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Operating Systems

The basic level of software with which you will work on your computer is the operating system. It's what you see when you don't have an application or utility program running. But an operating system is much more than what you see on the screen.

As the name implies, the operating system tells your computer how to operate, how to carry on its most basic functions. Early operating systems were designed simply to control how you read from and wrote to files on disks and were hence termed disk operating systems (which is why the original computer operating system was called DOS). Today's operating systems add a wealth of functions for controlling every possible computer peripheral from keyboard (and mouse) to monitor screen.

The operating system in today's computers has evolved from simply providing a means of controlling disk storage into a complex web of interacting programs that perform several functions. The most important of these is linking the various elements of your computer system together. These linked elements include your computer hardware, your programs, and you. In computer language, the operating system is said to provide a common hardware interface, a common programming interface, and a common user interface.

An interface, by the way, is the point where two things connect together—for example, the human interface is where you, the human being, interact with your computer. The hardware interface is where your computer hardware links to its software. The programming interface is where programs link to the operating system. And the user interface is where you, as the user, link to the operating system. Interfaces can combine and blend together. For example, the user interface of your operating system is part of the human interface of your computer.

Of the operating system's many interfaces only one, the user interface, is visible to you. The user interface is the place where you interact with your computer at its most basic level. Sometimes this part of the operating system is called the user shell. In today's operating systems, the shell is simply another program, and you can substitute one shell for another. Although with Windows most people stick with the shell that Microsoft gives them, you don't have to. People who use Unix or Linux often pick their own favorite shell.

In the way they change the appearance of your operating system, shells are like the skins used by some applications—for example, the skins that give your MP3 player software the look of an old-fashioned Wurlitzer jukebox.

In effect, the shell is a starting point to get your applications running, and it's the home base that you return to between applications. The shell is the program that paints the desktop on the screen and lets you choose the applications you want to run.

Behind the shell, the Application Program Interface (or API) of the operating system gives programmers a uniform set of calls, key words that instruct the operating system to execute a built-in program routine that carries out some predefined function. For example, the API of Windows enables programmers to link their applications to the operating system to take advantage of its user interface. A program can call a routine from the operating system that draws a menu box on the screen.

Using the API offers programmers the benefit of having the complicated aspects of common program procedures already written and ready to go. Programmers don't have to waste their time on the minutiae of moving every bit on your monitor screen or other common operations. The use of a common base of code also eliminates duplication, which makes today's overweight applications a bit more svelte. Moreover, because all applications use basically the same code, they have a consistent look and work in a consistent manner. This prevents your computer from looking like the accidental amalgamation of the late-night work of thousands of slightly aberrant engineers that it is.

At the other side of the API, the operating system links your applications to the underlying computer hardware through the hardware interface. Once we take a look at what that hardware might be, we'll take a look how the operating system makes the connection in the following section, titled "Hardware Interfaces."

Outside of the shell of the user interface, you see and directly interact with little of an operating system. The bulk of the operating system program code works invisibly (and continuously). And that's the way it's designed to be.

Operating systems must match your hardware to work on a given computer. The software instructions must be able to operate your computer. Consequently, Apple computers and Intel-based computers use different operating systems. Similarly, programs must match the underlying operating system, so you must be sure that any given program you select is compatible with your operating system.

Today, four families of operating system are popular with personal computers.

Windows 9X

The Windows 9X family includes Windows 95, Windows 98, and Windows Millennium Edition (Me). These operating systems are built on a core of the original 16-bit DOS (dating back to 1981) and are meant to run only on Intel microprocessors and chips that are completely compatible with Intel architecture.

Microsoft announced Windows at a news conference in New York on November 10, 1983. But development of the graphic environment (as it was then classified) proved more troublesome than Microsoft anticipated, and the first version of the "16-bit version" of Windows did not reach store shelves as Windows 1.0 until November 20, 1985. The last major release of 16-bit Windows was Windows Me, which was first put on sale on September 14, 2000.

Because DOS was originally written in a time before running several programs at once was common, Microsoft's programmers had to add on this ability and provide the power to isolate each program from one another. In fact, they kludged together DOS, graphics, and multitasking control into what most programmers regard as a gnarled mess of code. Little wonder, then, that these 16-bit versions of Windows have a reputation for unreliability and are most suited to home computer users. You wouldn't want your life to depend on them.

