PDQ Library:  Province & Territory Codes

Computer Basics

Copyright, 2010, Neat Net Tricks, www.neatnettricks.com.
Reprinted by permission.

{From NNT Premium Issue 211}   Karl Tipple has written several articles for Neat Net Tricks. With the one featured below he expressed concern that the information might be a bit too basic. I told him not to worry about that. I believe that a large percentage of the NNT audience will benefit from the content, and the remainder of our readers will still find it useful to explain to their neighbor up the street.

Karl is a retired electronics engineer. He spent many years in analog electronic circuit design and Research and Development activities and also taught electronics courses at the college level for fourteen years. His first contact with computers came in the 60's with Fortran and IBM punch cards. Beginning in the late 70's, and extending into the 80's, he was involved with other aspects of computers including machine language hexadecimal coding for 8 bit microprocessors, such as the Motorola 6800 and the Intel 8080, used in process control applications. Experiences with "desktop" computers began with the Apple IIe, and the early IBM's with 5.25" floppy disks and BASIC. His long-time hobbies and interests include photography, camping and hiking in the mountains, and various aspects of nature. These interests are reflected in Karl's Web site at www.karltipple.com.

Over the past year or so, I have noticed a number of posts and threads related to questions such as (and I am paraphrasing here) "what is Firefox?", "what is Linux?", "can I use Firefox instead of Linux?", etc., on the Neat Net Tricks Forum.

These questions suggest that there are many computer users out there who are not fully aware of exactly what the software in their computers is doing and what it is called, and this feeling has been enhanced when I have mentioned the word "browser" only to realize that the person I was talking to did not know what I was talking about.

Therefore for those users who are not fully aware of how the software is divided up in their computer, what it does and what it is called, I am going to attempt to provide a somewhat simplistic explanation. If you are already familiar with the subject, you can stop reading right here!

Basic Personal Computer

The basic personal computer (PC), as you buy it from the store, generally consists of the case ("tower") which contains the main computing hardware, the input devices, which at a minimum include a mouse and keyboard, and output devices that probably include a pair of speakers and a display or monitor, although the monitor may not be included in the basic package thus giving the buyer the option of purchasing a higher quality one than is frequently included in lower cost packages.

Unfortunately, without the proper software, the basic computer, when you plugged it in and pressed the power switch, would do almost nothing; it has to have an operating system (OS) installed to be usable. The most commonly used OS on PC's is some version of Microsoft Windows, the most recently released version of which is Windows 7. If you buy a Mac, it will probably have Snow Leopard as its OS. And, although somewhat rare, you can also purchase computers with Linux as the installed operating system; more about that later.

Once you have a suitable operating system, when you turn the power on with the push button on the tower, the computer will go through a process known as "booting up" and in a short time, you should see a display (referred to as the "desktop") on your monitor screen.

However, to make the computer do useful things, you need various applications. An application is software that "runs" on top of the foundation provided by the operating system and allows you to do things like looking at things on the Web, sending email, word processing, manipulating pictures, etc.

The software application that allows you to look at things on the Web is called the "browser". In the United States, at least, if your computer has Windows as its operating system on it, it will also come with Internet Explorer, which is the Microsoft Windows browser. If you buy a Mac, it will probably come with Safari as its browser. However, increasing numbers of Windows users are switching to other browsers such as Firefox, Opera, etc.

Also, you probably want to send and receive email. If, like most people, you want to do this with a desktop application (as opposed to sending and receiving it from a Web site with your browser), that requires another application which is commonly referred to as an "email client". For years, with most versions of Windows, Microsoft included an email client application called Outlook Express. With Windows 7, the Microsoft email client is now called Windows Live Mail which seems to have some added features. However, there are free alternative email clients produced by other people, the most commonly used one probably being Thunderbird, which is put out by the same organization as the Firefox browser.

And if you want to do word processing you will need an application for that. Microsoft calls their word processing application Microsoft Word and it is somewhat expensive. Again, there are free alternatives that you can download from the Web and install yourself such as Open Office Writer, Abiword, etc. I am presently writing this material with Open Office Writer which is running on the free Linux operating system.

Microsoft v.s. Apple operating systems

Arguably, Microsoft is probably most responsible for making the home personal computer the commonly used piece of home equipment it is today. Apple, by making both their hardware and software interactive proprietary items almost forces one to buy the complete package made by Apple, whereas Microsoft licenses the use of their Windows software to many different manufacturers who then use numerous different brands of hardware in their computers and it also allows the fabrication of customized computers (sometimes referred to as "white box computers") to be made by independent shops around the country and it allows individuals (like myself) to pick and choose their hardware and assemble their own Windows based PC's.

Unfortunately, there are several basic problems with Microsoft Windows; the licensing cost is expensive (a cost that is hidden in the cost of brand name PC's but is a significant burden for organizations with many computers) and because of its popularity coupled with its basic software structure, has been, and is, a regular target for writers of viruses, spyware and other forms of malware. As a result, additional applications such as anti-virus software, anti-spyware software, etc., need to be employed by most users of Windows to protect their computers from "infections" that can disable their computers. Other browser and email applications (as mentioned above) frequently tend to be more secure and may provide better performance at the same time, and since they are free for the download, there is little reason for not trying them if one is not satisfied with the Microsoft provided ones.

LINUX operating system

Because of the high cost of Windows, coupled with its inherent security and stability problems, there has been an increasing migration in recent years to another operating system called Linux. Linux is free and its software structure is basically more secure and stable than Windows. There are now many millions of computers all over the world that are running Linux as their operating system in place of Windows. If you use your browser to access the Web and view the NNT Forum and enter the search term "Linux", you will see a number of posts related to major organizations that have made the switch from Windows to Linux for cost and security reasons. These posts only represent the tip of the iceberg and also do not reflect the many private individuals (like myself) who are using Linux for those reasons.

Unfortunately, Linux has at least two significant shortcomings that have impeded its adoption and growth as a more universal operating system. The first is the fact that there are literally hundreds of different "flavors" or distributions (commonly referred to as "distros") which means that it is not one more or less universal system like Windows. Although most of these distros are "niche" releases that have a relatively small number of users, there are several different major "base" versions as well as some popular offshoot versions of the main ones. You can get an idea of what some of the more prominent distros are like by visiting: http://distrowatch.com/dwres.php?resource=major. The other problem is that there are special purpose applications that are written only for Windows (or in some cases Macs), such as Adobe Photoshop for example, that cannot be run in Linux and which may be wanted by the home PC user.

Although most commercial and governmental organizations that use Linux go with it as the sole OS (operating system) so as to completely avoid the expenses and functional shortcomings of Windows, for the home user, a dual boot system that has both operating systems installed, and thus allows the user to determine whether he wants to boot into either the Windows or Linux operating systems probably offers the best of both worlds since one can use Linux for online activities and Windows for special offline applications not available in Linux as mentioned above.

Although I may have discussed Linux above in more detail than necessary in an attempt to explain what it is (and is not), I hope that I have been able to eliminate some of the confusion that seems to exist in many quarters about the "differences between "operating system " and "application" and some of the various names associated with different versions of these types of software.

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