by law". The meaning of the words in the Law is never taken for granted, and the "Why" of the word choices is the basis of countless legal arguments spanning centuries, in Germany, and everywhere else. – Brian H Jun 16 at 13:34
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The word "user" was applied to operators of word processing and office equipment well before computers were commonplace.

Google Books reveals citations back to the 1890s for "typewriter user." Manufacturers appeared to use this terminology as well, such as in this Remington ad from 1920: "Today, as always, the typewriter user who wishes to reach the lowest cost level of typing must go to the Remington." Similarly, here the operator of an automatic inkstand is described as a "user" in 1895, and much the same phrasing is used for the operator of a new type of eraser and a pencil sharpener. That one edition of "The Book-Keeper" uses the word "user" 16 times, most all referring to the person who uses office equipment. This January 1891 publication of "The Office: A Practical Journal of Business" uses the word "user" repeatedly to describe those making use of all kinds of office equipment and supplies.

It seems logical then that as new types of automated data processing equipment began to appear, that the term "user," which was already applied to the existing equipment, would apply to computers as well.

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It is one of the terms used originally to distinguish between the various roles involved in the creation and use of hardware and software. As a term it probably made much more sense in the days of room-sized mainframes where everyone had a lab coat on.

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  • There's at least another role: the one administrating/managing the software and hardware. An admin may actually configure but not use a program. – DarkDust Jun 16 at 13:07
  • Not to mention the operator as well, scheduling the jobs to be done. – Raffzahn Jun 16 at 13:11
  • Was a User someone assumed to possess a degree of competence with said hardware and software? – Brian H Jun 16 at 13:49
  • @BrianH Invert it and it'll become a thing: User covers everyone except noted otherwise. – Raffzahn Jun 16 at 14:36
  • There were different types of "operator" too - the high-school work-studies who changed paper in the line printers and mounted 9 track tapes didn't do the same work as job schedulers, but, at least to those on the outside of the glass walls, they were called operators. – Dave Jun 17 at 14:56
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There are:

  • People who sell computers: vendors

  • People who buy computers: customers of the vendors (and for pre-personal computers, this was generally an ongoing relationship)

  • People who program the computers that were bought: programmers

  • People who operate the machinery that is the computer while it runs the programs that the programmers have written: operators

  • People who, with the possible assistance of the operators (to load cards and tapes, burst lineprinter paper, etc), use the programs the programmers have written: the users

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  • Works ... except, I'd say user is simply the term for anyone using a computer not belonging to any specific class. – Raffzahn Jun 17 at 0:17
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    I'm a programmer, and the 'users' are definitely other people. But I think what you mean is that 'users' is just the leftovers once you've exhausted the more specific classifications. – another-dave Jun 17 at 0:44
  • Jup, exactly. If I can name my user - like swineherd if it's an application about pig feeding_, then I'll do it. Well ... or better not :) – Raffzahn Jun 17 at 15:14
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    I'm a programmer too, and I'm an user of the computer and programming tools that I use to do my job. When I talk about users, I generally mean the people who use the app I'm working on. – ojs Jun 19 at 10:44
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    @another-dave I'd say that as a programmer, you're a user too. Unless you write your programs with pen and paper and have a data entrist type in the program for you. – Abigail Jun 22 at 23:11
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To further Pete Kirkham's answer; IBM's TSO (Time Sharing Option) was one of the more popular software options that allowed customers of IBM to rent out time on their computers (a.k.a. mainframes of the time) to users that didn't need/want/afford a computer of their own. This solidified the concepts of

  1. "Users" (people that asked the computer to do work for them),
  2. "Operators" (People in charge of making sure the computer stayed running and used the special console to interact with the operating system with "godlike powers"),
  3. "Engineers" (people that created the programs that ran on the computers)
  4. "Owners/Customer" (people/companies that actually paid for the hardware and software)

"User groups" became an extension of the concepts where groups of people that used the software to accomplish their work would meet and learn from each other. Many arcane tips and tricks were passed around in these groups, and in many cases the groups would be anchored by "neck beards/guru's that were in many cases the engineers that wrote the software and were looking for ideas on how to make the software better and more usable.

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One might infer this from what the other answers said, but I don't see it explicitly stated.

A person who uses a computer is a user.

This "-r" suffix to refer to the person performing an action is just a feature of the English language.

There isn't really a better verb to summarise everything you do on a computer than "use", thus "user". With a (modern) computer, you type on the keyboard, you move the mouse, you look at the screen, you possibly touch the screen, you may also interact in other ways with other peripherals. You can also look at what you're doing at a higher level, but this still doesn't really give a better verb than "use" (with the exception of some specific types of applications, e.g. a gamer games or a player plays games, but this doesn't generalise to the computer as a whole).

You can see this language feature in other places too:

  • A person who drives a car is a driver.
  • A person who rides a bike is a rider.
  • A person who views a television show is a viewer.
  • A person who manages others is a manager.
  • etc.
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The person paying for the software is very often not the same person using the software.

