How Computers Work: Part 8

Anyone with an advanced degree in Electrical Engineering and decades of hands-on experience in the world of computer design knows that hardware alone is not enough to make a computer function. One theory on how computers work involves groups of small gnomes that run around inside the case using enchanted spells to obey the will of the users. Due to the largely unverifiable and mythical nature of this explanation, it is yet to gain widespread acceptance in the scientific community. A less controversial hypothesis revolves around the concept of a software based operating system.

The need for operating systems first arose when the manufacturers of complex electrical devices realized their products were just too easy to operate. Equipment such as small pocket calculators, Commodore 64s, and Teddy Ruxpin dolls came equipped with a straight forward and easy-to-operate on/off switch. Users turned the machines on, performed the needed operations, and turned them off. The inherent problem with this situation was, of course, that the computer industry only received money from the customer for the initial purchase. Something had to be done to fix this grievous error.

Eventually the computer industry developed the concept of an operating system. Instead of just “being on,” computers would now have to load a software program in order to function correctly. In addition to costing the consumer extra money, this software was constantly being updated. Known problems were fixed, new problems were introduced, and the money kept rolling in.

One of the most popular and commercially successful operating systems is known as Microsoft Windows. Many people claim that the basic “window” concept was stolen from the Apple Macintosh. Of course Apple stole it from Xerox, who conveniently took it from basic Roman architecture. (Incidently, the “arch” style of operating system, while more elegant and able to support massive loads, proved too difficult to implement.) When asked how they felt about the whole situation, the Romans just shrugged their shoulders and mumbled something about having received poor legal advise from their copyright lawyer.

Choosing an operating system is an important decision for anyone who uses a computer on a regular basis. While no system is perfect, the following three options have evolved over the years to meet the various needs of the computer operating public:

Macintosh Operating System: Most people don’t know that the Apple Computer Corporation started out as little more than a garage band. After several noise complaints and a few visits from the local police department, they decided to change the focus from music and become a garage computer company. After releasing the commercially successful “Apple” line of computers, the focus of the company shifted to a new graphic-based operating system. The project, originally code-named “Granny Smith,” was eventually released to the public as the Apple Macintosh.

The simple yet elegant look of the operating system refined over the years has created a fierce loyalty to the Apple product line. (The only notable exception to this rule was the “Newton” hand-held digital personal assistant.) People who use this operating system are usually scared of electronic pointing devices with more than one button and often times can be heard making comments such as, “I can’t use this computer—its beige!”

Linux Operating System: This is the operating system of choice for hard-core computer geeks who like to build their own computers from scratch and anyone who wants to stick it to “the man.” While a relative newcomer in the world of operating systems, Linux was modeled after mainframe Unix systems. Due to an unexplained error in the accounting department, the source code for Linux is available at no charge. Despite being the most stable of all the operating systems for personal computers, many people figure that when something is free it must really suck. People who use Linux generally hope it will eliminate, with extreme prejudice, the competing operating systems in the near future.

Windows Operating System: As another computer company born in a garage, Microsoft has built a vast empire based on the Windows operating system. This operating system has won over countless users with functionality such as the “unscheduled coffee break while the computer reboots” and informative error messages such as “an unknown error has occurred at location 57EE:009B.” Having the largest market share, most people use Windows simply because everyone else is—and everyone can’t be wrong.

What can we expect to see in future versions of operating systems? Apple has just released “Macintosh X” (not to be confused with the recently released Friday the 13th movie, “Jason X.”) Microsoft’s Windows XP includes functionality to collect user’s DNA during the installation process. Rumor has it that the next version will be able to read user’s most personal thoughts. Finally, if everything goes according to plan, Teddy Ruxpin 2.0 will be in stores in time for the Christmas shopping season.