How Operating Systems Work

By: Curt Franklin & Dave Coustan

User Interface

Screen shot of Red Hat's Linux operating system
Screen shot of Red Hat's Linux operating system
Screen shot copyright © 2003 Red Hat, Inc. All rights reserved.

Just as the API provides a consistent way for applications to use the resources of the computer system, a user interface (UI) brings structure to the interaction between a user and the computer. In the last decade, almost all development in user interfaces has been in the area of the graphical user interface (GUI), with two models, Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft's Windows, receiving most of the attention and gaining most of the market share. The popular open-source Linux operating system also supports a graphical user interface.

There are other user interfaces, some graphical and some not, for other operating systems.


Unix, for example, has user interfaces called shells that present a user interface more flexible and powerful than the standard operating system text-based interface. Programs such as the Korn Shell and the C Shell are text-based interfaces that add important utilities, but their main purpose is to make it easier for the user to manipulate the functions of the operating system. There are also graphical user interfaces, such as X-Windows and Gnome, that make Unix and Linux more like Windows and Macintosh computers from the user's point of view.

It's important to remember that in all of these examples, the user interface is a program or set of programs that sits as a layer above the operating system itself. The same thing is true, with somewhat different mechanisms, of both Windows and Macintosh operating systems. The core operating-system functions -- the management of the computer system -- lie in the kernel of the operating system. The display manager is separate, though it may be tied tightly to the kernel beneath. The ties between the operating-system kernel and the user interface, utilities and other software define many of the differences in operating systems today, and will further define them in the future.