What is an Operating System? All You Need to Know

By Tibor Moes / Updated: June 2023

What is an Operating System? All You Need to Know (2023)

What is an Operating System?

What if we told you that there’s a software running on your PC and phone that you probably couldn’t live without? Operating systems are the unsung heroes of our digital lives, working behind the scenes to make everything else possible.

In this blog post, we’ll dive into the world of operating systems, exploring their history, types, and future. So buckle up, and get ready for an exciting journey into the world of operating systems!

Summary

  • Operating systems (OS) are the heart and soul of any computing device, managing its memory, programs, and hardware resources.
  • They allow you to interact with device, controlling the hardward and software functionality in a user-friendly format.
  • Famous examples are Microsoft Windows, Apple macOS, Apple iOS, Google Android OS, and Linux OS.

Don’t become a victim of cybercrime. Protect your devices with the best antivirus software and your privacy with the best VPN service.

Understanding Operating Systems

Operating systems (OS) are the heart and soul of any computing device, managing its memory, programs, and hardware resources. These essential pieces of software act as a bridge between the computer hardware and system software, enabling communication with the device and facilitating tasks such as memory management, device management, and multitasking. From personal computers to mobile devices and even embedded systems, operating systems are everywhere, providing a consistent foundation for other software to run on.

As the backbone of any computing device, an operating system’s job is to provide a user interface, or’shell’, that allows humans to interact with the computer. This interface can range from a graphical user interface (GUI) to a command line interface, depending on the type of OS. Behind the scenes, operating systems also handle many other functions, such as file management, process management, and hardware resource allocation. In essence, operating systems are the glue that holds everything together, ensuring a smooth and seamless computing experience.

The Purpose of an Operating System

At their core, operating systems simplify the communication between applications and hardware components, reducing development time and ensuring a standardized interface for users. By acting as a bridge between hardware and software, an OS allows multiple programs to run on the same computer, while also managing the memory, operations, and hardware of the device. This includes launching and managing applications, producing error messages, handling interruptions, and managing memory.

Operating systems also play a crucial role in security, ensuring that unauthorized access to programs and data is blocked, and providing authentication and authorization options to control access to resources. In short, operating systems are essential for making computers and other devices usable, efficient, and secure.

Key Components of Operating Systems

Operating systems consist of several key components that work together to make computer parts work efficiently and allow user software to access hardware resources. These components include the kernel, networking, security, and user interface. The kernel is the core of an OS, connecting application software to the hardware of a computer and providing basic control over all hardware devices.

Networking protocols in operating systems allow computers with different OSs to join the same network and share resources such as files, printers, and scanners. Security features in an OS, such as encryption and sandboxing, help protect sensitive data and maintain system integrity.

Finally, the user interface allows users to interact with the system, whether through a GUI or a command line interface. Together, these components form the foundation of an operating system, enabling devices to function smoothly and efficiently.

Desktop and Laptop Operating Systems

When it comes to computer operating systems for desktop and laptop computers, three operating systems reign supreme: Microsoft Windows, macOS, and Linux. These operating systems dominate the market, providing users with a wide range of features, applications, and customization options.

In the following sections, we’ll take a closer look at each of these popular desktop and laptop operating systems, discussing their history, features, and advantages.

Microsoft Windows

Microsoft Windows is a family of operating systems created by Microsoft Corporation, primarily for Intel architecture-based computers. First released in 1985 as an operating environment running on top of MS-DOS, Windows has evolved through many versions and updates over the years. The latest version, Windows 10, offers a user-friendly interface, multitasking capabilities, and wide-ranging support for hardware and software.

Despite some drawbacks, such as vulnerability to viruses and malware and a lack of customization options, Windows remains a popular choice for desktop and laptop computers due to its extensive features and compatibility with a variety of hardware and software. With its long history and widespread adoption, Microsoft Windows has undoubtedly left a lasting impact on the world of operating systems.

macOS

Developed by Apple, macOS is an operating system designed specifically for Macintosh computers, offering a sleek and user-friendly alternative to Windows. Known for its intuitive interface and seamless integration with other Apple products, macOS has gained a loyal following of users who appreciate its aesthetics and ease of use. First released in 1999 as Mac OS X Server 1.0, macOS has undergone numerous updates and improvements over the years, with the latest version coming preloaded on all new Mac computers.

While macOS may not dominate the market like Windows, its unique look and feel, combined with its robust performance and security features, make it a popular choice for many users. With its continued development and innovation, macOS remains a strong contender in the world of desktop and laptop operating systems.

