There are two basic types of operating systems, single program and multi-tasking.
Single program operating system:
Allows only one program to run at a time. If you are working working on an email and want to play a song, you must shut down the email application and open up a media player. This is annoying! Some hand-held devices like tablets and smart phones still use this type of operating system.
Multi-tasking operating system:
The simplest form of operating system that allows several programs to run at the same time. The programs have to take turns with the processor. It allows the user to have email open with music playing in the background while editing a spreadsheet and a chat window open, waiting for business. Much better!!
The computer must decide how many time slices each program gets. The active (or foreground) program gets the most. Some time slices would be given to programs that are doing things but which aren't the foreground program, like downloading new email, sending a document to the printer, or synchronizing files with online storage like DropBox or Google Drive or SkyDrive. These tasks are done in the background. A smaller number of time slices would be given to programs that are open but aren't doing anything. They need a little bit of time every now and then to see if they are supposed to do something yet.
Allows multiple users on a network to use the same computer (a server) or even the same program on that computer at the same time. This takes a powerful computer with the right management software.
Using multiple CPUs at a time instead of just one CPU lets a computer assign different tasks to each CPU. Speed increases immensely. Of course cost does, too!
You can set up a computer to give you a choice of what operating system to use when it boots up. This is called dual boot even if you have more than just two choices.
VM software allows you to install additional operating systems on your computer. These run in their own window and do not realize that they are inside your original operating system. You have to install your programs to the virtual machines just as if they were running the computer on their own. You do not have to reboot the computer to switch to one of your virtual machines. This is a tremendous help when you are comparing one system to another or when you have a couple of programs that just won't run on your new, better operating system.
Originally the operating system was created by each company that manufactured a processor and motherboard. So each operating system was proprietary, that is, unique to each manufacturer. Problem: changing to a new computer meant your software had to be replaced! Not good marketing. So there was pressure early on to standardize things so that software could be transferred to the new (and of course better!) computer. This required more standardization in operating systems.
The winner in the PC market was MS-DOS, Microsoft's Disk Operating System, and its twin at IBM, PC-DOS, also written by Microsoft. Now it's hard to recall those days when each computer had its own unique operating system. More on DOS Commands
Windows versions from Win95 on are operating systems on their own. The earlier versions of Windows use DOS as the operating system and add a graphical user interface which will do multitasking. But with Windows 95 Microsoft released an operating system that can take advantage of the 32-bit processors.
Windows XP is an upgrade to Windows 2000. It comes in two versions - Home and Professional. The Professional version contains all the features of the Home version plus more business features, like networking and security features.
Windows Vista was released in early 2007. It has higher requirements for memory and processor speed than previous versions of Windows. Vista comes in several different flavors for home and business purposes.
Windows 7 was released in late 2009. There are several versions with differing prices.
Microsoft: Which version of Windows 7 is right for you?
Windows 8 was released in late 2012 in several versions. Windows 8.1 was released in the fall of 2013. Windows 8 attempts to make the user's interaction with the operating system the same whether using a desktop computer, laptop, tablet, or smart phone. The default interface has large tiles for available programs and documents. It is designed to work well with a touchscreen. This was originally called the Metro interface. No more Start menu.
Microsoft: Which version of Windows 8 is right for you?
The Apple Macintosh is a multitasking operating system that was the first graphical interface to achieve commercial success. The Mac was an immediate success in the areas of graphics production, and still commands the lion's share of that market. Apple made a major marketing error when they decided to keep their hardware and software under tight control rather than licensing others to produce compatible devices and programs. While the Apple products were of high quality, they were always more expensive than comparable products that were compatible with Microsoft's DOS operating system. Apple's share of the computer market has dropped to an estimated 2.4% worldwide and 3.48% of the US market (MacWorld July 3, 2002). This is an example of how a near lock on a market can be lost in a twinkling.
The current version is Mac OS X, which is version 10. Since January 2002, all new Mac computers use Mac OS X. Subversions are named Jaguar, Panther, Tiger, Leopard.... Most statistics show that Mac is making a comeback (Feb. 2010 - see chart at bottom of page), but the total usage is still low compared to the total number of Windows systems.
UNIX is an operating system developed by Bell Labs to handle complex scientific applications. University networks are likely to use UNIX, as are Internet Service Providers. A lot of people have experience with UNIX from their college work. Many computer old-timers love UNIX and its command line interface. But all those commands are not easy to remember for newcomers. X-Windows is a graphical interface for UNIX that some think is even easier to work with than Windows 98.
Linux is an operating system similar to UNIX that is becoming more and more
popular. (And it has the cutest logo!)
It is a open-source program created by Linus Torvalds at the University of Finland, starting in 1991. Open source means that the underlying computer code is freely available to everyone. Programmers can work directly with the code and add features. They can sell their customized version of Linux, as long as the source code is still open to others. You can find more info at the Linux home site.
By the way, the word Linux is generally pronounced with a short i and the accent on the first syllable, like LIH-nucks. On the Wikipedia page about Linux, at the lower right, there is a link to an audio file of Linus Torvalds pronouncing it in English.
There are other operating systems besides the ones listed above, especially for mobile and tablet devices. New operating systems may still appear and take over the market position of the one that are popular now. Nothing in computers is so sure as change!
Microsoft, for example, has adopted a schedule for phasing out online
support and updates for its operating systems.
Windows Life Cycle
For example, under this schedule, the end of sales for Windows XP being pre-installed on a computer was Oct. 22, 2010. The end of mainstream support was April 14, 2009. Limited support is available somewhat longer for commercial customers - that's not for individual users! There will be no more security updates and no technical support of any kind from Microsoft for products that have passed their End of Life date.
It depends on who you ask! There is no one who can accurately report the true usage of any operating system. Various companies can report what they sold in a particular period of time and combine that info to see their "market share". Internet sites can report the operating systems of those who come to visit them. Someone might be able to estimate the "installed base" for an operating system, meaning the number of computers currently using that operating system. But no one can really tally the whole world, or even a whole country.
The pie chart below shows statistics in a Wikipedia article on operating systems as of
The charts shows the median of values from several sources, all of which used data from web browser visits to web sites. This, of course, omits completely any computer that did not visit those sites. But it's the best we can do. Notice that iPhone and other mobile devices are included in Wikipedia's charts but are in separate charts for HitsLinks.com.
What trends do you see?
Usage share of web client operating systems.
The next two pie charts are from a different source, HitsLink.com. Desktop computers and Mobile or Tablet devices use different operating systems. Check the current numbers by clicking the links below the charts. These charts show the various versions separately.