An operating system is software that manages a computer's hardware and software resources, and provides the resources other applications needs to operate.
When you first turn on a device, whether a smartphone, tablet, laptop, or desktop computer, your device loads the operating system. The operating system is the software that ties all of your computer's hardware together, and provides the resources needed to run the applications you use. Some of the most common operating systems include:
- Smartphones: iOS for iPhones, Android, Blackberry, and Windows Phone.
- Tablets: OS X for iPads, Android, and Windows.
- Laptops and Desktop Computers: OS X for Apple products, Windows for PCs, and Chrome OS for Chromebooks.
- Servers: Linux distributions such as Ubuntu and CentOS, FreeBSD, and Windows Server.
Application software has to be developed to work with a specific operating system. For example, an application designed to work on a Windows device will not work on an Apple device running OS X without being ported or completely rewritten. Software developers can often accommodate for cross-platform compatibility by using development tools that are capable of exporting an application's code in a variety of languages, making it possible to develop an application once, and export the code in languages suitable for a variety of operating systems.
Frequently Asked Questions
What are the most popular operating systems?
When all types of devices are taken into account, the most popular operating system in the world, by a wide margin, is Google's Android operating system. Globally, Android powers the majority of smartphones and tablets, and a small portion of the laptop market. However, in the United States, Apple's iOS and Google's Android both control a very similar portion of the market for smartphone and tablet operating systems.
Android owes its popularity, in no small part, to backing from Google, its design as a lightweight OS for affordable devices with limited resources, and the fact that it's free to use and open source. Around the world, Android devices make up more than half of all smartphones, and in some places such as South America, the ratio of Android-to-non-Android devices is more than 8-to-1.
Windows still owns the majority of the laptop and desktop OS market share, followed by Apple's OS X, a variety of Linux distributions, and Google's Chrome OS (a close relative of Android).
On web servers, the computers that power the Web, Linux distributions reign supreme and are followed Windows Server.
Are all operating systems completely distinct?
There are three major families of operating systems: Unix (and Unix-like), Linux, and Windows. All major operating systems fit into one of these categories. For example, Android and Chrome OS are two popular operating systems that belong to the Linux family, and while Linux systems aren't built on the Unix kernel, they too are sometimes considered to be Unix-like. Apple's iOS and OSX, along with web server heavyweight BSD, all belong to the Unix family. Of course, any operating system with Windows in the name, such as XP, Vista, 7, 8, 10, Phone, or any of the other flavors, belongs to the Windows family of operating systems.