What Is A Computer Operating System?

As a computer hardware enthusiast, the idea of installing an operating system on a new computer hasn’t always been the most fascinating part of a new build. It takes time, attention, and overall makes me want to skip over the entire process and get to the more fun aspects of testing out brand new hardware. It got me thinking though, why it was even a needed aspect of a computer. I decided to do some research, and I wanted to share what I found.

So what is a computer operating system? A computer operating system (OS) is a graphical interface software that allows for management and control of the hardware components in the computer. Operating systems are designed to provide an easy to use interface to the computer user and provides services to the computer hardware.

Operating systems are very complex pieces of computer software. Which isn’t surprising, considering that it’s designed to facilitate the computer user’s communication with the computer itself. There’s many different kinds of operating systems and I’d like to get into more detail about them.


Important Terms to Know About Operating Systems

Before we can jump into anything though, I wanted to take some time to go over a few important terminologies about operating systems. Some of them are common knowledge, and others are more specific. Most importantly though, all of them are useful to know about operating systems going forward!

  • OS – Short for Operating System. Most anyone speaking about operating systems will shorten it to OS. It’s much simpler to say, and faster as well.
  • GUI – Short for Graphics User Interface. This is the core of a modern operating system, offering the most user-friendly experience for the computer user.
  • Time-Sharing – A term used to refer to operating systems allocating resources in order to accomplish multiple tasks at once or run multiple applications at the same time.
  • Single-User – A term used to refer to operating systems that only allow for one congruent user at a time on the system. Typically, home computers have an OS set up for a single-user system.
  • Multi-User – Unlike single-user operating systems, multi-user systems are designed for multiple users to be logged into the same OS at a time. This is typically accomplished with servers and is commonly used at places of business.
  • Virtual OS – Short for Virtual Operating System. This is a program designed to mimic the functions of an operating system while be run on another operating system. Typically, virtual systems are used to allow a computer to use an application that only works on one type of OS and not another.
  • Windows – This is a specific brand of operating system created by Microsoft. It’s the most common operating system for home computers with a variety of different versions. Windows 7, Windows 8, and Windows 10 being the most common ones today.
  • Apple OS – Sometimes referred to as Mac OS as well. This is a specific brand of operating system created by Apple. It’s the second most common operating system for home computers with a variety of different versions. OS X and Mac OS 10 being the most common ones today.
  • Linux OS – This is a specific brand of operating system created by Linux. Linux is the third most common operating system for home computers with a variety of different versions. Ubuntu, Elementary OS, and Linux Mint being the most common ones today.
  • Microsoft – The leading software development company for computer operating systems. They hold the lion’s share of the OS market for personal computers. A vast majority of computers at home use a Microsoft operating system.
  • Apple – Microsoft’s main competing company in the computer OS market. While not as widely used with home computers as Microsoft software, Apple software has always been designed to offer a simpler and easier to use system.
  • Linux – A less common company in the computer OS market than Apple and Microsoft. Linux is unique in that their operating systems are open source and completely free to download. They have the highest customization options for the user, but suffer from being more complicated to use and less optimized for some commonly used computer applications.

Despite some of these terms being more broad than others, hopefully learning some of these keywords will give you a clearer understanding of what is being discussed in any conversation about operating systems.

A Closer Look at Operating Systems

Operating systems in computers have a long and storied history dating all the way back to the 1950s. At this time, operating systems were not designed for ease of use on a monitor, but rather used in mainframes to run complex timings for programs. They didn’t operate how we see them today, with a graphic interface on a screen but instead was a system of mechanical switches and jump wires on a control board.

These types of systems would be used by most computer systems until the invention of the microcomputer, which is just a fancy way of referring to the home computers we use to this day. With these new, much smaller computers being brought into homes, there was a need for a more sophisticated operating system.

In January 1984, the first graphic user interface (GUI) operating system was released by Apple called the “Mac System Software 1.0” and a year later, Microsoft released their own, the “MS-DOS”. The GUI was a breakthrough for the OS and was exactly what was needed to drive the demand for personal computers to record highs in the late 1980s.

Since then the modern OS has really taken shape over the last few decades. Microsoft and Apple have continued to be each other’s main competitors in the market as they release new versions of their operating systems every few years in an attempt to improve over the previous versions.

There has also been smaller companies like Linux that have remained relevant in the market by taking a different approach and going open source. Their free core system open to anyone for editing in order to create their own operating system, assuming they have the talent and skills necessary to do so!


How Do Operating Systems Work

At it’s core, a computer’s OS is designed to not only allow for computer hardware to more effectively communicate, but to also allow for the user to have a much easier time instructing a computer to perform tasks. Without a GUI operating system, a user would need to use a DOS system, which involves typing out every single action a user would want the computer to do in a long string of instruction code.

With a modern day operating system, interacting with your computer is as simple as moving your mouse cursor along the screen of your monitor and clicking to interact with folders, files, and applications. The operating system interprets every click and does the heavy lifting by converting the user’s actions into binary code for the computer processor to understand.

Outside of allowing for a user to easily communicate tasks to the computer, an operating system also facilitates services and updates to computer hardware. Device drivers like your keyboard, mouse, USB ports, and graphics card can all be updated with new firmware through an operating system.