Linux

Linux is an open-source operating system family based on the Unix-like operating system, offering users a free and highly customizable alternative to Windows and macOS. Developed without any Unix code, Linux has a similar feel and boasts a market share of under 2%. Despite its relatively small market share, Linux has gained a dedicated following due to its open-source nature, allowing users to modify and redistribute the software as they see fit.

Popular Linux distributions include Red Hat, Debian, Ubuntu, and Linux Mint. Moreover, Google’s Android, ChromeOS and ChromeOS are widely-used too. The benefits of using Linux include its customizability, wide range of distributions to choose from, and the fact that it is free to use. Though not as widely adopted as Windows or macOS, Linux remains an important player in the world of desktop and laptop operating systems, offering users an alternative with a strong emphasis on freedom and flexibility.

Mobile Device Operating Systems

With the rise of smartphones and tablets, mobile operating systems have become an essential part of our daily lives. Designed specifically for mobile devices, mobile operating systems like Apple iOS and Google Android may not be as fully featured as their desktop and laptop counterparts, but they still provide a wealth of capabilities, such as browsing the web, managing calendars, playing games, and watching movies.

In the following sections, we’ll take a closer look at these two popular mobile operating systems and their unique features.

Apple iOS

Apple iOS is the operating system used by Apple on their mobile devices, such as iPhones and iPads. Known for its user-friendly interface and robust security features, iOS has become a popular choice for mobile device users. Apple’s iOS offers a seamless user experience with its intuitive interface, multitasking capabilities, and access to the App Store, which boasts millions of apps catering to a wide range of interests and needs.

In terms of security, iOS excels with features such as encryption, two-factor authentication, and secure boot. These security measures help protect users’ data and ensure that only authorized applications can access sensitive information.

With its focus on user experience, performance, and security, Apple iOS has solidified its place as a leading mobile operating system.

Google Android

Developed by Google, Android is a mobile operating system based on the Linux kernel and designed specifically for smartphones and tablets with touchscreen capabilities. Android offers users a customizable and versatile user experience, with a wide range of features and apps available through the Google Play Store. The OS provides a user-friendly interface, multitasking options, notifications, and various widgets to enhance the user experience.

However, like any operating system, Android has its drawbacks. The lack of uniformity across devices and its vulnerability to malware are among the notable disadvantages of the platform. Despite these drawbacks, Android remains a popular choice for mobile device users, offering flexibility, customizability, and a vast ecosystem of apps and services to cater to a wide range of needs and preferences.

Real-Time Operating Systems

Real-time operating systems (RTOS) are a unique breed of operating systems designed to process data at a specific time, making them ideal for intricate embedded applications that require task isolation and concurrent operation. With the help of specialized scheduling algorithms, a real time operating system can manage multiple tasks simultaneously and respond to external events quickly and efficiently.

Examples of real-time operating systems include VxWorks, PikeOS, eCos, QNX, and MontaVista Linux, which are used in a variety of industries and applications, such as automotive systems, medical devices, and industrial automation. The use of RTOS enables complex embedded applications to run smoothly and effectively, ensuring timely processing of data and optimal performance.

Types of Operating Systems: Advantages and Disadvantages

Operating systems can be categorized into three main types: general-purpose, mobile, and embedded operating systems. Each type has its own unique characteristics, advantages, and disadvantages, catering to different needs and devices.

General-purpose operating systems, such as Windows, macOS, and Linux, are examples of many operating systems designed to work across a variety of hardware and software platforms, offering users a customizable and user-friendly experience with a wide range of features and applications. However, these operating systems can be complex to use, prone to security risks, and resource-intensive, which can lead to slower performance. That’s where operating systems support comes into play, helping users navigate these challenges.

Mobile operating systems, like iOS and Android, are optimized for use on mobile devices and offer a lightweight, efficient, and user-friendly experience. They are designed to provide a wide range of features and apps, but can be feature-limited and vulnerable to security threats.

Embedded operating systems, on the other hand, are specifically designed for certain devices to perform a single major task, offering streamlined features and focused performance. Despite their specialized nature, embedded operating systems can still be feature-limited and susceptible to security threats.

Choosing the Right Operating System

When it comes to choosing the right operating system, there are several factors to consider, such as your hardware setup, the basic design of your computer, stability, memory management, security, and customer service. The hardware configuration and design of your computer can influence your choice of operating system, as some OSs may not be compatible with certain hardware configurations or designs.

In addition, the stability, memory management, security, and customer service offered by an OS are essential factors to evaluate before making a decision.

Ultimately, the best operating system for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences. By taking into account the factors mentioned above and comparing the different operating systems available, you can make an informed decision that will best suit your unique computing requirements.

