6 Types of Operating Systems (With Functions and Examples)

By Indeed Editorial Team

January 20, 2022

Every computer, smartphone or similar electronic device comes with special software called an operating system. An operating system, also known as an OS, is the engine behind the utility value of computers and smartphones. There are different types of operating systems depending on the device, manufacturer and user preference, and if you work—or want to work—in the information technology field, it's important to understand them.

In this article, we discuss what operating systems are, explain why they're important and explore the different types of operating systems in use today.

Key takeaways

  • An operating system is the software that supports and manages all the programs and applications used by a computer or mobile device.

  • An operating system uses a graphic user interface (GUI), a combination of graphics and text, that allows you to interact with the computer or device.

  • Every computer or smart device needs at least one operating system to run applications and perform tasks.

What are operating systems?

An operating system is a type of software interface between the user and the device hardware. It allows users to communicate with the device and perform the desired functions. 

Operating systems use two components to manage computer programs and applications. The kernel is the core inner component that processes data at the hardware level. It handles input-output management, memory and process management. The shell is the outer layer that manages the interaction between the user and the OS. The shell communicates with the operating system by either taking the input from the user or a shell script. A shell script is a sequence of system commands that are stored in a file.

Basic functions of an operating system include:

  • Booting: An operating system manages the startup of a device.

  • Memory management: An operating system coordinates computer applications and allocates space to different programs installed in the computer.

  • Data security: An operating system protects your data from cyberattacks.

  • Loading and execution: An operating system starts and executes a program.

  • Drive/disk management: An operating system manages computer drives and divides disks.

  • Device control: An operating system enables you to allow or block access to devices.

  • User interface: This part of an operating system, also known as UI, allows users to enter and receive information.

  • Process management: The operating system allocates space to enable computer processes, such as storing and sharing information.

Most operating systems come pre-installed on the device. However, users can change their OS or upgrade to a newer version of the operating system for better device performance.

Related: Learn About Being a CIO (Chief Information Officer)

Why is it important to know about operating systems?

Knowledge of operating systems is important for the following reasons:

  • It allows you to understand the inner workings of a device.

  • It enables you to fix minor issues with the device.

  • It allows you to improve your coding skills.

  • It allows you to determine what operating system is best for you.

Learning about operating systems and improving your understanding of computer technology isn't just for computer enthusiasts—these are important skills for all computer users.

Related: Computer Skills: Definitions and Examples

Types of operating systems

Here are the different types of operating systems you need to know:

Batch operating systems

The batch operating system does not have a direct link with the computer. A different system divides and allocates similar tasks into batches for easy processing and faster response. The batch operating system is appropriate for lengthy and time-consuming tasks. To avoid slowing down a device, each user prepares their tasks offline and submits them to an operator. Advantages of using a batch operating system include:

  • Many users can share batch systems.

  • There is little idle time for batch operating systems.

  • It becomes possible to manage large workloads.

  • It's easy to estimate how long a task will take to be completed.

Some notable disadvantages are:

  • Batch operating systems are challenging to debug.

  • Any failure of the system creates a backlog.

  • It may be costly to install and maintain good batch operating systems.

Batch operating systems are used for tasks such as managing payroll systems, data entry and bank statements.

Related: What Is a Transaction Processing System (TPS)?

Time-sharing or multitasking operating systems

The time-sharing operating system, also known as a multitasking OS, works by allocating time to a particular task and switching between tasks frequently. Unlike the batch system, the time-sharing system allows users to complete their work in the system simultaneously. It allows many users to be distributed across various terminals to minimize response time. Potential advantages of time-sharing operating systems include:

  • There's a quick response during task performance.

  • It minimizes the idle time of the processor.

  • All tasks get an equal chance of being accomplished.

  • It reduces the chance of software duplication.

Some potential disadvantages of this system are:

  • The user's data security might be a problem.

  • System failure can lead to widespread failures.

  • Problems in data communication may arise.

  • The integrity of user programs is not assured.

Examples of time-sharing operating systems include Multics and Unix.

Related: Top 11 Unix Interview Questions and Example Answers

Distributed operating systems

This system is based on autonomous but interconnected computers communicating with each other via communication lines or a shared network. Each autonomous system has its own processor that may differ in size and function. A distributed operating system serves multiple applications and multiple users in real-time. The data processing function is then distributed across the processors. Potential advantages of distributed operating systems are:

  • They allow remote working.

  • They allow a faster exchange of data among users.