Most home computers use an OS based around a single-user system. Meaning that the computer supports only one user accessing the hardware on the computer at a time. A single-user system can have multiple accounts set up for different users, but only one of those users may access the OS at once.

Multi-user systems function very similarly to single user systems. The main difference being that these types of operating systems are set up for businesses on a central server computer. Other computers at the office access this central server with their own unique account and the system allows for many accounts to all be using the same operating system congruently.

Regardless of whether you use a single-user or multi-user system, all operating systems also give an added layer of security to a computer. Allowing for accounts with secure log ins with passwords ensures that the contents of the computer’s hardware and files are not easily accessed by anyone that doesn’t have their own account set up for the system.

Different Kinds of Operating Systems

Since the modern OS has been released in the mid 1980s, there have been a few major company names in the market. Each company has taken a slightly different approach to their design philosophy for operating systems and they all have different advantages and disadvantages.


Microsoft Windows – Perhaps the most prolific name in the OS market. With an estimated market share of 82.74%, Microsoft’s Windows has been the dominant OS on home computers for decades. Their philosophy and approach to OS design has typically centered around a mixture of ease of use while allowing for a sizable amount of customization.

Windows Advantages:

  • Popular and easy to purchase – With the most modern version of Windows (Windows 10) allowing you to verify and download the OS straight off the internet, Microsoft has made it as easy as possible to get their operating systems onto personal computers.
  • Customization – Windows allows for a large degree of customization within their OS code. Typically, third party programs are needed to do this though, and caution should always be used when installing third party programs.
  • Not restrictive – Unlike the Apple OS, isn’t nearly as restricted with its compatibility with computer hardware. As long as the hardware is supported by the computer itself, Windows will support it as well.

Windows Disadvantages:

  • A popular target for viruses – Being the most popular OS on the market has its own downside in that hackers, malware, and viruses are mostly dedicated to attacking the Windows OS code. Microsoft does a commendable job of keeping their firmware up to date in order to combat this, but it’s still worth noting.
  • Frequent changes – A major complaint about Microsoft’s approach to Windows design in the recent years has been unwanted, bloated, or unnecessary changes. Sometimes changes to Windows are needed to keep the OS interface modern and fresh, but other times they introduce clunky design that isn’t very desirable.


Apple OS/Mac OS – Microsoft’s biggest competitor that holds an estimated 13.23% market share. Apple initially beat Microsoft to the punch and released the first GUI operating system in history in the mid 1980s. However, since then, they’ve been outpaced by Microsoft’s more hardware friendly design philosophy. Apple has taken a more restricted, but easy to use approach with their OS. Offering a simplistic design that requires very little manual updating from the user.

Apple OS Advantages:

  • Simplistic design – Apple has taken many steps over the years to provide a clean and crisp operating system. A computer running an Apple OS is easy to use from the moment its first booted up with a design that requires very little extra navigation to find files and folders.
  • Support ecosystem – Apple as a company has always prided itself on having fantastic customer support. As they’ve branched out into other markets, they’ve opened up support stores all around the world. If you ever have an issue with your Apple based computer, you can simply take it to one of these stores and a quick fix should have you in business again
  • Virus resistant – Apple OS computers benefit from the perk of not being as common of a household item as a computer with Windows on it. Hackers, virus creators, and malware are far less common on Apple OS based computers.

Apple OS Disadvantages:

  • Restrictive – Apple OS runs off computers specifically built to run the operating system. While this allows them to remain simple and easy to use it also ensures they offer very little hardware or software customization.
  • Price – Because Apple OS runs off of computers built only for the Apple operating system, it’s extremely difficult to purchase the software without buying the hardware as well. This means the price of an Apple OS will always be much higher than a Windows OS.


Linux – Likely the most unique company to offer an operating system for computers is Linux. They have only a tiny 1.57% market share, but their approach to operating systems is entirely different from Microsoft or Apple. For one, Linux offers operating systems that are completely free. Yes, you heard me. Free. Linux offers an OS with an open source code. Meaning anyone with the right knowledge and skill can edit that code to their heart’s content.

Linux Advantages:

  • Price – Impossible to not mention this as the main draw of a Linux OS. The fact that it’s free instantly makes them competitive with Microsoft and Apple.
  • Customization – Being open source means that anyone that downloads a Linux OS has the ability to change it in any way they see fit, customizing it to a point where it can be considered unique and tailored specifically for them.

Linux Disadvantages:

  • Customization – Being so highly customizable is also a disadvantage for Linux because of the skills needed to properly edit the source code of an operating system. Not just anyone can do it, and some that try can easily break the entire OS.
  • Lack of compability – Linux operating systems have come a long way over the last few years in compatibility with both hardware and software. However, being free to use software comes with the disadvantage of being unable to gain the traction needed in the market to be fully supported by software and hardware companies.


Ease of Use (Conclusion)

Operating systems are sets of complicated software that even I learn new things about constantly. The big companies in the market change their systems frequently enough that it almost feels like you need to relearn everything every few years to stay on top of it all!

Hopefully you learned a lot about computer operating systems from this article. If you have any questions of comments please feel free to leave them below and I will do my best to respond to them directly!

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