What Is an Operating System?

Written by Coursera Staff • Updated on

Learn about the role an operating system (OS) plays in computer processes, as well as common types of operating systems.

[Featured image] Two people sit next to each other at a shared desk and work on separate computers in a dimly lit open office space.

Operating systems are an important form of software that manages computer processes. They interact with a device’s hardware and coordinate the functions between software and applications, enabling devices to run smoothly. Laptops, desktops, and mobile phones all have operating systems managing their software and hardware functions. 

The functions of operating systems include:

  • Memory management. Operating systems coordinate applications in order to allocate space on devices for various programs.

  • Process management. Through a process called scheduling, operating systems determine the use of the central processing unit, and for how long. 

  • Security. Operating systems have specific features to prevent cyberattacks, encrypt files, and control who has access to certain files. 

  • Booting. Operating systems control the process of powering up systems. 

  • Disk management. The operating system manages all disks and drives installed in a computer such as flash drives and hard drives.

  • User interface. User interface allows the user to input and receive information through methods such as code or type commands. 

The two main components of an operating system are the kernel and shell. The kernel controls most operating system tasks, such as memory and process management, as well as any interaction between installed software and the device's hardware. The shell controls files and programs through the use of programming languages, and it enables interactions between the kernel and the user.

Common types of operating systems

Since computers and mobile devices serve different purposes, they rely on different types of operating systems. Here are some of the most commonly used operating systems:

General purpose operating systems

Desktop and laptop computers use general purpose operating systems. Designed for Apple desktops and laptops, macOS is a popular operating system known for its simplicity and user-friendly experience that is continuously improved upon. MacOS is also known for limiting bugs and protecting well against hackers. 

Microsoft also has its own operating system known as Windows, which comes installed on most new personal computers. Microsoft releases new versions of Windows every three to five years.

Mobile operating systems

An example of a mobile operating system is Apple iPhone’s iOS system. Apple’s system has regular updates to expand the capabilities of its mobile device software, even for older models. 

Android is the other common operating system for mobile devices. Unlike Apple, it is available on devices built by numerous manufacturers. 

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