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What is the difference between an operating system and a program?

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Many computer users seem confused as to what exactly their computer is running and why. If you ask some people what operating system they use their answers will vary from Windows 2010, Windows 2007, Windows Vista and even to facebook. The confusion is probably due to the naming of popular microsoft services such as Microsoft Office 2007 and Windows 7. Here we attempt to clear up the confusion by highlighting the differences.

At its most basic, an operating system is the software infrastructure that manages the computer’s hardware to make it accessible to the user and to programs. In layman’s terms, it is the initial layer of software that makes your computer useable. Your operating system lets you run the computer, manage users, install programs and edit resource management. It also gives you access to all the different hardware inside the computer.

Microsoft has designed various iterations of an operating system called Windows. There are three popular versions right now with one in development. Release dates shown:

  • Windows XP (2001. Development has ceased for Windows XP)
  • Windows Vista (2006)
  • Windows 7 (2009)
  • Windows 8 (In development)

Programs on the other hand are installed onto compatible operating systems. For example, if you own a Windows machine then you will purchase software that works on Microsoft Windows. Or, if you use a Mac, you will need to purchase software that runs on Mac OS. It is easier to imagine the difference between programs and operating systems if you consider smart phones. Your smart phone may be running the Android operating system (which is equivalent to running a Windows or Mac operating system on your computer). Then, you download apps on the market to add functionality to your phone. Those are programs.

Some popular examples of programs are skype, itunes, Microsoft Office, Norton Antivirus and Adobe Flash.mail
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