Varieties of Operating Systems

Posted By BrokenClaw on November 3, 2007

For an introductory discussion, see The Operating System.

Most home computers use a version of one of two commercial operating systems. The most widely used is the family of Microsoft Windows®. The other is a product of Apple Inc, called Mac OS®.

The first version of Windows to reach widespread use was released in 1992. It was followed by a major upgrade to Windows 95 and then Windows 98. Since then there have been other versions, including Windows ME, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. In 2007 the home version of Windows Vista was released, but Windows XP is still the most common operating system in use.

The first version of the Mac OS was released in 1984 on the Apple Macintosh (commonly called a Mac) line of computers and was simply called the System. Over time the operating system came to be known as the Mac OS, because it only runs on a Mac. The current version is Mac OS 10.5, called Leopard.

When comparing operating systems, it is important to note that Windows is an open system, and Mac OS is a closed system. In other words, Windows can be installed and run on a wide variety of manufacturers’ hardware, such as Dell, Gateway, Compaq, HP, Sony, Toshiba, Acer, eMachines, etc. Many computer enthusiasts even build their own computers from parts and install Windows themselves. On the other hand, the Mac OS is only available on new Macintosh computers, which means that Apple controls every aspect of the hardware and software.

For more commentary on the Windows vs Mac comparison, read Windows vs Mac… Who Cares? .

While operating systems are the software foundation of the computer, it does not mean that they remain static and don’t need preventative maintenance and periodic repairs like an automobile. Changes to software are called updates. In the case of Windows, Microsoft sends out their updates on the second Tuesday of every month. These updates serve several purposes — fix bugs, address security concerns, and add features. Therefore, it is important that all computer users keep their operating system up-to-date, to help thwart malicious use from the Internet. For most home users, that means they should keep “Automatic Updates” turned On.

Software updates are commonly available for commercial programs, but they differ from upgrades. An upgrade is a new version of the software, presumably better with more features. For example, if you purchase an anti-virus program, it usually includes free updates to the virus data, but if you want to upgrade to the newer version of the program itself, you have to buy it.

There is another family of operating systems, called Linux, that is used by computer enthusiasts. Linux is an open source operating system. It has dozens of versions, called distributions, some of which are especially designed for desktop computers, such as Suse, Knoppix, and Ubuntu. Other distributions of Linux are designed for other devices like web servers, gaming consoles and digital video recorders.

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