Driving home what an operating system is

Car dashboard

What is an operating system? That’s a question I’ve received from time to time here. While I provide an adequate explanation in The Ultimate PC Primer, my intent in the book wasn’t to spend a lot of time explaining operating systems. Here’s why…

For most ordinary users, an operating system is a nothing. It is taken for granted. We don’t care much about it so long as it works. Applications/programs are where the value of the computer lies for us. But the question about operating systems often comes from computer newcomers who are starting to spread their wings. They’ve learned not all computer systems look and function the same, and by raw research, asking a friend, or context clues they eventually realize that this is due to different “operating systems.”

So, today on Explain Technology, today’s questions are: what is an operating system and what good is one? Why does a computer need it, and what does that mean for us?

Let’s answer this backwards. If you know that nearly everything you want to do with a computer involves programs or “apps,” then the first thing to learn is that those programs won’t work without an operating system (OS). Think of this like automobiles and the road. If you have several nice cars parked in your garage, you undoubtedly own them so that you can drive them somewhere — so that they will carry you from one place to another. Could you drive them with no road? No, you need a road for them to function and rules of the road (driving rules) for them to operate safely, without crashing into other cars. Likewise, computer programs that you like to use to achieve some useful benefit also need a bedrock to work from and rules in which to operate.

But the OS is more than just a necessity. It’s a nicety for you, because a computer is, at its core, quite an impersonal machine. To function, it requires lots of commands in a very complex “code” form. Very few ordinary individuals would want to operate a computer natively, because it would be like learning a very difficult foreign language to get the computer to do what you want. That is, unless you got a translator to do the dirty work for you.

That’s where the operating system comes in. Unless you can speak that raw computer language, you need something that will translate for you. That means the translator needs to be something you can understand. Modern graphical operating systems, introduced to the masses by Apple with the Macintosh — (you technophiles in the audience, please no nit-picking about Xerox or neXt here… we’re talking about products for ordinary PC users) —  use metaphorical symbols and icons to represent real-world equivalents. This is what helps bridge the intangible computer functions with familiar real-world concepts. Trash cans, file folders, buttons, menus, and so forth are all common features through which operating systems allow you to relay your commands to the computer. But behind the scenes, the operating system is really giving the computer its instructions for you.

Pretty much all modern computer operating systems (and even those from yesteryear you’ve likely never heard of) use the graphical, metaphorical approach. Apple Mac(intosh)OS, Microsoft Windows, and even the mobile device operating systems (Android and iOS) largely employ the same techniques and provide you with roughly the same capabilities.

Will this ever change? Is there now or will there ever be a way to operate a computer without a graphical operating system? Based on new technologies like Siri, I expect eventually what an operating system looks and functions like will change. Instead of icons and metaphors, we may one day simply operate our computer by talking to it, much like Star Trek. The “operating system” will still be there, but what we associate with operating systems today — those icons, buttons, and menus —  will likely take on a less prominent role. Think of it this way: if your car ever becomes sophisticated enough that it can drive you anywhere you wish, safely and reliably, by you simply talking to it (without you touching the controls), then what it means to “operate” an automobile will have changed. The rules of the road won’t have changed, but they will have become so transparent that you might not even think about them.

This is why operating systems are just a little like “nothingness.” You can’t travel through the computer experience without one, but the OS itself isn’t the reason you want to own a computer. It’s a necessary platform for everything you do want to do, like smooth road and good traffic control signals.

So the next time you use a computing device, recognize there’s something busily translating your wishes into commands as you work. And if current computer operating systems and their icon-based, metaphor-laced approaches frustrate you or someone you know, pick up a copy of The Ultimate PC Primer for a little more explanation through stories, anecdotes, and illustrations.

And finally, if you’re a Star Trek dreamer, hang on. It won’t be long before your car and your computer can take you for a ride without more than a spoken command.

One Response to Driving home what an operating system is

  1. Danny says:

    You said I couldn’t mention Xerox or NeXT, but can I mention Stanford? 😀


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