I currently make support bots, the companies buying our product are our customers, the people using it are our users. A university with an Office 365 subscription is a customer, all the staff and students are users. For Gmail, the advertisers are the customers, the people using it are users.

Back in the old days, main-frames were widespread, so the same situation applied. The entity owning the main-frame was the customer, the people running software on it were users.

You need clear and concise definitions. E.g. SLAs for customer support ticket response times vs user support tickets are usually widely different.

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Following from Big Mike's recollection, which matches mine own, I had a look into CTSS which was about the first system with more than one user to see if I could find a source of the terminology earlier than 1961.

First movers often set terminology for a technical domain. John Backus uses the term when discussing the 'Effect of Automatic Coding on Machine Design' in 1954, and if John Backus gives something a name it tends to stick.

Mr. P.F. Williams said that his firm is trying to decide on a computer to use. They want something intermediate between an IBM 650 and 704. The 704 seems too large: they 'would not be able to keep it busy'. John Backus said that by time sharing, a big computer could be used as several small ones; there would need to be a reading station for each user. Mr H. Freeman remarked that down time would be worse for one large machine than for several small ones. Stanley Gill said that the idea of a centralised computing bureau seemed a good one, except that if each subscriber were to have his own input-output equipment he would not be able to afford such flexible equipment Prof. Adams pointed out that the idea was similar to a centralised stenographic bureau,which was not always successful.

D.L. Shell said that Bell Laboratories had in fact used a central computer with remote input-output very successfully. He said the cost per operation of a machine is roughly proportional to the square root of the time per operation; also the work load increases exponentially with the time. He felt that where elapsed time is vital in case of a breakdown, a large computer is still preferable.

http://bitsavers.org/pdf/mit/whirlwind/summer_session_1954/Digital_Computers_Advanced_Coding_Techniques_Summer_1954.pdf p16-2

(Automatic coding - compilers generating machine code rather than doing it by hand)

I don't know which system Backus was thinking of, if any, as this from the decade before any IBM system in Wikipedia's timeline, so I don't think there was a specific 'role' for the term, rather the 'customer' in the conversation would have been P.F. Williams' firm rather than the people operating the reading stations. Note that the other people in the discussions used different terms, subscriber above and, earlier in the discussion, customer is mentioned, though it's not clear if that refers to a user rather than a university:

Dr Grace Hopper raised the possibility of using several small computers in parallel. The greatest demand was for small machines, and she hoped that each university would eventually have one. [...] She foresaw a mass produced small machine, delivered with a compiler and library appropriate to the customer's needs.

Mr J.W. Backus disagreed[...]

Programmers and engineers are also mentioned in the discussion; however in the context of their use, the programming takes place before the engineers finalise the hardware design, so it seems that they are not considered users.

Dr J.C.P. Miller then proposes something sounding a lot like RISC computing. So users, not-quite personal computers and no-quite RISC all in just three pages of discussion from 1954.

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As someone who was involved in designing minicomputers in the 70's I'd like to add that from the point of view of an engineer developing the computer they might be seen as "mere" users. Also seen in user mode vs system/kernel mode. To system code developers application programmers can be seen as "mere" users.

I also agree that until the personal computer era customers who bought computers and users who programmed them were not the same people.

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  • Of course, on IBM mainframes, those pesky users execute in "problem state", which seems excessively pejorative :-) – another-dave Jul 9 at 1:57
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By my recollection, computers became multi-user, meaning that multiple people could operate the same tool simultaneously. Each user had "user space", meaning values assigned to do their work, and shared or system space, meaning it held values assigned to operate the system or exchange information between users. This was different from batch-oriented systems that relied on card stacks or tapes to fetch the next operation the computer was supposed to act upon.

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I started programming on cards in 1969. Work performed on the computer was a "job" that ran in "batches". Hand in your stack of cards, pray there wasn't a single typographical error, and you'd get a job report printout on a paper report of your program results.

I saw the first use of an on-line terminal in 1976 at the university I was attending. I counted sevens rows of students packed watching one guy using the terminal, and we were completely blown away.

Now computers had two segments of work to manage. Jobs continued as they had from the beginning, but "user" management was required to deal with on-line terminals needs such as data entry. One had to allocate scarce CPU cycles & memory between batch and user consumption.

The term user was coined to encapsulate the needs of managing security, resource consumption, etc that came from people running work a computer that now had multi-tasking capabilities.

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  • Very good relating this to the evolution of operating systems from batch to interactive. – davidbak Jul 9 at 15:32
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Before IBM popularized personal computers which led to the dominance of Microsoft, computers were huge. They were owned by departments, institutions, universities. Nobody owned a computer. In order to program or do other work on a computer, you had to be given permission to use it. So it was a machine that you shared with many other people. You became a user of a computer when you belong to an organization. You don't (usually) pay a fee to use a computer so you were a user, not a paying customer.