  • Failure in one site may not cause much disruption to the system.

  • They reduce delays in data processing.

  • They minimize the load on the host computer.

  • They enhance scalability since more systems can be added to the network.

Potential disadvantages of distributed operating systems include:

  • If the primary network fails, the entire system shuts down.

  • They're expensive to install.

  • They require a high level of expertise to maintain.

Distributed operating systems are used for tasks such as telecommunication networks, airline reservation controls and peer-to-peer networks.

Network operating systems

Network operating systems are installed on a server providing users with the capability to manage data, user groups and applications. This operating system enables users to access and share files and devices such as printers, security software and other applications, mostly in a local area network. Potential advantages of network operating systems are:

  • Centralized servers provide high stability.

  • Security issues are easier to handle through the servers.

  • It's easy to upgrade and integrate new technologies.

  • Remote access to the servers is possible.

Potential disadvantages of network operating systems are:

  • They require regular updates and maintenance.

  • Servers are expensive to buy and maintain.

  • Users' reliance on a central server might be detrimental to workflows.

Examples of network operating systems include Microsoft Windows, Linux and macOS X.

Related: 7 Network Topology Types (Plus Definitions and Key Features)

Real-time operating systems

Real-time operating systems provide support to real-time systems that require observance of strict time requirements. The response time between input, processing and response is tiny, which is beneficial for processes that are highly sensitive and need high precision. These processes include operating missile systems, medical systems or air traffic control systems, where delays may lead to loss of life and property.

Real-time operating systems may either be hard real-time systems or soft real-time systems. Hard real-time systems are installed in applications with strict time constraints. The system guarantees the completion of sensitive tasks on time. Hard real-time does not have virtual memory. Soft real-time systems do not have equally rigid time requirements. A critical task gets priority over other tasks.

Potential advantages of real-time operating systems include:

  • They use device and systems maximally, hence more output.

  • They allow fast shifting from one task to another.

  • The focus is on current tasks, and less focus is put on the queue.

  • They can be used in embedded systems.

  • Real-time systems are meticulously programmed, hence free of errors.

  • They allow easy allocation of memory.

Potential disadvantages of real-time operating systems are:

  • They have a low capacity to run tasks simultaneously.

  • They use heavy system resources.

  • They run on complex algorithms that are not easy to understand.

  • They're unsuitable for thread priority because of the system's inability to switch tasks.

Real-time operating systems are used for tasks such as scientific experiments, medical imaging, robotics and air traffic control operations.

Related: 50 IT Skills for Your Resume

Mobile operating systems

Mobile operating systems run exclusively on small devices such as smartphones, tablets and wearables. The system combines the features of a personal computer with additional features useful for a handheld device. Mobile operating systems start when a device is powered on to provide access to installed applications. Mobile operating systems also manage wireless network connectivity.

Potential advantages of mobile operating systems are:

  • Most systems are easy for users to learn and operate.

Potential disadvantages of real-time operating systems are:

  • Some mobile OS put a heavy drain on a device’s battery, requiring frequent recharging.

  • Some systems are not user-friendly.

Examples of mobile operating systems include Android OS, Apple and Windows mobile OS.

Related:What Is Mobile Device Management and Why Does It Matter?

Common operating systems

Here are the most common operating systems in use:

Microsoft Windows

Created by Microsoft, Microsoft Windows is one of the most popular proprietary operating systems for computers in the world. Most personal computers come preloaded with a version of Microsoft Windows. One downside of Windows is that compatibility with mobile phones has been problematic.

Apple iOS

Apple iOS from Apple is used on smartphones and tablets manufactured by the same company. Users of this system have access to hundreds of applications. The operating system offers strong encryption capabilities to control unauthorized access to users' private data.

Google Android

Android from Google is the most popular operating system in the world. It's mainly used on tablets and smartphones. It also runs on devices made by other manufacturers. Users have access to numerous mobile applications available on the Google Play Store.

Apple macOS

Developed by Apple, this proprietary operating system runs on the manufacturer's personal computers and desktops. All Apple and Macintosh computers come equipped with the latest version of macOS, previously known as OS X systems. The ability to prevent bugs and fend off hackers make Apple operating systems popular with their users.

Linux

Created by the Finnish programmer Linus Torvalds, Linux is today developed by programmer collaborators across the world who submit tweaks to the central kernel software. Linux is popular with programmers and corporate servers. It is available for free online.

Please note that none of the companies or products mentioned in this article are affiliated with Indeed.


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