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Steve Ballmer, C.E.O. of Microsoft Corporation, watches a customer demonstrate the Windows Vista operating system. See more computer pictures.

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When you turn on your computer, it's nice to think that you're in control. There's the trusty computer mouse, which you can move anywhere on the screen, summoning up your music library or Internet browser at the slightest whim. Although it's easy to feel like a director in front of your desktop or laptop, there's a lot going on inside, and the real man behind the curtain handling the necessary tasks is the operating system.

­Most desktop or laptop PCs come pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows. Macintosh computers come pre-loaded with Mac OS X. Many corporate servers use the Linux or UNIX operating systems. The operating system (OS) is the first thing loaded onto the computer -- without the operating system, a computer is useless.

­­­More recently, operating systems have started to pop up in smaller computers as well. If you like to tinker with electronic devices, you're probably pleased that operating systems can now be found on many of the devices we use every day, from cell phones to wireless access points. The computers used in these little devices have gotten so powerful that they can now actually run an operating system and applications. The computer in a typical modern cell phone is now more powerful than a desktop computer from 20 years ago, so this progression makes sense and is a natural development.

The purpose of an operating system is to organize and control hardware and software so that the device it lives in behaves in a flexible but predictable way. In this article, we'll tell you what a piece of software must do to be called an operating system, show you how the operating system in your desktop computer works and give you some examples of how to take control of the other operating systems around you.