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Operating systems can be grouped according to functionality: operating systems for supercomputing, render farms, mainframes, servers, workstations, desktops, handheld devices, real time systems, or embedded systems.
Supercomputing is primarily scientific computing, usually modelling real systems in nature. Render farms are collections of computers that work together to render animations and special effects. Work that previously required supercomputers can be done with the equivalent of a render farm.
Mainframes used to be the primary form of computer. Mainframes are large centralized computers. At one time they provided the bulk of business computing through time sharing. Mainframes and mainframe replacements (powerful computers or clusters of computers) are still useful for some large scale tasks, such as centralized billing systems, inventory systems, database operations, etc. When mainframes were in widespread use, there was also a class of computers known as minicomputers which were smaller, less expensive versions of mainframes for businesses that couldnt afford true mainframes.
Servers are computers or groups of computers used for internet serving, intranet serving, print serving, file serving, and/or application serving. Servers are also sometimes used as mainframe replacements.
Desktop operating systems are used for personal computers.
Workstations are more powerful versions of personal computers. Often only one person uses a particular workstation (like desktops) and workstations often run a more powerful version of a desktop operating system, but workstations run on more powerful hardware and often have software associated with larger computer systems.
Handheld operating systems are much smaller and less capable than desktop operating systems, so that they can fit into the limited memory of handheld devices.
Real time operating systems (RTOS) are specifically designed to respond to events that happen in real time. This can include computer systems that run factory floors, computer systems for emergency room or intensive care unit equipment (or even the entire ICU), computer systems for air traffic control, or embedded systems. RTOSs are grouped according to the response time that is acceptable (seconds, milliseconds, microseconds) and according to whether or not they involve systems where failure can result in loss of life.
Embedded systems are combinations of processors and special software that are inside of another device, such as the electronic ignition system on cars.
In the early days of computing, each manufacturer created their own custom operating system(s). There was competition in features of both the operating system and the underlying hardware.
After AT&T was forced to abandon commercial computing as part of an antitrust settlement, AT&Ts UNIX was made available for free to the academic community. Because UNIX had been designed in a way that made it easy to port (move) to new hardware, colleges and universities that switched to UNIX were able to run a single operating system on all of their computers, even if their computers came from multiple manufacturers.
Eventually UNIX spread into the business community, and pushed aside almost all proprietary mainframe and minicomputer operating systems. Only IBMs MVS and DECs OpenVMS survived in common use (MVS because of the sheer number of installations using it and OpenVMS in the banking and financial community because of its high reliability, security, and preservation of data). Even IBM and DEC ended up offering their own versions of UNIX as well as their proprietary operating systems.
In a reintroduction of the Tower of Babel, manufacturers once again competed in features, offering platform-specific enhancements to their versions of UNIX. MIS managers were faced with the choice of using these custom features and being locked into a specific manufacturers version of UNIX or foregoing the advanced features and limiting themselves to generic UNIX facilities.
With the introduction of microprocessors and personal computers, once again manufacturers each produced their own custom proprietary operating systems for their hardware, often changing operating systems with each new generation of hardware. Commodore and Apple introduced semi-graphical operating systems for the Commodore PET and C64 and the Apple ][. Digital Research introduced CP/M, a simple business-oriented operating system that ran on multiple manufacturers computers.
Moving beyond the early hobbyist days, Commodore (Amiga), Atari (GEM), and Apple (Lisa and Macintosh) introduced fully graphic user interfaces. Microsoft introduced a bad copy of CP/M, known as MS-DOS or PC-DOS, and then later introduced a bad copy of the Macintosh known as Windows.
The strong point of these desktop operating systems was the graphic user interface, which opened up the computer to the masses, no longer demanding that computer users be mathematically competent by eliminating the text command line. While the Amiga and Ataris GEM had very solid underpinnings, the Macintosh and Windows have always had weak underpinnings, which typically manifests as system crashes and various mysterious events. The Amiga slowly dwindled in popularity due to gross mismanagement by Commodore executives, while Ataris GEM was a victim of Ataris financial troubles. Microsoft has repeatedly tried to fix the underpinnings of Windows, with Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, and Windows 2000, but never with success. Apple also tried to fix the underpinnings of the Macintosh, first with Copeland (never released, although parts of it appeared in Mac OS 8), and now with Mac OS X. With Mac OS X, Apple took an already working workstation UNIX (NeXT) and have been attempting to place the Macintosh user interface on top. So far it looks as if Apple will be providing a high quality UNIX, but at the sacrifice of basic user interface capability, which may make Mac OS X too difficult for the non-engineer to use. With OS/2, IBM succeeded in creating a personal computer operating system that had both a sophisticated graphic user interface and high quality underpinnings, but Microsoft used what were later declared illegal tactics to prevent OS/2 from becoming popular.
