Who is using the operating system and when

What is an operating system?

Many people have to do with electronic devices such as PCs, laptops, smartphones or tablets on a daily basis - and so we keep encountering operating systems. But very few users actually know what this software can do and why it is installed on all of these devices. While Windows, macOS or Linux are mainly used on laptops and desktop computers, most mobile devices work with iOS or Android. Although all these operating systems differ in many respects, their tasks and their structure are in principle very similar.

What do you need an operating system for?

If you switch on the laptop, you can first see how the system starts up. Depending on the selected operating system, Windows, Linux or macOS starts. Only when this system that is so important for the functioning of the device loaded, you can get to the real work and start programs, connect to the Internet, or open files. However, the operating system is not responsible for starting the device. It is preceded by the BIOS, which is responsible for the actual start-up process.

But the BIOS only has very rudimentary capabilities, which are mainly related to the boot process. With this it also starts the operating system, which then the complete management of the computer takes over. A lot of that happens in the background. Windows and Co. are also available as interfaces between the user and the computer. The extensive software can be used to make settings on the devices, install and uninstall programs and run software.

Operating systems run not only on familiar user devices such as smartphones and PCs. In principle, most complex digital devices have an operating system, which, however, usually runs hidden from the user in the background.

Nowadays most of the operating systems are graphically processed and geared towards ease of use. The most important functions should be available to users with just a few clicks of the mouse button; the menu navigation should be as intuitive as possible. It was not always like that. At the very beginning, when the first computers were used for scientific and military purposes, there was no operating system at all. Back then, everything was done directly with the machine itself - there was no network layer yet. But at the latest when the first PCs appeared, i.e. computers that were no longer the size of a cabinet, operating systems were also part of the standard equipment.

The first operating systems did not have a graphical user interface. Instead, you have one Command linethat you can still find today in Windows PowerShell, for example. For every action - whether opening a file, navigating through the folder structure or starting a program - you had to know and enter the correct command. Only when computers could also be used for home use did simpler user interfaces gain acceptance over time. The two companies Microsoft (with Windows) and Apple (with macOS) were in charge of this.

Tasks of an operating system

The operating system is basically the heart of every computer. Without the complex software, the other programs cannot function. The tasks that the system has to perform are diverse. Some things take place completely in the background and a lot at the same time.

Hardware management

One of the most important tasks of the operating system is usually invisible to the user in the background. The software manages all hardware, both for input and output. The system uses driversupplied by hardware manufacturers. The drivers make it possible to receive and pass on commands from devices and to transmit commands to the hardware yourself. This is how the keyboard, mouse, monitor, hard drive, video card, and all the other components that make up a computer work.

Software management

When you download software from the Internet, you usually have the choice between versions for different operating systems on the download page. This shows how closely the programming of the applications is tied to the specifications of the operating system. The basic systems of computers have Interfaceswhich regulate the communication with the individual applications. So it is possible that an application is allocated working memory, is allowed to use processor resources and can further process the input from the keyboard and mouse.

File management

When you have written a document, you can either print it (for which the application passes the instructions on to the operating system, which in turn passes on to the printer), or you can save the file in a folder. That one work in a directory structure is only possible thanks to the operating system. This order does not exist on the hard drive itself.

Rights management

In certain situations, for example in a company context, different people work on one device. But not all should have the opportunity to make system settings. Modern operating systems therefore make it possible create different users and adjust their rights individually. Each account can then also be secured with a password.

User guidance

Even people without special IT knowledge should be able to use a computer without any problems. It is therefore important for an operating system to make functions and options as simple as possible. Even for laypeople themost important aspects can be used with ease be. In addition, many operating systems - especially for PCs - offer additional options for professional users.

Network functions

Since the operating system organizes the hardware, it is also responsible for the network card and thus for the connection to the Internet and other networks. The Configure the computer as a network participant, for example also define a specific IP address. In the settings you can also enter the specifications of a LAN and the subnet in order to connect to other PCs. The network settings also allow the DNS server to be determined individually.

Safety precautions

Not traditionally a task of the operating system - and still achievable through additional software: security. Since computers are exposed to dangers with a constant connection to the Internet, operating systems also have their own security measures built in. For example, Windows are already built in Firewall and anti-virus scanner implemented.

Structure of an operating system

The operating system stands between hardware and the other software. To enable administration work, the operating system has a slightly different structure than most other programs. It is said that the systems are made up of different layers. In the lowest layer - the one furthest away from the user interface - is the Kernel, the most important element of the operating system. This program is therefore the first to be loaded. The kernel is the direct interface to the hardware, initializes it and forwards commands from the running programs to the hardware.

The other layers are then built on this system core and continue to move away from the interaction with the hardware. Each level only communicates with the one above or below it. Finally, at the top is that user interface - from this point of view, the interface between users and the software. If the user performs an action, this instruction is passed through the various layers until it arrives at the right place - for example the processor.

Different operating systems

Operating systems can be categorized from different perspectives. Obviously, one differentiates, for example, operating systems for mobile devices from those for desktop PCs and laptops. But you can also look at the underlying software. A distinction is usually made between Unix-based systems (such as macOS and Linux) and VMS-like operating systems such as the newer Windows versions. Older versions of Windows, on the other hand, are based on DOS. Then there are also operating systems that are specially designed for servers. The best-known and most widespread operating systems are likely to be Windows, macOS, the various Linux distributions, iOS and Android.


Probably that most famous operating system on the market - And with over 30 years of age also one of the longest-serving: Most people have probably already worked on a PC with Windows. This is mainly due to the fact that the Microsoft product is already installed on many pre-assembled computers. A new version of the operating system appears at regular intervals. In the meantime you have reached Windows 10, whereby the counting is constantly changing, which is why the current version is by no means only the tenth version.

Microsoft has also tried to develop mobile operating systems, but these have so far been less successful on the market. The last version (Windows 10 Mobile) will therefore no longer be developed.


At the same time as Microsoft, the IT company Apple released its first operating system. Back then it was simply called "System" and was the operating system for the Macintosh series from the start known for the graphical user interface. If the system software was meanwhile sold under the name Mac OS X, the operating system is now called macOS - and thus adapts to the naming of iOS. A special feature of macOS is that the operating system is used almost exclusively on Apple hardware.


The well-known alternative to the two large products from Microsoft and Apple is Linux. Even if you haven't worked with it before, many users have already heard of Linux - and wrongly labeled it as a complicated counterpart to Windows. In fact, Linux itself is just the kernel, which in different distributions is built in. The best known include Ubuntu, Debian, openSUSE, Fedora and CentOS.

Many Linux distributions are open source, are being further developed by a motivated community and are available free of charge.


The iPhone from Apple is one of the most successful smartphones on the market and has thus also spread the mobile operating system iOS worldwide. The Operating system already installed on every Apple smartphone follows the same approach as macOS: Users should be able to navigate through the various menus and programs as easily as possible. What you gain in terms of usability, you lose in freedom. Apple's iOS is known for hardly offering any individual setting options.

The iPad was also shipped with iOS until 2019. In the meantime, the Apple tablet (again) has its own operating system called iPadOS. The iPod Touch, the US company's mobile media player, is still shipped with iOS.


The other big player in the mobile operating system sector is Android. And the product, behind which Google is primarily behind, takes a completely different path than the Apple competition. Android is for one available as free software, and thus offers a lot of customization options, and is not limited to one device manufacturer. Almost every non-Apple smartphone ships with Android these days.

Device manufacturers usually adapt Android to their ideas, which is why the configuration options can differ significantly from smartphone to smartphone.

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