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Computer Operating Systems – Understanding How They Work

The definition of an Operating System is “the software that controls the operation of a computer, directs the input and output of data, keeps track of files, and controls the processing of computer programs (Britannica, 2008)”. Each new computer brought home from the store already has an operating system installed and ready to use, but it wasn’t always this way.

When Personal Home Computers (PC’s) were first introduced in the early 1980’s, they didn’t have an operating system; most didn’t even have a hard drive! These early PC’s needed a floppy disk with stored drivers’ n order to get the operating system started. You then had to remove the operating system driver and insert a new floppy that contained the program you needed to work with. This second floppy would not only contain the individual program (word processor, spreadsheet, etc) but all the drivers needed to communicate with the PC as well. This time consuming and frustrating process of switching from floppy to floppy gave birth to the integrated operating system.

An operating system performs many functions; it keeps track of where things are stored on the hard drive, manages each components activity, and allows users to interact with the system by either typing commands on a keyboard or by using a Graphical User Interface (GUI, commonly pronounced gooey).

The most important function of an operating system, however, is translating the commands issued via keyboard or mouse into binary code; the language of computers represented by zeros and ones.

Because the operating system is now integrated directly onto a computer’s hard drive, the floppy disk has gone the way of the horse whip and become obsolete. Programs, along with the drivers and other necessary components, are stored directly onto the computer and available whenever the program is accessed.

Although there are many operating system’s available today – Windows Vista, Mac OS X, Zeta, IBM, Unix, and Linux to name a few – Apple was one of the first to use an operating system in their Macintosh computer. This established a user-hardware relationship with a user-friendly interface and helped pave the way for future operating systems.

Caution must be taken when attempting to upgrade an existing operating system and a check for the necessary hardware is advisable. For example: if your computer had Windows 98 installed and you are attempting to upgrade to Windows XP, you would also need to install extra hardware components that were unavailable when Windows 98 was introduced. The new operating system will search for hardware that is unavailable and fail, thus making it impossible for your computer to function.

One other word of advice is to be sure to install an operating system that is compatible with your current system. For example: the hardware of a Macintosh is very different from that of a Windows computer and it is impossible for a Windows operating system to work on a Macintosh!

Operating systems have advanced tremendously in the last 25 plus years and will continue to improve. They have integrated themselves into everything from game consoles to PDA’s and not all the uses have been discovered. It is very important to keep in mind the exact type of hardware and system being used so upgrades will be easier but the outdated use of floppy’s is (thank goodness) a thing of the past.