Linux, macOS, and Windows are all operating systems. You’ll see these names when you go to download software. Some software is only available for a specific operating system, whereas other pieces of software have multiple versions to accommodate multiple operating systems.
An operating system is a special type of software that manages all the hardware and software on a computer. It is also known as an OS.
In this guide, we’re going to talk about what operating systems are and what they do. We’ll also discuss the main types of operating system and examples of each of those types. Without further ado, let’s get started!
What is an Operating System?
An Operating System (OS) is like the glue that brings together the rest of a computer.
Operating systems connect with and manage the hardware of your device. Hardware are the physical resources which allow you to use your computer, such as your keyboard, storage device, and motherboard.
Operating systems are where applications are run on your personal computer. When you open up an application, the operating system creates a process for it and manages that process.
The OS doesn’t work with these parts of a computer in isolation. Let’s say that you want to install a program. The operating system will walk you through the installation process. It will also receive and process keystrokes from your keyboard while you are setting up the application.
What Are the Roles of an Operating System?
The primary role of the operating system is to connect hardware resources and software application programs. It does this in a number of different ways.
Operating systems give you an interface that you can use, called a User Interface (UI), which makes it easy to interact with a computer. If you’re viewing this article from a desktop, you are using its UI to view this article. User Interfaces are sometimes called GUIs, or Graphical User Interfaces.
UIs are important because they make computers more accessible.
In the early days of computing devices, operating systems usually used command line interfaces. These interfaces only supported writing commands. There were no visuals with which you could interact. If you didn’t know about the commands that worked on a computer, you could not use it.
The first operating system with a graphical user interface came around in 1985. This was when Windows was paired with MS-DOS to create an operating system with a desktop-like interface.
Operating systems are essential in application management. When you open up an application, an operating system will handle everything that needs to be done to get that application running. It will create a process for the application, ensure that there is enough processor power available to run the application, and it will handle any errors that may arise.
What’s more, operating systems manage memory. They transfer programs into and out of memory, track memory usage, and ensure that the hardware of a computer has all the instructions it needs to carry out the actions a user has requested.
OSes are essential not only for the average user. They are important for the developers who build applications on a computer. The operating system handles all of the hard work associated with hardware. This means that individual applications, like Microsoft Office or Spotify, do not need to know how the hardware on a computer works to run.
While providing a user interface and application management may be the most notable parts of an operating system, this is by far from all that they do. Here’s a list that covers some of the other roles that an operating system plays on a computer:
- File Management: OSes keep track of and organize files on a computer.
- Security: OSes have built-in security features to protect a computer against malware and unauthorized access.
- Process Management: OSes log all the processes running on a computer, track errors, and ensure that programs open and close gracefully.
- Device Management: OSes manage all the devices connected to a computer such as the network interface card and peripherals such as the keyboard and mouse.
Every operating system performs these roles in different ways. For instance, Microsoft’s Windows and Apple’s macOS are both based on completely different file systems. This means that while both systems play the role of file management, they do so in different ways.
What Types of Operating Systems Are There?
In this article, we’ve so far said that operating systems work with computers. This includes any computer-based device, from smartphones to tablets to ATMs. Depending on the type of device that you are using, the type of operating system you’ll use will vary. The three most common types of OSes are general-purpose, embedded, and mobile.
General-Purpose Operating Systems
General-purpose operating systems are run on desktop or laptop computers.
They ensure that applications can share the resources available to a computer. Windows has become almost the standard operating system for general purposes, given its ubiquity in both homes and businesses. macOS is used on Apple’s Macintosh line of computers. Linux is another general-purpose operating system which is known for being fast and lean.
These are often called desktop operating systems.
Embedded Operating Systems
Embedded operating systems are written for specific devices.
A great example of an embedded operating system in use is at an ATM. ATMs do not usually run a business version of an operating system: they have their own custom-built system. These systems lack certain features so that they can be more efficient. They also have purpose-built error handling solutions in place so that an error does not crash a system.
Embedded systems can be found in airplanes, Internet of Things (IoT) devices like smart bulbs, and in digital home assistants like the Amazon’s Echo.
Mobile Operating Systems
Mobile operating systems are used by mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.
iOS and Android are the two leading mobile operating systems. They are purpose-built for mobile devices. They know how to work with the specific hardware on these devices, and the processes that need to be run to make a mobile device work.
At the Core: The Kernel
The kernel is arguably the most important part of the operating system. It is one of the first programs loaded when your computer boots up. The kernel handles the basic instructions your computer needs to set itself up. This includes initializing hardware and allocating memory to core system processes.
You’ll probably not run into a kernel when you’re using your operating system. This is because the kernel is usually protected because of how important it is to an operating system. Without one, your computer would not boot up.
Computers would not be what they are today without operating systems.
Modern operating systems abstract away a lot of the technical parts of using a computer. There’s no longer a need to type in commands to use a computer. You can use the graphical user interface provided by an operating system. For developers, OSes make it easy for them to work with a computer without having to know the details of the hardware on a device.
Now you’re ready to start talking about operating systems like a computing expert!