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Because 'user' wasn't in any way synonymous with 'customer', if it's in an organization then the organization itself might be the 'customer', but all the people who use it (in that org and everyone else who ever accesses/makes that copy) are 'users'; also, because licenses expire and PC software copying was rife back in the 1980s/1990s, so it was quite common that many of the 'users' aren't 'customers', or never had been.

Yes there is some objective history and reasoning behind this:

  1. The analogies to hardware aren't valid (CD, VCR, game consoles, etc., or cars). You can't duplicate hardware (well not easily), and typically there is one customer and that person is also the user. This is self-evidently not the case with software.
  2. As to Facebook and Twitter 'users', they aren't 'customers', they don't pay any licensing fee, so they can't have damages, and IIUC since there isn't any 'consideration' (money or other thing of value) they don't even have a contract with FB (IANAL); (they have a 'user agreement', but that's different, its terms mutate constantly, and it's very one-sided). Facebook's actual 'customers' are the people/companies who sell advertising on it, and/or pay or have licensing agreements for access to its datastream. Hence the adage: If you're not the customer, you're the product".
  3. It was quite common that many of the 'users' weren't 'customers'. PC software copying was rife back in the 1980s/1990s (before US and other countries passed laws on DRM, and mandated building copy-protection/detection for content into the OS (Windows) itself and hardware (blocking or fuzzing the display of non-DRM content); there used to only be more basic software copy-protection, serial-port hardware dongles, and challenges to see if you owned the user manual ("What is the second word of the fifth sentence on page 208?"). Another anecdote: AutoCAD, the most widely-used(/pirated) CAD suite, was said to only have 7 valid (= purchased) license keys in all of Russia in the early 90s.
  4. Even in a organization (or group) which had legit bought(/"licensed") the software, the 'customer' is the organization itself (or in a group, the individual who purchased it and allows other people access to it). There would be many 'users' but typically at most only one 'customer'.

Update: If, as many suggest, the term User originated because it was an early and specific role, what did that role originally convey in terms of the person's competence, privileges, or restrictions regarding the machine? And does the same role definition thus roughly translate into similar expectations for a customer purchasing an early micro-computer for the home or office?

This is tantamount to asking for an overview essay on the legal history of ownership(/licensing) in software, hardware and content (EULAs, shrinkwrap, DRM...), across multiple decades and jurisdictions, 1980s-current(!) That's a multi-semester course.

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According to Richard Gabriel, users at MIT in the seventies had another more descriptive name.

From The Rise of Worse is Better:

The right thing is to back out and restore the user program PC to the instruction that invoked the system routine so that resumption of the user program after the interrupt, for example, re-enters the system routine. It is called PC loser-ing because the PC is being coerced into loser mode, where loser is the affectionate name for user at MIT.

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The term customer apply when you are in a shop, be it cars or computers and many other things. So there no link between user and customer. In the car industry they design the car for the driver first and then passengers. Not customers. The same for computer they are designed to serve the user and that why customer pay for them.

And actually in my domain, we deal with travel, mostly using a computer to book a trip, but the names we use are not user but mostly travellers. And they are not our clients. Our customers are travel agencies or airlines. But the person that use our application (the end user) are most often traveller that want to book a trip. And the distinction is important. To be successful we must serve wel our end user (travellers) but also our clients (travel agencies & airlines).

Exactly the same when you sell a plane. The customer is often an airline sometime actually a company that rent planes. The users of the plane are pilots, stewards, mechanicians as well as the passengers. Each type of user has a different role.

Even in the car, there also the car mechanic. He is another user and the car is designed in a way that car mechanic can easily repear it.

So I agree with you that "user" is quite a generic term as apposite to traveller, passenger, driver... But this has no link with the notion of customer/owner.

In computer science you have user and thanks to user rights management you actually create groups and name them as you wish depending of your use case. There the generic opposition of system administrators vs users but typically in you company you could give different right to different teams or roles. And the computers would reflect that.

Because of that, because we don't know what role the users are actually given, because users don't even need to be a person but can perfectly be computer programs, it make sense to have a very generic term and let the users own choose their names/groups.

After all in a car entertainment system the user is a driver or passenger... In a CD player, it is a listener and so on. Remember there computer in basically everything today.

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I suggest looking at this question from a critical point of view. Critical in the sense of not defining the term user from the perspective we have today and reconstruct its historical context to fit our definitions.

One theoretical point of view is to look at how users where constructed with technology. The book How Users Matter edited by Nelly Oudshoorn and Trevor Pinch covers some aspects of the constructivist movement.

In their introduction, they summarize the main claim which is to "go beyond technological determinist views of technology and essentialist views of users’ identities." What it means that we should not assume that users only exist for the sake of 'using' technology but take an active rule in shaping technology as well as being shaped and 'constructed' by technology.

There are theoretical stances about this matter and link the question made between user and economy (aka. consumer) is another one.

My point is that most the answers tried to use the defitioin of 'user' in order to explain what a 'user' is, rather then asking how we got to the point where we have

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