Operating System Security

In today’s digital age, security is a top priority for any operating system. OS security includes authentication, authorization, and auditing options, ensuring that unauthorized access to programs and data is blocked, and that only allowed requests are processed. To establish identity, most operating systems require a username and password for authentication, while authorization determines the services and resources a user has access to based on their user account or group membership.

Auditing options in operating systems helps track requests for access to resources, providing valuable information about who has been accessing files and other system resources. By implementing robust security measures, operating systems can protect sensitive data, maintain system integrity, and provide a safe computing environment for users.

The Evolution of Operating Systems

The history of operating systems can be traced back to the early days of computing when computers performed single tasks and users had to program them using rows of mechanical switches or jumper wires on plugboards. As technology advanced, we saw the development of resident monitors in the 1950s, which marked the beginning of modern operating systems. The 1960s saw further advancements, such as the development of time-sharing operating systems, and the 1980s saw the rise of operating systems for personal computers.

The evolution of operating systems can be categorized into generations, with each generation marked by significant advancements in hardware and software technology. From the first generation of operating systems, characterized by the arrival of UNIVAC I and IBM 701, to the second generation, which saw the introduction of transistors as the hardware component technology, operating systems have continued to evolve and adapt to new technologies.

Today, we have a wide variety of operating systems available for a range of devices, from desktop and laptop computers to mobile devices and embedded systems. As technology continues to advance, we can expect operating systems to evolve further, incorporating new features, improved performance, and enhanced security to meet the ever-changing needs of users and devices.

The Future of Operating Systems

As we look towards the future of operating systems, it’s likely that we’ll see advancements in areas such as more efficient resource management, better security, improved user experience, and increased portability. Operating systems may become more adaptable and flexible, allowing for smoother integration between different devices and platforms. This could lead to a more seamless computing experience, with users able to easily switch between devices and access their data from anywhere, at any time.

In addition, we may see the development of new, innovative operating systems that challenge the status quo and offer unique features and capabilities. From research projects like Singularity and Plan 9 to educational platforms like MINIX, the future of operating systems is full of possibilities and potential breakthroughs.

As technology continues to advance at an ever-increasing pace, the world of operating systems will undoubtedly continue to evolve and adapt, offering users new and exciting ways to interact with their devices and the digital world.

Summary

Throughout this blog post, we’ve explored the fascinating world of operating systems, delving into their history, types, and future. From the early days of single-task computers to the advanced multitasking operating systems of today, it’s clear that these essential pieces of software have come a long way and play a critical role in our digital lives. As we look towards the future, we can expect operating systems to continue evolving, offering new features, improved performance, and enhanced security. No matter what the future holds, one thing is certain: operating systems will remain the unsung heroes of our digital world, making everything else possible.

How to stay safe online:

  • Practice Strong Password Hygiene: Use a unique and complex password for each account. A password manager can help generate and store them. In addition, enable two-factor authentication (2FA) whenever available.
  • Invest in Your Safety: Buying the best antivirus for Windows 11 is key for your online security. A high-quality antivirus like Norton, McAfee, or Bitdefender will safeguard your PC from various online threats, including malware, ransomware, and spyware.
  • Be Wary of Phishing Attempts: Be cautious when receiving suspicious communications that ask for personal information. Legitimate businesses will never ask for sensitive details via email or text. Before clicking on any links, ensure the sender's authenticity.
  • Stay Informed. We cover a wide range of cybersecurity topics on our blog. And there are several credible sources offering threat reports and recommendations, such as NIST, CISA, FBI, ENISA, Symantec, Verizon, Cisco, Crowdstrike, and many more.

Happy surfing!

Frequently Asked Questions

Below are the most frequently asked questions.

What is an operating system example?

Operating system examples include Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, Google’s Android OS, Linux Operating System, and Apple iOS. These systems provide the base of functionality for devices such as computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, and more, allowing users to interact with their devices in a user-friendly manner.

What are the 5 famous operating systems?

The five major operating systems that people use most often are Microsoft Windows, Apple MacOS, Google’s Android OS, Linux OS, and Apple’s iOS. All of these provide their own unique features and benefits, so it’s up to you to decide which one works best for your needs.

What is the purpose of an operating system?

The purpose of an operating system is to manage the communication between hardware and software, while providing a user-friendly interface for users. It ensures memory and hardware are handled efficiently, while enabling applications to interact with hardware in a consistent manner.

Author: Tibor Moes

Author: Tibor Moes

Founder & Chief Editor at SoftwareLab

Tibor has tested 39 antivirus programs and 30 VPN services, and holds a Cybersecurity Graduate Certificate from Stanford University.

He uses Norton to protect his devices, CyberGhost for his privacy, and Dashlane for his passwords.

You can find him on LinkedIn or contact him here.