Unit 3: Learning About Operating Systems

Listen to the recording as you read the text. Then complete the activities.

An operating system is a generic term for the multitasking software layer that lets you perform a wide array of 'lower level tasks' with your computer. By low-level tasks we mean:

A computer would be fairly useless without an OS, so today almost all computers come with an OS pre-installed. Before 1960, every computer model would normally have it's own OS custom programmed for the specific architecture of the machine's components. Now it is common for an OS to run on many different hardware configurations.

At the heart of an OS is the kernel, which is the lowest level, or core, of the operating system. The kernel is responsible for all the most basic tasks of an OS such as controlling the file systems and device drivers. The only lower-level software than the kernel would be the BIOS, which isn't really a part of the operating system. We discuss the BIOS in more detail in another unit.

The most popular OS today is Microsoft Windows, which has about 85% of the market share for PCs and about 30% of the market share for servers. But there are different types of Windows OSs as well. Some common ones still in use are Windows 98, Windows 2000, Windows XP, Windows Vista, and Windows Server. Each Windows OS is optimized for different users, hardware configurations, and tasks. For instance Windows 98 would still run on a brand new PC you might buy today, but it's unlikely Vista would run on PC hardware originally designed to run Windows 98.

There are many more operating systems out there besides the various versions of Windows, and each one is optimized to perform some tasks better than others. Free BSD, Solaris, Linux and Mac OS X are some good examples of non-Windows operating systems.

Geeks often install and run more than one OS an a single computer. This is possible with dual-booting or by using a virtual machine. Why? The reasons for this are varied and may include preferring one OS for programming, and another OS for music production, gaming, or accounting work.

An OS must have at least one kind of user interface. Today there are two major kinds of user interfaces in use, the command line interface (CLI) and the graphical user interface (GUI). Right now you are most likely using a GUI interface, but your system probably also contains a command line interface as well.

Typically speaking, GUIs are intended for general use and CLIs are intended for use by computer engineers and system administrators. Although some engineers only use GUIs and some diehard geeks still use a CLI even to type an email or a letter.

Examples of popular operating systems with GUI interfaces include Windows and Mac OS X. Unix systems have two popular GUIs as well, known as KDE and Gnome, which run on top of X-Windows. All three of the above mentioned operating systems also have built-in CLI interfaces as well for power users and software engineers. The CLI in Windows is known as MS-DOS. The CLI in Max OS X is known as the Terminal. There are many CLIs for Unix and Linux operating systems, but the most popular one is called Bash.

In recent years, more and more features are being included in the basic GUI OS install, including notepads, sound recorders, and even web browsers and games. This is another example of the concept of 'convergence' which we like to mention.

A great example of an up and coming OS is Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a Linux operating system which is totally free, and ships with nearly every application you will ever need already installed. Even a professional quality office suite is included by default. What's more, thousands of free, ready-to-use applications can be downloaded and installed with a few clicks of the mouse. This is a revolutionary feature in an OS and can save lots of time, not to mention hundreds or even thousands of dollars on a single PC. Not surprisingly, Ubuntu's OS market share is growing very quickly around the world.

As an IT professional, you will probably have to learn and master several, if not all, the popular operating systems. If you think this sort of thing is fun and interesting, then you have definitely chosen the right career ;)

We have learned a little about operating systems in this introduction and you are ready to do more research on your own. The operating system is the lowest software layer that a typical user will deal with every day. That is what makes it special and worth studying in detail.

Now continue to the Activities