In a technical sense, the Church-Turing thesis implies that any operating environment can be emulated within any other. In practice, it can be quite difficult, particularly when the exact behaviour of the system to be emulated is not documented and has to be deduced through reverse engineering. It also says nothing about timing constraints; if the emulator does not perform as quickly as the original hardware, the emulated software may run much more slowly than it would have on the original hardware.
Most emulators just emulate a hardware architecture—if a specific operating system is required for the desired software, it must be provided as well (and may itself be emulated). Both the OS and the software will then be interpreted by the emulator, rather than being run by native hardware. Apart from this interpreter for the emulated machine's language, some other hardware (such as input or output devices) must be provided in virtual form as well: if writing to a specific memory location should influence the screen, for example, this will have to be emulated as well.
A popular use of emulators is to run software, often games, written for hardware that is no longer sold or readily available, such as the Commodore 64 or early Amiga models. Emulating these on modern desktop computers is usually less cumbersome than relying on the original machine, which may be inoperational. However, software licensing issues may require emulator authors to write original software that duplicates the functionality of the original computer's bootstrap ROM and BIOS.
Developers of software for embedded systems or video game consoles often design their software on especially accurate emulator called a simulator before trying it on the real hardware. This is so that software can be produced and tested before the final hardware exists in large quantities, so that it can be tested without taking the time to copy the program to the hardware, or so that it can be debugged at a low level without introducing the side effects of a debugger.
For a list of emulators, see List of emulators.