What is an Operating System?

With the release of the new Chrome web browser by Google, some people are saying that it is the new operating system. Hanks Williams basically agreed in his “Why Does Everything Suck” blog. His opinion is that you do not need device drivers to be an operating system. The operating system is something that an application sits on. He reviewed the limited operating system support from the old days. I laughed when I read a comment on that blog that Microsoft says an operating system is whatever they sell.

This discussion brings up a good point. In essence, what constitutes an operating system? I think a good way to determine whether or not something is an operating system is to see whether it relies on some other software piece to run on the metal. For example, you might ask whether Windows XP is an operating system. If you take a personal computer, and put Windows XP on it, can applications run on top of it? I’d say the answer is yes. Therefore I would conclude that Windows XP is an operating system.

You could apply this analysis to Google Chrome. Suppose I take a personal computer. Could I then install Chrome on it and run applications on top of Chrome? The answer is no. Chrome does not run by itself on the raw personal computer hardware. Right now Chrome ships only a version that works on Windows. Chrome requires Windows to handle the network cards and the hard disk and the computer memory. Thus I would conclude that Chrome is not an operating system.

It is often easy to get confused by matters such as these. However the right viewpoint might clear things up. Yes I can see how Chrome might provide some services to web applications that run inside it. However that does not mean that we call Chrome an operating system. The point may not be important. But I think it is good to work on a common and clear definition of terms in the tech world.

Often I need to head to Wikipedia to explain terms that I need to define. So I looked up operating system. Now it was not decisive on what exactly constitutes the minimum requirements for an operating system. However Wikipedia did confirm that most operating systems have parts which are not part of Chrome such as networking, virtual memory, disk access, etc.