In the Back to Basics series, we discuss terms, concepts, products, and trends from the technology industry. We look at their origins and explain them in plain English.

All computers require an operating system (hereafter referred to as “OS”). Some use Windows or Linux, others macOS. What these three have in common is that they all run on desktop PCs, those things we traditionally refer to as computers.

Times have changed though, and desktop PCs have lost their monopoly on the term “computer.” Your phone, your TV, your watch, your car: these days you will be hard-pressed to find something without a computer inside of it, and this is just the start. Research from Ericsson estimates the world will have 29 billion connected devices by the end of 2022, compared to only two billion today.

Since all these items are in fact computers, big and small, they all need an OS. Why is that?

The responsibilities of the operating system

To start, imagine the OS as a translator between the hardware (the physical components you can touch and see) and the software (the bits and bytes that are virtual). If the hardware speaks Chinese and the software speaks English, it is the OS that allows the two to communicate and make your device do what you want it to do. Moreover, it ensures that not all software programmers have to learn Chinese; they can work in English while the OS takes care of the rest.

The next role the OS takes on is that of project manager. Each component of your phone—both hardware and software—has its own task or function to perform. The OS is the overseer with a bird’s-eye view of everything that’s happening on the device. It delegates resources like memory and storage space based on the actions you take on your phone, for example opening an app or making a call.

The mobile OS also acts as a foundation upon which other applications can be built, without the need for developers to create everything from scratch. Functions like search or how the keyboard is displayed on a touchscreen are standard components of a mobile OS. They act like templates and tools so that app developers do not have to program or design the same things from scratch over and over again. Also, these standardized components ensure everything looks consistent and runs smoothly across the entire OS.

Through all this, keep in mind that a mobile OS performs similar functions for a phone that a desktop OS would for a computer. The critical difference is that as a smaller device, a phone will have less memory and a limited power source, so the OS’s responsibilities in managing these are even more crucial on mobile.

At the center of it all

As you can see, an OS is at the center of any computing device. It shapes the overall experience, influencing everything from how applications look to allocating sufficient memory resources to ensure your commands can be executed smoothly. Yet at the same time, an OS is like a sound engineer at a music concert: when things go well, only other music professionals will notice the quality of his work. Not until things go wrong (e.g., echoes or loud ringing on the speakers) do non-specialists become aware of the sound guy.

So it is with an OS: we do our job well if you have a smooth experience using KaiOS phones, without being too aware of the OS and all the intricate processes going on under the hood.

Finally—and highly relevant in today’s discussion about the power of “Big Tech” companies and privacy— it is essential to understand the omnipotence of an OS. While an individual app developer has limited access to your data (usually constrained to whatever you do within their app), an operating system can monitor almost everything you do on the device. Many people do not consider this factor, yet there are significant differences in the privacy and data policies of the dominant smartphone operating systems. We will talk more about how privacy and data are handled by KaiOS in an upcoming post on this blog.

We hope this basic introduction to operating systems was useful. If you have any remaining questions after reading this or other suggestions for the Back to Basics series, then don’t hesitate to share them in the comments below or reach out to us on Twitter and Facebook.