Major Operating Systems

There are many operating systems out there. You have undoubtedly heard of the top two: Windows and Mac OS. You have probably also heard of Linux. You may not have heard of the other OS contenders, including Google's "Chrome" OS, and the "Unix" family of operating systems. Then there are operating systems which are no longer widely used, such as MS-DOS and the Amiga OS.

Here, we'll take a quick look at the top contenders, and will also introduce a new line of OS: mobile operating systems.



Windows 1.0
Windows 3.0
Windows 95
Windows XP
Windows Vista

Originally based upon Microsoft's MS-DOS CLI OS, Windows is the most popular OS today. About 90% of computer users worldwide use Windows–but that number is dropping.

Whether Windows is the "best" is an argument made by various users. Windows gained its popularity because of the aggressive business model used by Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer at Microsoft. The Windows OS, however, has often lagged behind the Mac OS and Linux in terms of new features and usability.

Even before Apple came out with the GUI-based Mac OS in 1984 (or perhaps the less-popular GUI-based "Lisa" OS in 1983), Microsoft knew that the GUI would be important, and that they had to compete with Apple's new offerings. However, it would take too long to develop a completely new, GUI-based OS (Apple had been developing the Mac OS for more than 5 years). Instead, they took MS-DOS, a CLI OS, built a GUI on top of it, and release Windows 1.0 in 1985.

The original versions of Windows were not successful, however. It was not until Windows 3.0 in 1990 that Windows finally became successful. The OS was still primitive, but now worked well enough for people to feel more comfortable using it.

In 1993, Microsoft released something new: Windows NT, a new version of the OS which, for the first time, was not based on MS-DOS. Ten years after Apple came out with it's GUI-based OS, Microsoft finally a GUI-based OS as well. At first, NT was used by professionals, not consumers.

For consumers, Microsoft came out with Windows 95, which was the first OS which resembles the Windows most people know and use today. The blue desktop, bottom taskbar, and Start Menu all appeared in this version. In 1998, Microsoft released Windows 98, which was controversial"controversial" means that something creates argument or makes people upset somehow because it integrated Microsoft's browser, Internet Explorer, into the OS. Opening a folder would not open a new window, but would use the same window to display the content of the next folder. Users could access "forward" and "back" buttons to see the progression ("history") of directories they had visited. This feature was controversial because, by making Internet Explorer an integral part of the OS, Microsoft was shutting out other browsers, especially Netscape, which had been the No. 1 browser. The result of the "browser wars" was that Microsoft was successful in taking over the market. Netscape failed, became open-source, and finally transformed into the Firefox browser.

Between 2000 and 2001, Microsoft released three new versions of its OS. In 2000, it released Windows Me, the last MS-DOS based OS, and was widely considered a failure. Windows NT 5.0, meanwhile, was renamed "Windows 2000," and became a consumer-level OS. Windows 2000 was far more popular, but was quickly replaced the following year.

Microsoft released Windows XP in 2001. Also based on the NT OS, Windows XP was in some ways Microsoft's greatest success. It remained Microsoft's only new OS for 6 years, and although Vista was released in 2007, most Windows users avoided it and stayed with XP until Windows 7 in 2009. While XP was considered a good, stable OS, 6 years is too long without a major upgrade. The Mac OS was upgrading to new versions every 1.5 ~ 2 years, and XP was becoming dated. However, Microsoft was not ready with their new version yet.

Unfortunately, they released a new version anyway--Windows Vista--too early, before it was really finished. Because of the premature release, many users had problems. Some peripherals, like printers, would not work with Vista, and many people suffered crashes and other bugs. Vista was so unpopular that many people would demand their new computers have XP installed instead. Most Windows users continued to use XP, even when it was 8 or 9 years old--ancient in computer terms.

Another problem with recent Windows OS releases has been the fact that it comes in too many versions--"Starter," "Home," "Business," "Enterprise," and "Ultimate"--as well as "Basic" and "Premium" varieties of some of those types, and 32-bit and 64-bit versions as well. Each one has different levels and sets of features, and the price ranges from $150 to $400. It makes it difficult and confusing for customers to understand which version they should buy; in contrast, the Mac OS has only one version, usually for $130 (sometimes as cheap as $25), which has all the features.

Microsoft finally released "Windows 7" in mid-2009. Windows 7 is considered a mature and stable OS version--what Vista should have been, but was not. Windows 7 is often called "Vista Service Pack 2," a reference to the idea that 7 is just a repaired version of Vista. In addition to Vista's new graphic interface (sometimes called "eye candy") and features like Desktop Gadgets, Windows 7 introduces a new Taskbar (which can have apps "pinned" to it), new windows management including a feature called "Jump Lists."

