Recently a reader expressed confusion over the use of the term OS. She said it was all Greek to her and that she’d pretty much given up hope learning what complicated computer terms mean. Well there’s certainly no reason to give up hope. It’s really not that complicated.

OS stands for Operating System. Simple enough, right? The operating system is simply the basic software that controls the computer. The operating system provides the foundation on which other programs such as games or a word processor are able to run.  It tells the hard drive to run, sends images to the screen and organizes your files in a way that it’s possible to find them.


The most common operating system for home computers is Windows. Windows XP, Windows Vista, Window 7 & Windows 8 are all operating systems.


Another well-known operating system is Apple’s OS. They even worked OS into the name. This is the operating system that runs Mac computers. 



You’ll find various versions of the Windows OS on many brands of computers. You will only find the Mac OS on computers manufactured by Apple.

Another well-known operating system is Linux. Linux is what’s called open-source – that means anyone can use it for free. There are more than 100 types of Linux, so sometimes it can get a little confusing. Linux is a great operating system for people who like to play with computers or who have a computer geek handy to help them get set up.


You don’t have to know much about any of these operating systems to use them.  But you do have to find the right programs to run on these computers. You can’t run a Mac program on your Windows computer or a Windows program on your Mac computer. (yes, I know there can be workarounds, but I’m keeping it basic here.)

When purchasing a software just make sure it says it works with the operating system on your computer.  It almost always says something about which operating system a device or software will work with in the information about a program.


Operating systems aren’t just for computers. Smartphones & tablets (which are just small handheld computers) use them as well.  The most popular phone and tablet operating system is Android.


That’s followed by iOS from Apple. (see, they worked the OS into the name again.)  iOS is only used for iPhones, iPads and iPods.  If you’re using an Apple mobile device, you’re using iOS.


You may have also heard of Chromebooks. These lightweight laptops use a special Chrome operating system and can only run programs designed for that operating system.


Again, you don’t have to know much about any of these operating systems to use the devices. You just have to make sure that when you are buying accessories or programs, (in the case of phones and tablets, they’ll be called apps) that you’re buying the ones made for that operating system.

It’s really no different that buying a Ford or Honda. They all work to get you around, but when you’re ordering parts you have to make sure that you get parts for the model you’re driving.

~ Cynthia