What Is an Operating System and What Does It Do?

What is a computer operating system, and where can I find a list?

The question “What is an operating system?” is one I get asked often, and I have even been told in the past while trying to sort out a customer’s problem that their operating system is Google when, in fact, that is the browser they are using, not the operating system. (Google does have an open-source operating system called Chrome OS, I should state) That seems to be the problem, but computers and no one ever tell them the basics of what they are using. Once paid for, you are forgotten and left to fend for yourself. So, let’s clear it up and go through the main operating systems and exactly what they are and do. What operating systems are there?? There are many different operating systems out there, but the ones you will be familiar with by name will probably be:

Operating System


The list goes on, but most of the well-known ones are there. Ok, but what is an operating system? It is a complex set of programs designed to manage and control your computer hardware resources and software. This means they can provide services to programs you run on your computer. OK, so maybe that was not that simple. Think of it as the middleman between the physical Hardware in your computer and the game or software you want to run. You open your game or program, which could be the conversation between your game/program, Windows, and the Hardware. Program: Hey, windows, I want to run. Can you sort out some resources?

Windows: Sure, what do you need?

Program: I could do with a bit of memory, processing power, and someplace to store my settings if that’s ok. Windows: Let me chat with Hardware and see what we can do. Program Pete: Cheers

*Windows goes to talk to Hardware*

Windows: Hey, Hardware, how’s it going down there? Program Pete is at it again: “Get me this, get me that.” Do you have some free resources? Hardware: He never leaves me alone, does he? Tell him he can use 100% of the processor if he needs it as nobody else is using it at the minute, but if anti-virus Annie comes in, he will have to share it with her. Tell him he can have half the memory and as much storage as he wants within reason. Windows: Cheers hardware. I will let him know and allocate it to him

*Windows goes back to Program Pete*

Windows: Right, Pete., Here is what I can do, but you must share the resources if someone else comes along.

*Uri USB is plugged in and anti-virus Annie wakes up*

URI and Annie together: Can we please have some resources!! Program Pete: *sigh* now it’s going to take me a nanosecond longer to do my task because I have to share with those two

And so the conversation continues…

It may sound silly, but if you want to make it basic, this is pretty much what is happening, although, granted, how it happens is very complex. Without the operating system, the programs you use would not run as they would not be able to talk to the Hardware, which is why you will find pretty much every desktop computer, laptop, mobile phone, and iPad smartphone has an operating system.

Are there any free operating systems out there?

There are many free ones out there, and over the years, they have become more and more compatible with the software we use regularly. For example, the new Raspberry Pi comes with free Linux, allowing you to do all the basics, such as online creatingating documents.

Below is a list of some of the free Linux ones out there

  • Fedora
  • Open Solaris
  • Ubuntu
  • Free BSD
  • Chrome OS
  • Haiku

There are much more out there. This is just a sample of the most popular. You will find arguments all over the internet on operating systems that cost vs. free operating systems, so I won’t go into it here, but if you are going to move to free software, be sure to do your research. The most important thing to remember is Linux is not Windows and is very different, so be ready for a learning curve.

Ok, these all go on my computer. What are mobile operating systems?

Mobile operating systems are much the same as those for your desktop or laptop, but they are designed for tablets, PDAs, or mobile phones. These combine features such as the touch-screen, Bluetooth, GPRS, video cameras, and many others. The most common mobile operating systems are:

Using a smartphone or iPad, you should determine what you are running from the list above. On a Mac, you are most likely to be using OS X Snow Leopard. To find out what you are running on a Windows machine, find the My Computer Icon on your desktop (if it is not on your desktop, press your start menu button/windows button, and you should discover My Computer or Computer on the right-hand side). Use your right mouse button to click on it and select properties. The screen will tell you the operating system you are running.


Alcohol scholar. Bacon fan. Internetaholic. Beer geek. Thinker. Coffee advocate. Reader. Have a strong interest in consulting about teddy bears in Nigeria. Spent 2001-2004 promoting glue in Pensacola, FL. My current pet project is testing the market for salsa in Las Vegas, NV. In 2008 I was getting to know birdhouses worldwide. Spent 2002-2008 buying and selling easy-bake-ovens in Bethesda, MD. Spent 2002-2009 marketing country music in the financial sector.