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What is an Embedded Operating System?

An embedded operating system is specialized software designed to run on dedicated hardware, managing resources and enabling the device to perform its specific functions efficiently. It's the unseen maestro behind your smart appliances, cars, and more, orchestrating every process with precision. Wonder how it impacts your daily tech interactions? Let's uncover its pivotal role together.
M. McGee
M. McGee

An embedded operating system performs a very specific purpose to the exclusion of all other functions. These operating systems are typically found in standalone computerized equipment such as ATM machines or navigation systems. Such a system typically runs a specific piece of programming, such as the guidance system on a rocket, and nothing else. This type of embedded system is often very important for real-time computer functions.

There is a big difference between a standard and an embedded operating system. A standard operating system creates an environment where a user and the computer may interact with one another to perform a huge variety of tasks. This is in direct contrast to an embedded system, which will only perform one type of task, and it will often do it without any user intervention. While a normal operating system is installed on a multi-use computer, an embedded system operates other electronic devices.

An ATM is a good example of an embedded operating system.
An ATM is a good example of an embedded operating system.

An embedded operating system is typically part of an embedded computer system. These systems are narrow purpose, fixed-function, computer systems. An embedded computer system runs nearly every electronic device available today. These tiny programs regulate everything from the apps on a cellphone to the heat in a toaster.

This type of system centers on microcontroller chips. These chips function like a tiny computer, taking in information, processing it and then outputting information. Unlike a normal computer, a typical microcontroller chip is only able to do one thing. While all of these embedded systems have microcontroller chips, only the more complex ones have a full embedded operating system.

Generally, in order for an embedded system to warrant an actual operating system it needs at least one of two things: complexity or interactivity. A complex system needs to take in information from multiple sources, perform multiple types of operations or output different information based on its situation. In essence, it needs to be able to do multiple tasks.

The other common requirement for an actual operating system is interactivity. If a user has to interact with the operation, especially if the operation is time dependent, it will usually have an embedded operating system. Since a standard controller simply takes in and sends out data, any time a user needs to interact with that data a more complex system is needed.

Many real-time operating systems are also embedded. This type of system requires immediate response to data input—latency and lag are not an option. Since an embedded system has no purpose outside its specific task, they operate well together. These systems typically run immediate response procedures, such as the anti-lock breaking processes on a car.

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Discussion Comments


Did early gaming consoles such as the Atari 2600 and Nintendo Entertainment System rely on embedded operating systems? It seems like that might have been the case and was certainly the case when we got up to more modern systems such as the Playstation 1 and PS2. Of course, gaming consoles have changed in that they tend to sport full fledged operating systems that are easily upgraded through software updates and perform a variety of tasks.

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    • An ATM is a good example of an embedded operating system.
      An ATM is a good example of an embedded operating system.