Mar 20

What is an operating system and what does it do?

What is an computer operating system and where can I find a list of operating systems?

The question “What is an operating system?” is one I get asked often and it always surprises me for some reason. For example sometimes when on the telephone to a customer and I ask what operating system they are running on their desktop or laptop I get told Google. Obviously this is not the case and it is generally a version of windows but the problem seems to be that the difference is never explained. Once you have paid for your computer you are left to fend for yourself.

So lets clear it up and go through the main operating systems and exactly what they are and do to save confusion in the future when talking to tech support.

What operating systems are there can you give me a list of operating systems?

There are many different operating systems out there but the ones you will be familiar with by name will probably be:

Microsoft Windows 95
Microsoft windows XP
Microsoft windows ME
Microsoft Windows Vista
Windows 7
Microsoft windows 8 (due for release later this year possibly October)

Mac OS 8
Mac OS 9
Mac OS X

Open Suse
Free BSD


The list goes on but most of the well known ones are there. If you want a full list you can find one at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_operating_systems.

Ok but put it more simply what is an operating system and what exactly does it do?

An operating system is a complex set of programs that are designed to manage and control your computer hardware resources and software. This means they can provide services to to programs you run on your computer.

Ok so maybe that was not that simple. Think the operating system as the middle man between your physical hardware in your computer and the game or software you want to run. You open your game or your program and this could be the conversation between your game/program, the operating system and the hardware.

Program Pete: Hey windows I want to run can you sort me out some resources.

Operating system: Sure what do you need?

Program Pete: I could do with a bit of memory, a bit of processing power and some place to store my settings if that’s ok?

Operating system: Let me have a chat with hardware and see what we can do.

Program Pete: Cheers

*Operating system goes to talk to Hardware*

Operating system: Hey hardware hows it going down there program Pete is at it again “get me this get me that” do you have some free resources?

Hardware: He never leaves me alone does he. Tell him he can use 100% of the processor if he needs it as nobody else is using it at the minute but if anti virus Annie comes in he will have to share it with her. Tell him he can have half the memory too and as much storage as he wants within reason.

Operating system: Cheers hardware I will let him know and allocate it to him

*Operating system goes back to Program Pete*

Operating system: Right Pete here is what I can do for you but if someone else comes along you are going to have to share the resources.

*Uri USB is plugged in and anti virus Annie wakes up*

URI and Annie together: Can we please have some resources!!

Program Pete: *sigh* now its going to take me a nano second longer to do my task because I have to share with those two

And so the conversation continues….

It may sound silly but if you want to make it really basic this is pretty much what is happening although granted how it happens is very complex.

Without the operating system the programs you use would not be able to run as they would not be able to talk to the hardware which is why you will find pretty much every desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, Ipad smart phone has an operating system.

Are there any free operating systems out there?

There are many free operating systems out there and over the years they have got more and more compatible with software we use on a regular basis. For example the new Raspberry pi comes with a Linux operating system which is free and allows you to do all the basics such as go on the internet create documents and a whole lot more.

You will find arguments all over the internet on operating systems that cost vs free operating systems so I wont go into it here. What I will say is if you are going to move to free software be sure to do your research. The most important thing to remember is Linux is not windows and is very different so be prepared for a learning curve.

Below is a list of some of the free Linux operating systems out there.

Open Solaris
Free BSD
Chrome OS

There are many more out there this is just a sample of the most popular.

Ok so these all go on my computer so what are mobile operating systems?

Mobile operating systems are much the same as an operating system for your desktop or laptop but they are designed for tablets, PDA`s or mobile phones. These operating systems tend to combine a number of features such as touch-screen, bluetooth, GPRS, video cameras, cameras and many other features. The most common mobile operating systems are:

Android – Open source from Google
iOS – Apple closed source used on iPhones, Ipads.
Symbian – Used by Nokia
Windows phone – Closed source software from Microsoft.

How do I find out what operating system I am using?

If using a smart phone or Ipad you should be able to determine the operating system from the above list. On a Mac you are most likely to be using OS X snow leopard.

To find your operating system on a windows based machine simply find the “my computer” Icon on your desktop (if it is not on your desktop press your start menu button/windows button and you should find My computer or computer on the right hand side). Use your right mouse button to click on it and select properties.

Depending on your oprating system you will get a screen similar to the following which will tell you basic system information and your operating system.

What operating system vista/7 image

What operating system XP image