OS (that’s “Oh Es”) is just an abbreviation for “operating system”. And that, in turn, simply means the basic software that runs the computer.

Let’s take a short look at what an OS is and isn’t, with big-text questions followed by responses.

(This “dictionary” page may be a little wordier than some, but it covers what’s arguably the most important part of your computer: the basic software that makes the computer work, and that lets your games, word processor, web browser, and other favorite applications work. Read it, and you’ll know some useful stuff!)

“So an OS is a program?”

Well, a simple OS could be a program, but the sort of OS running your computer is much too complex, handling far too many things, to come from a single person or project team. It was created by lots of people in many teams, probably taking in bits and pieces created by different groups at different times.

In short, your computer’s OS is made up of a whole bunch of programs, and lots of data, stored away on your computer. It’s the whole mess of instructions that the computer first reads when it starts up, and that the computer continues to follow as it later runs your game applications or word processor application or what have you.

You won’t directly mess with, and don’t need to think about, most of the programs and data files that make up your OS. All kinds of programs work behind the scenes when you connect to the Internet, or when you change the sound volume, or even when you shut down the computer, but you don’t need to know their names or know much of anything at all about them. That’s a good thing.

“I’ve got an OS, right?”

Yes, unless it’s been erased from your computer, or unless you’re the sort of hobbyist who buys or builds a “blank” computer with no OS – but in that case, the computer won’t do anything until an OS is installed in it.

So, if your computer “works”,  you’ve obviously got an OS.

“My computer needs the OS to run, right?”

Right. As you’ll see noted here and there on Bit Cafe, a computer is a dumb box that can do nothing except follow instructions written by people – instructions called software, programs, applications, or apps (all of which essentially mean the same thing).

Before your computer can run the apps you want it to run – that is, before it can follow instructions that let it play your music, or visit this web site, or deal you a Texas Hold’em poker hand, or do whatever you want it to do – it first needs some basic instructions. Like instructions telling the computer how to display text and images on the screen. (Not instructions for displaying specific images, like those on this web site or the bad-guy aliens in a game, but basic instructions on how to display any image in the first place!) It needs basic instructions on how to “listen to” the keyboard and mouse as you use them. How to send sound to the speakers. How to connect to the Internet and to other devices. Even the really basic stuff like how to start up in the first place! The OS gives the computer instructions for all those basic things.

The point of the OS is this: When a programmer creates your Texas Hold’em game, she doesn’t need to worry about how to make the computer start up, or how to make it form letters on the screen, or how to make the speakers work. The OS already takes care of those things. Which means that the game programmer can concentrate on making a poker game happen on the screen, a photo software programmer can focus on creating features for retouching photos, and so on.

If analogies help, think of an OS as “basic infrastructure”, like plumbing and electricity in a building, which lets shops in the building focus on baking bread or grooming pets, without having to worry about how to come up with water and power. Or think of an OS as the part of the human brain that handles heartbeats and breathing and metabolism, so you don’t have to think about those, and can instead concentrate on driving or yoga or solving Double Jeopardy.

“What about all those applications that came with the computer? Are those part of the OS?”

That’s a good question, and not a simple one to answer.

When you buy apps or otherwise install apps on the computer, those are not part of the OS. They’re… well, applications you installed, for lack of a better term. (Actually, “third-party applications” is one such term, if a rather business-like one.)

But what about apps that come installed with the computer? “Invisible” ones that work behind the scenes, as described above, are generally considered part of the OS. The same might seem to hold for built-in “utility” apps, like a built-in tool for diagnosing hardware problems, or an app that pops up when you first unbox the computer to help you set things up. But how about the built-in web browser app? The built-in email app? A game app that came with the computer?

The boundaries of “OS” get fuzzy here – and in fact, huge multi-year court cases have centered around the question of what is and isn’t properly considered “part of the OS”. I’ll just suggest that you think of your built-in web browser, email program, and other included apps as “pre-installed apps” that got installed into the computer along with the OS. (Not surprisingly, then, when your OS gets upgraded to a new version, those apps are likely to get upgraded to new versions as well.)

“All fine and well – but do I really need to think about my OS? Do I even need to care what OS it is?”

Simple answer: Eventually, you’ll probably want to know what your OS is – specifically, its name and its version number. This can be important information when you need to solve some trouble with the computer, or when you request technical help from others. You, and people helping you, may have a hard time solving problems with your OS if no one knows what OS you have!

You’ll also want to know what OS you have when you install some new app in your computer, as you need to make sure that the app is one that’s made to work with your OS.

So, what’s your OS? Bit Cafe has a lovely, simple page to walk you through that. Click here:

What operating system do I have?

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