What the hell is an OS?

Welcome to "What the hell is" on Pocket-lint where we break down tech jargon a piece at a time until you don't have to be a geek to know what someone is banging on about. This week is the turn of OS which is the short hand for operating system. There you go. You've learnt something already.

Of course the next question, and perhaps a quite valid alternative title that we could of used, is "What the hell is an operating system?". The short answer is that it's a really big piece of software. It is, in fact, the ultimate piece of software. It's the software which makes computers run and on which you can run and enjoy other pieces of software. It manages the way all the other programs use the hardware of the computer.

So, for example, you probably have some kind of desktop or laptop computer on which you are reading this well good article what is written here. If it's a PC, the operating system which allows you to work and access the power of your machine to any real effect is probably called Microsoft Windows - whether that's XP, Vista or 7. If it's a Macintosh, then your OS will be Mac OS X of some sort usually described as a big cat - Tiger, Leopard, Snow Leopard, Mangy Tabby, etc. Of course, if you're a little bit different, then you might well be using Linux as your OS, in which case all of this is rather like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs.

What these operating systems do is provide a visual and, hopefully, straight forward means of graphical interaction with your machine. All those windows and double clicking and file trees and desktops are what they're all about. On top of that base platform of software, you can then add all the other programs you like to use which makes your computer your computer, eg: Microsoft Office, Mozilla Firefox, Adobe Photoshop, Freecell, Skype and all the other razzmatazz that you use your overly priced machines for.

Now, of course, it's not just laptops and desktops that have operating systems. Mobile phones have them too. There's the likes of Google's Android, iPhone OS, Symbian, BlackBerry OS, Windows 7 Phone, LG S-Class, webOS and whatever else you might be using. These provide an environment for your phone to run apps which do all the fart noises and virtual beer drinking that we all enjoy so much, as well as the more banal tasks like sending text messages and using a calculator. The OS allows all these other bits of software to access the resources they need from the chips and circuits of your machine be it phone, laptop or games console.

So there you have it. If there's any other tech terms you need unravelling without the embarrassment of asking friends and loved ones, then let us know in the comments below or, for extreme anonymity, you can email us in private instead.