Windows NT

The 32-bit Windows family includes Windows NT, Windows 2000, and Windows XP, in all its versions. When the core of this operating systems was originally conceived as Window NT, Microsoft's programmers decided to scrap all of the original Windows and start over. Instead of DOS they used OS/2, an operating system jointly developed by Microsoft and IBM, as its core. Microsoft called the first release of the new operating system Windows NT 3.1, cleverly skipping over early version numbers to make the new NT seem like a continuation of the then-current 16-bit Windows version, 3.1. According to Microsoft, Windows NT 3.1 was officially released to manufacturing on July 27, 1993. The same 32-bit core, although extensively refined, is still in use in current versions of Windows XP.

Instead of recycling old 16-bit code, Microsoft's programmers started off with the 32-bit code native to the 386 microprocessor that was current at the time (and is still used by today's latest Pentium 4 microprocessors). Although Microsoft attempted to craft versions of Windows NT to run on processors other than those using Intel architecture, no such adaptation has proven successful, and the operating system runs exclusively on Intel-architecture microprocessors.

From the very beginning, Microsoft conceived Windows NT as a multitasking operating system, so its engineers built in features that ensure the isolation of each application it runs. The result was a robust operating system that had but one problem—it lacked complete compatibility with old, DOS-based programs. Over the years, this compatibility became both less necessary (as fewer people ran DOS applications) and better, as Microsoft's engineers refined their code. Most professionals regard Windows XP as a robust operating system on par with any other, suitable for running critical applications.

Unix

Unix is not a single operating system but several incompatible families that share a common command structure. Originally written at Bell Labs to run on a 16-bit Digital Equipment Company PDP-7 computer, Unix has been successfully adapted to nearly every microprocessor family and includes 8-, 16-, 32-, and 64-bit versions under various names.

Unix traces its roots to 1969, but according to Dennis M. Ritchie, one of its principal developers (along with Ken Thompson), its development was not announced to the world until 1974. From the beginning, Unix was designed to be a time-sharing, multiuser system for mainframe-style computers. It proved so elegant and robust that it has been adapted to nearly every microprocessor platform, and it runs on everything from desktop computers to huge clusters of servers.

Nearly every major hardware platform has a proprietary version of Unix available to it. Some of these include AIX for IBM computers, Solaris for Sun Microsystems machines, and even OS X, the latest Apple Macintosh operating system. Note that programs written for one version of Unix will likely not run on other hardware than for which it was intended. It has become a sort of universal language among many computer professionals.

Linux

Unlike other operating systems, Linux can be traced back to a single individual creator, Linus Torvalds, who wrote its kernel, the core of the operating system that integrates its most basic functions, in 1991 while a student at the University of Helsinki. He sent early versions around for testing and comment as early as September of that year, but a workable version (numbered 0.11) didn't become available until December. Version 1.0, regarded as the first truly stable (and therefore usable) version of Linux came in March, 1994. Torvalds himself recommends pronouncing the name of the operating system with a short-i sound (say Lynn-ucks).

The most notable aspect of Linux is that it is "open source." That is, Torvalds has shared the source code—the lines of program code he actually wrote—of his operating system with the world, whereas most software publishers keep their source code secret. This open-source model, as it is called, lets other programmers help refine and develop the operating system. It also results in what is essentially a free, although copyrighted, operating system.

Contrary to popular opinion, Linux is not a variety of Unix. It looks and works like Unix—the commands and structure are the same—but its kernel is entirely different. Programs written for Unix will not run under Linux (although if you have the source code, these programs can be relatively easily converted between the two operating systems). Programmers have adapted Linux to many hardware platforms, including those based on Intel microprocessors.

The open-source status of Linux, along with its reputation for reliability and robustness (inherited without justification from Unix), have made it popular. In other words, it's like Unix and it's free, so it has become the choice for many Web servers and small business systems. On the other hand, the strength it gains from its similarity to Unix is also a weakness. It is difficult for most people to install, and it lacks the wide software support of Windows.

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