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Part 1: Getting Oriented > The Windows Operating System: What's Inside Your PC

Chapter 4. The Windows Operating System: What's Inside Your PC

The hardware is the physical machine that you can see and touch. The software is the set of instructions that make the computer do the things you want it to do. There are basically two kinds of software: the operating system and application software. An operating system is the basic computer software that makes your PC work. An application program is the software you use for specific tasks, like word processing, playing games, paying bills, and so forth.

The operating system is basically the computer's traffic cop: It helps determine the way the hardware and software interact. Just about everything that the machine does—from saving files to the disk or displaying text and graphics on the screen—is controlled by the operating system. It's the intermediary between the machine's hardware and its application software. In the old days, an operating system was pretty basic. It mainly controlled how programs would write to the disk or interact with the computer's memory, and it was used to issue some basic system commands.

But Microsoft changed all that when it introduced Windows. Windows is really a combination of an operating system and a set of basic programs that do lots of other things. Today's Windows operating system comes with a host of programs, including Microsoft Internet Explorer for surfing the Web, Windows Media Player for listening to music or watching videos, and Outlook Express for sending and receiving email. Not to mention software for backing up your hard drive, sending and receiving faxes, and often much more.

In fact, the integration of new features to the operating system is one of the things that got Microsoft into trouble with the Justice Department and a federal judge in 1998. A lot of other software companies complained that Microsoft was putting them out of business by bundling too many features with Windows. The Justice Department agreed and used that argument as a focus for its antitrust case. I'm not sure what will ultimately happen (maybe you'll know by the time you read this). But I do know that Microsoft will continue to be a dominant player and that no matter what Microsoft's competitors and the Justice Department think, Windows XP will emerge as a significant product.

Several versions of Microsoft Windows are currently in widespread use. The newest—and the one I've focused on in this book—is called Windows XP, but plenty of machines run Windows 2000, Windows Me, Windows 98, Windows 95, or even the comparatively ancient Windows 3.1 from 1992.

For the past several years, Microsoft has been shipping two types of PC operating systems. One version, collectively referred to as “Windows 9x,” started with Windows 95, which as you might expect, was released in 1995. Three years later, Microsoft came out with Windows 98 followed by Windows 98 Second Edition. Then, in 2000, the company published Windows Millennium Edition (Windows Me), which was a minor refinement of Windows 98.

Windows Me was clearly positioned as a home operating system, but at the same time Microsoft was developing a separate operating system for businesses. It started as Windows NT, but was pretty much replaced with Windows 2000. Unlike Windows 9x, Windows NT and Windows 2000 were based on an entirely new code. They were much more reliable and robust and had a higher level of security than Windows 9x. But they were also a bit harder to use and configure and were considerably more expensive.

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