What is an operating system

What is an operating system and what does it do?

What is an operating system and what does it do?

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

The question “What is an operating system?” is one I get asked frequently and I’ve even been told in the past when trying to resolve customer issues that their operating system is Google when in fact it’s the browser they’re using not the operating system.

(Google does have an open source operating system called Chrome OS which I should state) That seems to be a problem for people but computers and no one ever tells them what basics they’re using. Once paid for you are kind of forgotten and left to fend for themselves.

So let’s clean up and learn about the major operating systems and what they do and do.

What operating systems are there??

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

Microsoft Windows 95

Microsoft windows XP

Microsoft windows ME

Microsoft Windows Vista

Microsoft Windows 7

Microsoft windows 8 (to be released later this year maybe October)

Mac OS 8

Mac OS 9

Mac OS X




Open Suse

Free BSD




The list goes on but most of the famous ones are there.

Ok but what is an operating system?

It is a complex set of programs designed to manage and control your computer’s hardware and software resources. This means they can provide services for the programs you run on your computer.

OK so maybe not that simple. Think of it as an intermediary between your physical hardware on the computer and the game or software you want to run.

You open your game or program and it can be a conversation between your game/program, windows and hardware.

Program: Hi windows, I want to run, can you sort me some resources.

Windows: Sure what do you need?

Programs: I can do it with a little memory, a little processing power, and some place to store my settings if I may?

Windows: Let me have a chat with the hardware and see what we can do. Pete’s Program: Cheers

*Windows goes to talk to Hardware*

Windows: Hi hardware, how are you? Pete’s program does it again “give me this get me that” do you have any free resources?

Hardware: He never leaves me alone does he. Tell him he can use 100% of the processor if he needs it because no one else is using it at the moment, but if Annie’s anti-virus comes in, he should share it with her. Tell him he can have half the memory too and as much storage as he wants with an excuse.

Windows: Cheering hardware, I’ll let him know and allocate it for him

*Windows returns to Program Pete*

Windows: Right Pete here is what I can do but if anyone else comes along you should share resources.

*USB uri installed and Annie’s anti-virus is active*

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

Program Pete: *sigh* now it takes me nano seconds longer to do my assignment because I have to share it with both of them

And the conversation continues…

This may sound silly but if you want to make it really basic, this is what actually happens even though how it happens is very complex. Without an operating system, the programs you use will not be able to run because they cannot talk to the hardware, which is why you will find almost all desktop computers, laptops, cell phones, iPad smartphones have an operating system.

Are there any free operating systems out there?

There are many free ones out there and over the years they have become increasingly compatible with the software we use regularly. For example, the new Raspberry pi comes with Linux which is free and lets you do all the basic things like go online and create documents.

Below is a list of some of the free Linux out there


Open Solaris


Free BSD

Chrome OS


There are many more out there these are just the most popular examples. You’ll find arguments all over the internet about the cost of an operating system vs a free operating system so I won’t go into that here, but I would say if you’re going to move to free software be sure to do your research. The most important thing to remember is that Linux is not windows and very different so be prepared for a learning curve.

Ok so this is all on my computer so what is a mobile operating system?

Mobile operating systems are much the same as operating systems for your desktop or laptop, but designed for tablets, PDAs, or phones. These tend to incorporate a number of features like touch screen, Bluetooth, GPRS, video camera, camera and many other features. The most common mobile operating systems are:

Android – Open source from Google

Blackberry iOS

Apple closed source used in iPhone, iPad.

Symbian – Used by Nokia

Windows Phone – Closed source software from Microsoft.

How do I find out which operating system I’m using?

If using a smartphone or iPad you should be able to determine what you are running from the list above. On a Mac, you’ll most likely be using OS X snow leopard.

To find out what you’re running on a windows based machine, find the My Computer icon on your desktop (if it’s not on your desktop, press the start menu button/windows button and you’ll find My Computer or computer on the right side). Use your right mouse button to click on it and select properties. The screen that appears will tell you which operating system you are running.