How Computers Work

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Sorry if this seems basic, but I was explaining this concept to an associate in an email, and thought it might desire a wider audience.

This seems complicated but it isn’t really.  In order to do something with a computer you need four things:

  • The computing device – the hardware, the physical bit of electronics (computer, laptop, server, tablet, smartphone, baby monitor, and these days television, refrigerator, thermostat)
  • The Operating System – the operating system turns the device on and makes work possible, turns it from a brick into a wicked hot calculating machine. (Yeah, it’s just a calculator, because everything that happens eventually happens to binary numbers.  Computers are a way to turn anything you want to do into a series of mathematical calculations.  Pretty awesome when you think about it.)
    • Most computers run some version of Windows.
    • Or Apple OSX and iOS.
    • Or Linux. Most web servers, and lots of little Internet connected things like routers, switches, wireless access points, thermostats, baby monitors, etc. are running Linux under the hood
    • Or Android (which is sort of Linux-y when you look at it.
  • The applications, also known as Apps or software or programs – all different names for the same thing.  An application will let you use the wicked hot calculator to perform a specific task or group of tasks, without having to know how to do the math, or even that the math is happening.
  • And the network – strictly speaking we don’t NEED a network, the wicked hot calculator can work on its own, but these days we connect our applications to remote services like web sites, email, Office365, DropBox, online banking, Amazon, and so on to infinity.

I’ve been at this a while (20 years) so to me it seems like child’s play.  But then when I am driving my car I really only have the vaguest notions about what is actually happening to make my journey possible.  I just want the journey.  So maybe it isn’t child’s play, maybe it is hard and confusing.  Maybe my explanation helped someone “get it.”  Hope so.


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