An OS is not O/S

Being a person of many hats, it only made sense to buy one recently – one with a large brim to protect myself from UVA, UVB, and whatever other radioactive letters the sun wishes to hurl at me.

The hat I purchased included a tiny inline document (also known as a “tag”) which simply stated O/S, a cryptic acronym indicating One Size. In other words, the hat manufacturer was too lazy and cheap to offer assorted sizes, and decided to fool the customer into thinking that size doesn’t matter. The result is that for some the hat is too large, and for others, too small. The solution is to have an average-size head, however these can be difficult to obtain.

In software, the letters OS have a different meaning, of course, as the abbreviation for Operating System. Long gone are the days when there were two main platforms: Windows and Mac. There’s Unix and Linux and Android (oh my!), Ubuntu, Blackberry OS, Chrome OS and many others; there’s almost as many OS’s as there are, well, hats.

The tremendous variety of devices each with their own OS is proof that there’s no one-size-fits-all OS. That is, there is no O/S OS. Each user has their own needs and desires. Within each OS, you can customize the look, feel and functionality even further, creating a nearly infinite number of “sizes”.

The funny thing is that most users neither know nor care that their devices have a so-called “operating system” – they just want to do stuff, like make calls, find information, or play a game.  The fact is that most devices have some sort of operating system or they wouldn’t be able to – operate. Watches (digital and analog), TVs, basic corded phones, washing machines, DVD players, cars – all these things require an operating system. When was the last time you pined for an upgrade for your clothes dryer? We don’t care that a toaster has an OS – we just want toast.

So how would we define an operating system? It’s not just software. As its most basic level, it is a structured environment that receives input, processes it and creates output. It can also organize and manage the things in that environment. A software OS, for example, must have file management capabilities.

Any document is an OS for information. For example, a user can interact with an online help system by searching it, resizing it, bookmarking certain topics, and if possible, annotating it and submitting feedback on it. The end product is knowledge – the document is the OS allowing this knowledge to be transmitted.

This definition of an OS can be extended as far as your imagination will take you. The gears and pedals on a bicycle are the operating system for that bicycle. They receive input (force from the biker) and transform it into energy and movement (output). Every living thing has an OS – the infinitely complex arrangement of cells, nerves, muscles, bones into a living form, all coded with DNA. Although we recognize each other through our physical appearance, we know each other through our minds and souls. The body, then, is the OS for the soul. When the hard drive of a body crashes, the soul goes with it, at least in this world.

The world is the OS for humanity, our universe the OS for this world, time and space the OS for the universe, and existence itself is the OS for God or whatever force you believe runs the universe.

So to all those wizards who continue to create OS’s so magical and subtle that we don’t even see them – my hat’s off to you.