Although Windows 7 is much more stable and popular than Vista, many people still have the image of post-XP Windows as being unreliable, and so new user adoption remains somewhat slow.


Mac OS

The Mac OS was the first to have a GUI; based upon the 1983 Lisa computer, the Mac used all the familiar elements of the GUI: a desktop, windows, icons, menus, mouse clicks, and dialog boxes. Although Apple computers had a large market share in the late 70's and early 80's, company mismanagement and expensive pricing caused Apple's Mac computers to fall to only 3% of all computers used, even though many believed that the OS was always superior to Windows. Today, roughly 10% of American computer users (more than 5% worldwide) have Apple computers, and the market share is growing.

The greatest difference between the Mac OS and Windows is that Apple has always made both the hardware and the software for its computers. In contrast, Microsoft is mostly a software company; Windows computers are made by any company which decides to make them. As a result, there are dozens of companiesLenovo (formerly IBM), HP, Acer, Asus, Dell, NEC, Pioneer, Sony, Toshiba, Gateway, Panasonic, eMachines, MSI, Sotec, Sharp, Hitachi, Fujitsu, and more. making Windows-ready computers. But only Apple makes Macsofficially… there is something called "Hackintosh," a pirate version of the Mac OS which can be used on any PC..

Why is this important? There are several reasons. The main reasons are cost and compatibility. Apple has been known as a high-priced computer maker, and while many of its current computers are around the same price as comparable PCs, historically, the more-expensive image has been true. With dozens of companies competing to make cheaper and cheaper PCs, the price of Windows machines have fallen considerably. However, since only Apple makes Macs, there is no competition for that OS. In recent years, though, comptetion between Macs and Windows PCs have brought down the price of most Macs. Additionally, many features of the Mac computers and OS make the Macintosh a cheaper computer to operate and maintain. Repairs are needed less often, for example, and problems with malware are virtually non-existent.

Mac OS 1
Mac OS 8.1
Mac OS X (10.0)
Mac OS X today: version 10.6, "Snow Leopard"

A great advantage of Apple being the only Macintosh computer producer is the marriage between the OS and the hardware. Microsoft sometimes has great trouble making its OS work smoothly because so many different computer makers use so much different hardware; the OS and the hardware often do not match. With Apple computers, however, the same company makes the hardware and the OS, so as a result they work together much more smoothly, causing fewer problems.

One point about the Mac OS is that it has always changed, sometimes dramatically, when the technical reasons allowed a greater advantage. Windows took 20 years to change from MS-DOS to it's current NT-based OS. The Mac OS, however, has made several changes over the years. While this keeps the Mac OS on the cutting edge"cutting edge" means that it has the latest technology and advancements, it also means that all the software must be changed dramatically to follow the new OS tech. This also creates problems with backwards compatibility"backwards compatibility" means the ability to run old software in addition to new software., meaning that old software won't run sometimes, and users must upgrade or buy new versions of much of their software. Apple makes these transitions every 5 years or so, but they tend to be fairly smooth, allowing users to gradually change to the new technology. The latest change was to switch to Intel CPUs, making it possible to run the Windows OS on any new Mac.

Mac OS 1 was released with the Macintosh computer in 1984. It had a GUI, and its file-management system was called the "Finder"In Windows, it's called "Explorer." This is the system which allows you to view icons and open folders..

It was at about this time that Steve Jobs, who co-founded Apple Computers and has been the driving force behind it, was forced out of the company. Later seen as a huge mistake, many believe that Jobs "was" Apple, and that his leaving meant that Apple lost an important element for Apple's creative force. Many blame his ouster for the decline of popularity of Apple.

In 1987, Mac OS 5 gave Mac users multitasking, the ability to open more than one program at the same time. Users today take multitasking for granted, although users of the iPhone and iPad have experienced the lack of multitasking on their devices.

In 1992, Apple released Mac OS 7, which added several key new features. This included something called "WorldScript," which allowed Mac users to type using a number of foreign languages. The ability to switch languages easily remains an advantage of the Mac to this day; although Windows computers can type in various languages, Apple allows users to switch the main language of the entire OS, which also prompts many programs to also switch to the new language automatically. System 7 also introduced drag-and-drop icon control, file sharing, and better fonts"TrueType" fonts, created by Apple, are the standard for all computers today. for printing.

The "Classic" Mac OS line continued until 1999, with the last version being 9.2.2.

