What Is An Executable File?

Executable files have been the workhorses of the computing world. Their immense importance lies in their ability to translate instructions into action. Let’s examine what an executable file is and why it plays a crucial role in the digital realm.

What is an executable file?

An executable file is a computer file that contains binary code carrying instructions for a computer’s central processing unit (CPU) to run a program. Executable files allow users to run programs without knowing the underlying code.

How does an executable file work?

Executable files contain codes that instruct a CPU to run a program. The process starts with obtaining the executable file and running it. The operating system plays a key role in executing the file. It takes the instructions from the executable file, which are written in a language the CPU doesn’t directly understand, and translates them into machine code. Machine code is a series of 0s and 1s that the CPU can understand and execute. The operating system would then take charge by loading the file’s instructions into the computer’s memory, allocating resources as needed, and handing control over to the program to begin execution.

How to run an executable file?

Executable files can be run in different ways. Here are some methods:

1. Clicking

Clicking an executable file is one way to run it in a graphical user-interface-based operating system. This triggers the operating system to launch the program according to the instructions contained within the executable file.

2. Syntax usage

Using syntax and pressing the Enter key is a common way to run an executable file in a command-line interface-based OS. However, running an executable file using a command-line interface requires navigating the file’s directory, which is more advanced.

3. Drag-and-drop

The drag-and-drop method is typically used in macOS to run an executable file. It requires users to drag the executable file from its location and then drop it onto the application Dock, which is usually placed below the screen by default.

4. AutoRun or AutoPlay

In the Windows operating system, a feature called AutoRun or AutoPlay automatically executes actions, potentially including launching an executable file, when you insert a removable media device containing an executable file with a properly configured AutoRun script.

Examples of executable files

There are several types of executable files that you can identify through their file extension. By looking at the extensions, you can easily know what type of program a file is. Here are some examples:

1. EXE

EXE (.exe) files are Windows-specific executable files with a common executable extension. They contain instructions for your computer to follow, allowing you to run applications or programs.

2. MSI

The MSI (.msi) executable extension pertains to the Windows Installer Package. These files are used to install on Windows systems and contain information about the files, registry settings, and other configurations needed for the program to function.

3. APP

APP (.app) is the standard executable extension for macOS. It functions similarly to .exe files but for Apple computers.

4. APK

APK (.apk) is the format used to distribute and install applications on Android devices. It also contains essential instructions for running apps on your Android device.

Malware in executable files

There have been concerns with executable files containing malware. With the nature of executable files having the power to take over once executed, malicious actors can exploit this ability to install harmful programs, steal sensitive data, or disrupt computer operations. Bad actors can conceal their attacks by undertaking several tactics, like sending out phishing emails that contain executable files, using double file extensions, exploiting software vulnerabilities, and more.


Simply put, executable files are computer files that carry codes to instruct a computer’s CPU to run a program. It communicates with the operating system, translating instructions into a language the CPU can directly execute, allowing you to use the program’s features. While executable files have been a cornerstone of computing, their power has become an instrument for bad actors to launch attacks due to their nature and vulnerability to malware. However, overall, executable files enable the creation of powerful applications when used properly.

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