Operating System

An operating system is software that tells the hardware what to do, how and when. It is usually operated through a graphical user interface (GUI) such as Windows. It is the most basic software on a computer. In this way different software packages do not have to re-invent this level of functionality in order to run; they simply speak to the resident program. Not all programs run with all operating systems and/or their accompanying interfaces. So operating systems are often selected for the sort of software someone may wish to use.

The most prominent operating systems are DOS, Unix (including Linux, Solaris and IRIX), MacOS, OS/2, BeOS, and NeXTStep. Certain of these operating systems are more useful than others for developing different elements of a digital production. MacOS is good for inexpensive 3D graphics and animation software. High-end animation is usually done on a machine running a variation of Unix. Unix comes in free versions that are stable (they rarely crash), secure and do not take up as much hard drive space as other OS's. These would include Linux and several varieties of BSD. DOS is what most people use, however they will often only know it as Windows, the interface that has popularised the operating system. Some DOS software must have Windows resident in order to run. Nevertheless, Windows does not make a good intermediary and I find CD-ROM products which bypass Windows run more smoothly. OS/2, BeOS, and NeXTStep, though very fine systems, do not have much variety in commercial software available for use with them.

I actually own copies of DOS, Linux, MacOS, OS/2 and BeOS. I have had more than one occasion to use NeXTStep, but never went so far as purchasing, despite how much I liked aspects of its design. I prefer using Linux, but feel it is important to have copies of DOS and MacOS for cross-platform testing. The others I have just out of interest.

Linux is an important development in the computing world. I have been using it even though "user-friendly" interfaces for it at the time of this writing are only in the testing phase. Before Linux, operating systems were proprietary software, which meant people had to accept in entirety whatever a manufacturer produced. If some part of the software needed fixing, users had to contact the company for a "bug fix". Sometimes the fix would already be available for downloading, sometimes after a number of weeks or months a fix might be made available, but often people just had to wait for the next version of the system. Independent software developers need certain specifications of any operating system they use to support their programs. In order to protect the design of their operating system, companies will often only give so much in the way of specifications to any one software developer. This may mean that the developer is unaware of facilities that may hinder the use of their program or not make best use of what is available.

Linus Torvalds at the University of Helsinki originally created an open source Unix operating system kernel which he released as Linux in 1991 [Tor94]. To this kernel are usually added the GNU utilities (also open source) [Sta96]. The open source movement, founded by Richard Stallman, believes in making tools for software developers which are freely distributable and for which the code is available for modification and development [Sta89]. Linux has been ported to most hardware platforms. Being open source means many people scattered around the world are working simultaneously on its development. Therefore, if a bug fix is needed for Linux, I can either fix it myself or contact the people on Usenet comp.os.linux to see if anyone else has already fixed it, or if anyone can do so for me. I have in fact done this upon occasion. Also, if I need to make some special use of Linux, I can know enough about it to make whatever modifications are necessary for that special use without having to wait for someone's permission to do so.

Linux is the most used operating system for Web servers [Zoe99] ahead of Windows95/98/NT. In only the last year many commercial products have been released for use on Linux such as the office package of StarOffice and the graphics and wordprocessing applications owned by Corel.