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What is ISO?
If you are interested in what ISO stands for in regards to photography, please read this article instead. The two topics are not quite related.
ISO – or International Organization of Standardization – is a format for disc imaging. Essentially, every piece of software that you own on CD-ROM or DVD-ROM (perhaps even Blu-ray) is compacted into this particular imaging file in order for installation programs on the disc to be easily accessed once the disc is put into the drive. It is ideal because the files are stored uncompressed.
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Uses of ISO Files
Certain open source operating systems (like Linux) store their data into these ISO files in order for them to be properly read from a CD/DVD-ROM. Because most software companies are now allowing downloads for their software, sometimes it is necessary to make a back-up onto a CD or DVD if the file being downloaded is an ISO file. But because of the necessity of acquiring third-party software in order to access ISO files (when not reading from a disc), this is not always convenient, so it is not something that will be seen too often.
Fortunately, Windows 7 - for those who have it - comes equipped with an ISO burner (called Windows Disc Image Burner). When double-clicking on an ISO file, it will prompt you for options in order to burn it accordingly. Alas, that is all the software is capable of; it doesn’t come with other features such as authoring an ISO file or accessing an ISO file if not on a CD or DVD. You will need additional software for that.
It is a rare case for software being purchased and downloaded online to be available in ISO format, but as already mentioned above, it is valuable in case a back-up of the program needs to be made. Though, depending on the software company, some may consider it illegal as you are essentially making copies of the program.
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ISO Files and Virtual Drives
Going through the hassle of burning an ISO file to disc only to access the information on it can be quite cumbersome. Fortunately, there is some free software available in order to extract the information from the ISO file. Essentially, this program mounts a “virtual drive" which will make your computer think that the ISO being accessed is actually in a CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, while it is only there virtually. This is useful in regards to installing software. There are also certain programs out there that will allow you to access the files in an ISO – though just accessing them alone won’t necessarily install your software properly; you will need a program that will mount a virtual drive. As already mentioned, Windows 7 comes equipped with an ISO burning program, though there is third-party software available for those using another version of Windows.
For more help about acquiring and using software to mount a virtual drive, check out this article on ISO drive mounting. While this article is mostly to help with PC Games, it can still apply to any software. For instructions with specific programs such as Magic Disc and WinRAR, you can also take a look at this article.
There can be some legal issues regarding accessing ISO files like this – not necessarily for using the programs themselves – but pirated software can sometimes come available in ISO format. Ultimately, it is up to the user to be aware that what software they are purchasing online is from a valid retailer. Sources like WOT and McAfee SiteAdvisor can help in that regard. Alternatively, using software to modify the contents of an ISO file can also be a legal issue, depending on the contents and the developer of the data found within that particular ISO file. It is also up to the user to be made aware of what is legal and illegal in regards to copying software to removable media. Always double-check what the legal uses are with the software you have. If in doubt, contact the customer service department of that particular company. Alternatively, you can also seek legal advice if in doubt.