We all have our favorite operating system -- some of us will only pick from the tree of Apple, while others prefer the Windows seat. It's easy to assume that a computer without an operating system is as useful as a cup of coffee without the cup. But what does an operating system do, and can a computer still compute without it?
Let's tackle the first question before we get into the nitty-gritty of a system-less computer. An operating system is basically the general contractor of the computer. While the programs are busy doing their one specialized thing -- plumbing, electrical, carpentry -- the operating system is overseeing them all, communicating what they need to the processor and providing a common language that they can all work with to stay on the same page.
There are a few other things your operating system does that you probably don't think about. For instance, it's the operating system (not just the hard drive) that's going to decide how to manage memory. The operating system needs to delegate how much memory each process uses and make sure no memory overlaps. Also keep in mind that your home computer is most likely a single-user, multitasking operating system. That means you only have one processor, but it can run many programs at once.
But here's the kicker: it can't actually do that.
When you're downloading files, working on a spreadsheet and listening to music, your computer just appears to be doing these things simultaneously. In reality, the computer is switching between processes at extremely high speeds -- so high, you don't know it. While you're under the illusion that your CPU and operating system have a hand in every pot, your programs are under the impression that they have complete control of the operating system at any given moment.
So really, your operating system is designed to let the CPU deal with one thing at a time. But because it's a computer and not a harried secretary, it can multitask so fast that the user wouldn't even know.
Now that we know a few of the ways our operating system works for us, let's get into what a computer without an operating system would look like.