For almost as long as there have been microprocessors, there have been variations of UNIX available for them (Apple even provided its own version of UNIX for the Macintosh hardware), including the BSD projects (FreeBSD, NetBSD, OpenBSD). With LINUX, a UNIX-like operating system took off in popularity.
LINUX started as an alternative operating system to Windows, coordinated by Linus Torvalds, at the time an engineering student. With the cooperation of literally tens of thousands of volunteer programmers, Linux grew into a powerful server and workstation operating system. Two groups (KDE and GNOME) are in the process of building modern graphic user interfaces for Linux. Already, their work has progressed to the point that after some initial set-up hassles, many non-technical people can use Linux. It is reasonable to expect that soon Linux will match or surpass the graphic userinterface sophistication of Windows. And because of the way that KDE and GNOME are being written (as open source projects using standard UNIX interfaces), both graphic shells can be (and already are being) used on just about any UNIX system, including the free BSDs. Once again, UNIX sweeps aside most proprietary operating systems.
There are four major free, open source UNIX projects: LINUX, FreeBSD, NetBSD, and OpenBSD. The three different BSD projects started because the original design and programming teams had personality conflicts and couldnt all work together. LINUX was started by a college student who didnt know of the exitence of the BSD projects.
The basic difference between the BSD projects and LINUX, is that each BSD project has a tightly controlled design, while LINUX is very free-form. In most cases, the four operating systems are interchangeable. The three BSDs share a great deal of source code with each other. Most software written for one of the four operating systems will run on the other three with little or no modification. One of the three BSDs is the operating system of choice where reliability is critical (because of the tightly controlled design). LINUX is the operating system of choice for hobbyists who want to experiment with and tweak their personal copy.
After two decades of supplying boring beige boxes, PC makers have begun to add a bit of color and style to their lines, following the runaway success of Apples iMac line, a candy-colored machine designed for consumers that was not simply a repackaged business box. Industrial design isnt the only selling point. A fundamental shift in computing has occurred. For business users and consumers alike, what matters is being connected to the Web, not the raw processing power of the desktop computer. The most intriguing new technologies arent spreadsheets or word-processing programs, or the latest updates to Windows. Digital photography, digital music, desktop video editing, and high speed internet access are where the action is. A top-flight desktop computer or notebook is nice to have, but what makes that technology really rock is all the gear that goes with it. Computer manufacturers have altered their product lines in recognition of that trend. Apples top-end consumer model, the iMac DV Special Edition, comes with a stellar sound system, high-speed FireWire ports for transferring video, and the companys iMovie software for editing movies. Sony has a similar strategy with VAIO desktop models configured for video editing that sport a huge hard drive, high-speed i.LINK [FireWire] ports, and dual CD/DVD drives. The most expensive notebook models now rival desktop machines for speed and versatility. Except for Apples eye-catching iBook, however, most notebooks are designed for business users. Fortune Technology Guidem2
Bob Canup, computer engineer, on the complexity of computer systems:
Computers are very difficult to understand well for a very simple reason: every time that you look at a computer it has changed; it can be a fax machine one moment, and a printer or a calculator the next. My estimate is that it takes most people about 20 years of experience and work with computers to really understand them. My own views and understanding of computers have changed significantly over the last 20 years.
Indeed computers are the single most complex technology which [humanity] has ever created.
Consider for a few moments attempting to diagram the Internet. Before you could even complete such a task the system would have changed from what it was when you started. Because they are so complex it takes about as long to really grasp computers as it does to become an adult.
I have found it useful to explain computer operating systems by drawing an analogy between various operating systems and books.
DOS is a primer: See Dick run, run Dick run.
Windows 3.1 is a Casper the Friendly Ghost comic book: Hi, Im Casper and I want to be your friend.
Windows 9x is a Batman the Dark Avenger comic book: More serious and meant for a more mature audience.
Windows NT is the Classics Illustrated version of Unix.
Unix is a serious piece of adult literature, a novel or a physics reference book, written by adults, for use by adults.
Comic books are very important to children for a very good reason: children lack experience, and it is difficult for them to form a mental picture of what written words mean. A comic book, however, gives a child both words and pictures to go with them; giving them more understanding than the words alone could give them. Bob Canupe87
An elephant is a mouse with an Operating System. Knuth
The human mind ordinarily operates at only ten percent of its capacity the rest is overhead for the operating system. Nicholas Ambrose
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UNIX used as a generic term unless specifically used as a trademark (such as in the phrase UNIX certified).
Names and logos of various OSs are trademarks of their respective owners.
Copyright © 2001 Milo
Last Updated: July 10, 2001
Created: August 15, 2000
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