Did you know that Charles Babbage designed the first digital computer in 1830? Although he never lived to see his design come to fruition, he is still considered the forefather of computers.
After the invention of the first computer, the first computer operating systems were quick to follow. The first computer was an innovation in hardware, but the operating system was an innovation in software. A good OS allows your computer to perform at the very limits of its capacity by using every resource at its disposal.
But many people don’t know what their operating system does for them and how it works behind the scenes. Understanding your OS is the key to making an informed choice when buying your next computer, so it’s essential to understand the basics.
With that in mind, we put together this computer operating system guide, so read on to learn more!
What Are Computer Operating Systems?
An operating system is a layer of interface between the computer and the user. It handles all the small tasks, like allocating memory, managing processes, translating input and output, and controlling devices like the disk drive. It essentially manages all the low-level functionality of the hardware in accordance with what the user is asking it to do.
Your OS also handles security and error management to make sure that your computer is running smoothly and safely.
One of the primary functions of an OS is to manage storage in the main memory. The main memory is a vast array of bytes. Each byte has its address and can store a small amount of data. To run a program, the operating system needs to allocate the proper amount of memory.
Likewise, when the user ends a program, the OS has to deallocate the memory it was using so it can be recycled. The OS, therefore, has to keep track of all the bytes and which ones are in use. It also has to decide which bytes to allocate to each process.
Your processor, or your CPU, can only manage a certain amount of processes at a time. The OS is in charge of deciding when and for how long each process can use the CPU. It has to be able to allocate and deallocate the CPU properly. Otherwise, the system will get bogged down.
Main memory management and processor management deal with active processes. File management deals with storage and programs that are not currently active. It includes your documents, pictures, and more.
The OS has to keep a directory of where everything is stored. In addition, it has to allocate and deallocate space for files as they are created and deleted.
Your OS also acts as a translator between the devices you plug into your computer and the computer hardware. It includes your mouse, keyboard, USB devices, printers, and more. Anything you plug into your computer is registered and tracked by the operating system.
Of particular importance is the I/O controller or the input/output controller. It decodes all input from your mouse and converts it into something that the hardware can understand. For instance, if you click on a file, your I/O controller tells the hardware to read the bytes that file is stored on and allocate memory for the program to read that file.
History of the Operating System
The first computer operating system ever invented was in 1945 and was a crude system of plugboards and vacuum tubes. This system has to be manually controlled.
The second system was invented in 1955 and was the first batch operating system. The term batch operating system refers to a series of tasks running automatically on a computer without help from a user.
After this, a few other kinds of OS were created over the years:
- Time-sharing operating system: allows many people to share the same storage and resources
- Distributed operating system: combines several different computers into a network that acts like one computer
- Network operating system: many computers with the different OS can share in a common network
- Real-time operating system: processes data, events, and time-sensitive programs
These systems were the foundation for consumer-friendly systems, and computer scientists still use many.
Single-Task vs. Multi-Task
When computers were first invented, they were single-task machines. It meant they could only handle one job at a time, so instructions would have to queue up to be completed. A batch operating system is an example of how single-task computers work.
Today, multitasking is standard among computers. It means your computer can perform thousands of tasks at the same time through your OS.
You can listen to music while you’re browsing the internet or writing a paper. Meanwhile, your operating system is cleaning up processes and memory in the background and preparing to perform a scheduled update.
You might think of early operating systems as a housekeeper with one arm, while modern operating systems have ten arms. They can complete ten times the work in half the time without you even having to think about it.
Modern Operating Systems
Easily the most common operating systems are macOS and Windows. Windows has more than 87% of the market share, but both systems are commonplace. Both have a dedicated following, which makes it difficult to identify the best computer operating system.
It’s worth noting that the way your operating system looks is not what sets it apart from other operating systems. For instance, macOS isn’t different from Windows just because they look different. The underlying storage and allocation functionality is different.
Windows is supported on more computer hardware and can handle more file formats. It is why Windows is available on computers from many different brands.
On the other hand, macOS is only available on Apple computers. It means that the software was developed alongside the hardware and is more stable and predictable. However, this comes at a high cost.
Many laptop manufacturers see the benefits of both Windows and an operating system developed alongside its hardware and have tried to balance both benefits. For instance, the Lenovo Evo platform uses Windows to capture all its functionality. But, they also developed their hardware and operating system side by side to ensure perfect functionality.
In this way, Lenovo has started to set the standard for future operating systems. You can continue reading about the Evo here.
After Windows and macOS, Linux is the third most popular operating system. It’s more accurate to describe Linux as a family of operating systems, as there are several different systems with different strengths and weaknesses. There are so many different systems because Linux is entirely open source, meaning anyone can see the code and use it to make their OS.
Let’s say you love one Linux operating system but don’t like how it handles security. You can go into the files yourself and modify them.
Due to its versatility, Linux is a favorite for servers and cluster computers. It’s less of a favorite for personal computing because it can be more unstable and challenging to work with.
Mobile Operating Systems
Some people forget that their phones and tablets also have an operating system. Remember, an operating system is just a software layer that interfaces between the user and the hardware. So any piece of hardware, including phones and smartwatches, has an OS.
If you have an iPhone, your operating system is iOS, and if you have an Android phone, your operating system is Android. Between these two, we see the same differences and similarities as we did with macOS and Windows.
iOS is available only on the iPhone and represents a stable (and pricey) mobile operating system. Android is available on almost every other phone and represents a versatile, customizable interface. In addition, Android is open source, so you can tweak it to suit your needs.
Computer Operating Systems Explained
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of computer operating systems. They do all the heavy lifting and work behind the scenes every time you click something on your computer. Without them, you would be stuck in a world of 1s and 0s!
When shopping for your next computer, keep this article in mind and pick the right OS for you!
If you enjoyed learning about operating systems, we have lots of cool content like this on our blog. Check it out for more!