In the late 1990's, Steve Jobs returned to Apple. While he was out of the company, he built a new computer, called NeXT, considered to be a brilliant new design, especially because of its OS. (It was during this time that Jobs also bought Pixar, now famous for making computer-animated movies.) Jobs brought back with him to Apple many new ideas to bring new life to the company. The Mac OS was completely redesigned, based upon Jobs' NeXT OS, which itself was based on the strong and well-established UNIXUnix is an old OS which dates back to the 1970's. Some of the current Mac OS X is based on a variant called "Free BSD." OS, and was renamed "Mac OS X."pronounced "Oh Ess Ten" Jobs also made other decisions that helped the company succeed, including the creation of the iPod, iPhone, the iTunes Store, and the introduction of advanced design concepts that changed how computers looked.

Part of the Mac's recent popularity is the switch to Intel CPUs, which allow Mac computers to install Windows and run the two OS's side by side. In short, you can run both the Mac OS and the Windows OS on one machine.

Apple's Mac OS X is updated much more often than Windows (usually every year and a half), and is counted by "point" releases along with the names of big cats: 10.3 was Panther, 10.4 was Tiger, and the current OS, 10.5, is Leopard. Major features in recent OS X releases include Exposé, a graphic way to switch between windows; Spotlight, an advanced and very fast search feature; Quick Look, a way to instantly preview files; Dashboard, a way to access many mini-programs quickly; and Time Machine, a backup utility.

The current version of OS X is 10.6, named "Snow Leopard." As the name suggests, it is less than a full version upgrade. Instead of adding new features, it concentrates on system performance, making the OS smaller and more efficient and better able to take advantage of new technologies.



The "Ubuntu" version of Linux

Linux is an open source OS created by Linus Torvalds, and like Mac OS X, is based on UNIX. Because it is open source, it is free, although you sometimes have to pay a price (much lower than Windows or Mac) for versions which are easy to install. The latest and most popular version, Ubuntu, is free, and can be downloaded here.

Linux was originally only an OS for "geeks," or computer hobbyists, but recent versions, such as Ubuntu (pictured below) are easier to use, and someone without much computer experience can handle it without much trouble.

Despite being cheap or even free, only 1% of computer users run Linux. Linux remains popular with system administrators (people who control large computer networks), and many companies and governments are switching from Windows to Linux as a way to save money, increase security, and avoid Microsoft's control.


Mobile Operating Systems

A relatively new kind of OS is one specifically made for smartphones. Previously, many cell phones had their own OS software, different for each phone, and not very structured or well-organized. The most commonly used was Windows Mobile OS, which was generally considered to be of very poor quality. When Apple released its iPhone, it came with a new OS with a very specific style and feature set. Like regular operating systems, the "iOS" (as it is now called) is used across many products (iPod Touch, iPhone, and iPad), advances with new versions (currently version 4), and is a platform for growing new features and services.

After Apple came out with the iPhone OS, Google created the Android OS. While Apple's OS was only for Apple products, Android was intended for use by any cell phone maker that wished to use it. Android had more features (such as multitasking), but was considered more buggy.

Recently, Microsoft announced its own new mobile OS, called "Windows Phone 7." This OS is still under development, and may not be released until the end of the year. Like Android, it will be used by many different phone makers.

Windows Phone 7

Beginning with the iPhone, these new mobile operating systems have something considered highly valuable: an App StoreA place where you can buy programs to use on your mobile device.. With normal computers, buying apps is a disorganized process. Software is available in many forms, from many places, and is capable of doing almost anything. It is uncontrolled, and sometimes dangerous--some software can contain viruses, adware, or spyware, for example. Prices are usually high because most people pirate (steal) their software, forcing software makers to sell for high amounts to make up for this.

Apple changed that with the iPhone OS. Their app store is very strictly controlled. Apps must be submitted to Apple, which approves each one after a review. Once it is approved, the app is then sold only through Apple, which takes 30% of the sale price. This sounds strict, but there are many important advantages. (1) There are no viruses or malware, and most apps run very well. (2) Since the system is "locked" by Apple, piracy is not usual and so (3) software is much cheaper. (4) Software is also very easy for customers to find, because it is all in one place, where you can search, read reviews, and buy through the iTunes software. This makes it (5) easy for amateur programmers to create and sell software, something that was very difficult before. As a result, there are now more than 200,000 apps for the iPhone OS.

Android has the "Android Market," with 50,000 apps for its OS. Windows Phone 7 will have its own app store as well.