I was recently asked what Operating System I was using, and didn't know the answer. I have a Dell notebook with Microsoft and I think it has Windows on it. What exactly is the operating system? Why are there so many names?
Puzzled in the Pioneer Valley
Thanks for your question. It's common for people to think of a computer as just one thing, a computer. You might have some vague ideas about the difference between Mac and PC, but the difference between Apple/Mac, or Windows and Microsoft can be a little bit confusing. Let's talk about some basic concepts to clear this up.
A computer is essentially a machine that runs programs, and most people use them to make use of specific programs for work, communication, or entertainment. So maybe you use a word processor, a web browser, or other apps or games, and that’s all you really think about. But before your computer can run these programs for you, it needs to run a whole collection of other programs that operate the hardware (mainly tell it what to do and how to do it) and "draw" things like the user interface buttons and boxes on the screen and stuff like that. That’s what we call the operating system.
Comparing a computer to a restaurant can be a handy analogy for understanding this. Imagine you want to eat lunch, so you go to a restaurant and sit down at a table. The physical restaurant has a modern kitchen and a well-stocked pantry, but you can’t order anything unless there are people there who know how to make things happen. You need somebody who knows how to use the equipment, understands the menu, and can take your order and cook what you asked for. Otherwise you’d just be sitting in an empty restaurant with raw ingredients all over the place.
An operating system is a lot like the staff of the restaurant. It knows how to use all of the hardware in your computer and how to ask you for instructions, and it knows how to run the programs that you ask it to. You can run a lot of the same or similar programs on different operating systems, too. Just like you can order french fries at a lot of different restaurants.
Note that if you turn on your computer without an operating system, you’ll still get a retro-looking menu or a blinking cursor or something. This is because there’s technically a smaller, basic operating system installed on the motherboard, called the BIOS (this coincidentally stands for BASIC INPUT/OUTPUT SYSTEM), which knows how to load up the main disk where the operating system is installed, but really does little else once the operating system takes over.
Interesting, but how do I know which one I'm using?
The two most common operating systems for desktops are Microsoft Windows and Apple OS X. There are several versions of Windows, including XP, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8.1, and Windows 10, and you'll know you're using it by the Windows logo that you see when it turns on. If you've got a computer with the Apple logo or "Mac" in the name, it probably has OS X for its operating system.
For “PCs” it gets a little more complicated. Unlike Apple, Microsoft doesn’t make its own computers. Instead, they make the Windows operating system and license it to companies like HP, Dell, Asus, Gateway, Acer, Toshiba, etc. If your computer has the logo for any of these companies on it, it probably has some version of Windows installed. You can confirm that when you turn on your computer and see the Windows logo, which, if you don’t know, is a window with four panes. There are also a ton of other options, like GNU/Linux-based Ubuntu and Linux Mint, but it’s very rare for a computer to come with this pre-installed.
Phones are way easier. If you have an iPhone, you’re running iOS. If you have an Android, your operating system is Android, which is based on Linux. Technically, iOS is also based on Unix, which is part of the *nix family of Unix-derived OS's like Linux, but I think we just got too nerdy and we apologize if this confused you ;) If you have a Windows Phone, well... nevermind. We know nobody has a Windows Phone.
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