The operating system (OS) is the first thing to load when you turn on your computer, smartphone or tablet. It runs constantly, organising and controlling the internals of your device so that it can run multiple apps smoothly and provide a pleasing user experience
Modern operating systems are becoming increasingly smart thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. These technologies enable the operating system to tailor itself to best suit the user by learning the apps the user commonly uses, being location-aware and, with services like Cortana and Siri, possessing the ability to understand natural, verbal queries.
Modern operating systems cover a large roster of devices, from desktop PCs and laptops to smartphones and tablets. Some OS platforms are separate, but share common links, such as Apple's macOS and iOS, whereas others, like Windows 10, adapt themselves to best suit the device on which they're installed.
Which is the best operating system?
The OS market is dominated by Microsoft, Apple and Google. The vast majority of businesses still use Microsoft Windows, but macOS continues to gain significant ground along with newer entrants to the market like Google's Chrome OS.
The prominence of mobile devices in the workplace has further diversified the commercial OS landscape with platforms like Apple's iOS increasingly making its way onto desks thanks to tablets that are establishing themselves as worthy replacements for laptops.
Given the variety of operating systems now available, choosing the best one for your business will depend on personal preferences and the following key factors:
- Your existing systems. Although less of an issue these days, certain operating systems don't play nicely together. Similarly, if you rely on software that is only compatible with a particular OS, it pays to standardise it across you network.
- Familiarity. Pick an operating system your staff aren't familiar with (few will have used Linux, for example), and you'll only need to invest further in training and support.
- Complexity. Some operating systems require more technical knowledge to set up and maintain than others.
- Hardware compatibility. Not all computer equipment will work with the latest operating systems. Check your devices before buying.
Popular operating systems
There are five popular operating systems used by businesses:
- Microsoft Windows. Still the default choice for many businesses, Windows has been through several controversial changes in recent years with Windows 10 being the latest effort to restore the tried-and-tested file management millions of people had become accustomed to.
- macOS. If you've ever used an Apple Mac, you'll have used macOS (previously OS X). Far less prone to viruses and famed for being approachable, it is usually put to heavy use in creative industries.
- Chrome OS. Google's take on an operating system is admirably pared down and aims to take full advantage of cloud computing. It has also spawned a huge range of very cost-effective laptops.
- iOS. Apple's mobile OS, found on iPads and iPhones. Entirely separate to its big brother, macOS, but there's plenty of clever integration on offer between the two.
- Android. Google's mobile OS that powers devices from a huge range of manufacturers, albeit in a variety of different forms, thanks to the customisation it grants vendors.
Different operating systems can usually be combined on the same network or, as is increasingly becoming the case with software as a service (SaaS), quite happily operate independently albeit with access to the same web-hosted business applications.
Operating system maintenance
To keep your OS running smoothly, check for updates regularly, paying particular attention to anything relating to security. This will ensure your devices are as immune as they can be from hackers and viruses.
New versions of operating systems - with major changes - typically arrive once every year and are usually free of charge. Although it may be tempting to upgrade immediately, with business-critical machines, it pays to wait until the new version has proven to be reliable (unless the update includes vital security patches).
Like any software, vendors will eventually cease support for older OS versions at some stage. For example, Microsoft has stated that it will provide critical updates to Windows 7 until 2020, proving that businesses should always pay close attention to support cut-off dates if they are to continue running systems that are secure and protected against modern hacking practices and malicious software.
Because your operating system software is a critical part of your business, you may wish to speak to an IT supplier before making changes or upgrading.