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The available computer periphery dictates the features of the shell.
The user interacts with the periphery, the shell is software and has to take account for his possibilities (see computer accessibility) which are cut but the possibilities, that the periphery offers.

In computing, shell is the denomination of the software that implements the user interface that enables the interaction of the user with the entirety of an operating system's basic services. A shell can use either a command-line interface (CLI) or graphical user interface (GUI) or a Voice user interface (VUI) or a combination of two or of all three.

While any single program has it's own interface, the shell, is the more generic implementation of an interface. GNOME Shell is an example of a graphical shell.

The design of a shell is guided by cognitive ergonomics and the goal is to achieve the best workflow possible for the intended tasks. It can be constricted by the available computing power, e.g. to process speech recognition in real-time, or of the GPU) or the available amount of graphics memory and is dictated by the employed computer periphery, such as computer keyboard, pointing device (a mouse with one button, or one with 5 buttons, or a 3D mouse) or touchscreen, which is the direct human–machine interface.

The optimum choice of user interface depends on a computer's role and particular operation.

CLI-shells allow some operations to be performed faster, rearranging large blocks of data for example. But they require the user to memorize all commands and their calling syntax, and also to learn the shell-specific scripting language, e.g. Bash script. CLIs are also easier to be operated via refreshable braille display and more more surface to screen readers.

Graphical shells have a low burden to start using a computer, are characterized as being simple and easy-to-use. With the wide-spread adoption of programs with a GUI, the use of graphical shells has gained greater adoption. Since Graphical shells do not offer a better workflow, most operating systems, come with both.



Operating systems provide various services to their users, including file management, process management (running and terminating applications), batch processing, and operating system monitoring and configuration.

Most operating system shells are not direct interfaces to the underlying kernel, even if a shell communicates with the user via peripheral devices attached to the computer directly. Shells are actually special applications that use the kernel API in just the same way as it is used by other application programs. A shell manages the user–system interaction by prompting users for input, interpreting their input, and then handling an output from the underlying operating system.[1] Since the operating system shell is actually an application, it may easily be replaced with another similar application, for most operating systems.

In addition to shells running on local systems, there are different ways to make remote systems available to local users; such approaches are usually referred to as remote access or remote administration. Initially available on multi-user mainframes, which provided text-based UIs for each active user simultaneously by means of a text terminal connected to the mainframe via serial line or modem, remote access has extended to Unix-like systems and Microsoft Windows. On Unix-like systems, Secure Shell protocol is ususally used for text-based shells, while SSH tunelling can be used for X Window System–based graphical user interfaces (GUIs). On Microsoft Windows, Remote Desktop Protocol can be used to provide GUI remote access.

Most operating system shells fall into one of two categories – command-line and graphical. Command line shells provide a command-line interface (CLI) to the operating system, while graphical shells provide a graphical user interface (GUI). Other possibilities, although not so common, include voice user interface and various implementations of a text-based user interface (TUI) that are not CLI. The relative merits of CLI- and GUI-based shells are often debated.

Text (CLI) shellsEdit

The Command Prompt, a CLI-shell in Windows
Bash, a widely-adopted unix shell on UNIX

A command-line interface (CLI) is an operating system shell that uses alphanumeric characters typed on a keyboard to provide instructions and data to the operating system, interactively. For example, a teletypewriter can send codes representing keystrokes to a command interpreter program running on the computer; the command interpreter parses the sequence of keystrokes and responds with an error message if it cannot recognize the sequence of characters, or it may carry out some other program action such as loading an application program, listing files, logging in a user and many others. Operating systems such as UNIX have a large variety of shell programs with different commands, syntax and capabilities. Some operating systems had only a single style of command interface; commodity operating systems such as MS-DOS came with a standard command interface but third-party interfaces were also often available, providing additional features or functions such as menuing or remote program execution.

Application programs may also implement a command-line interface. For example, in Unix-like systems, the telnet program has a number of commands for controlling a link to a remote computer system. Since the commands to the program are made of the same keystrokes as the data being sent to a remote computer, some means of distinguishing the two are required. An escape sequence can be defined, using either a special local keystroke that is never passed on but always interpreted by the local system. The program becomes modal, switching between interpreting commands from the keyboard or passing keystrokes on as data to be processed.

A feature of many command-line shells is the ability to save sequences of commands for re-use. A data file can contain sequences of commands which the CLI can be made to follow as if typed in by a user. Special features in the CLI may apply when it is carrying out these stored instructions. Such batch files (script files) can be used repeatedly to automate routine operations such as initializing a set of programs when a system is restarted. Batch mode use of shells usually involves structures, conditionals, variables, and other elements of programming languages; some have the bare essentials needed for such a purpose, others are very sophisticated programming languages in and of themselves. Conversely, some programming languages can be used interactively from an operating system shell or in a purpose-built program.

The command-line shell may offer features such as command-line completion, where the interpreter expands commands based on a few characters input by the user. A command-line interpreter may offer a history function, so that the user can recall earlier commands issued to the system and repeat them, possibly with some editing. Since all commands to the operating system had to be typed by the user, short command names and compact systems for representing program options were common. Short names were sometimes hard for a user to recall, and early systems lacked the storage resources to provide a detailed on-line user instruction guide.

The first Unix shell, Ken Thompson's sh,[2] was modeled after the Multics shell,[3] itself modeled after the RUNCOM[4] program Louis Pouzin showed to the Multics Team. The "rc" suffix on some Unix configuration files (for example, ".vimrc"), is a remnant of the RUNCOM ancestry of Unix shells.[citation needed]

Graphical shellsEdit

Graphical shells provide means for manipulating graphical user interface (GUI) based programs, such as opening, closing, moving and resizing windows, as well as switching focus between windows. Graphical shells may be included with desktop environments, or come separately, even as set of loosely coupled tools.

Microsoft WindowsEdit

Modern versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system use the Windows shell as their shell. Windows Shell provides the familiar desktop environment, start menu, and task bar, as well as a graphical user interface for accessing the file management functions of the operating system. Older versions also include Program Manager, which was the shell for the 3.x series of Microsoft Windows, and which in fact ships with later versions of Windows of both the 95 and NT types at least through Windows XP. The interfaces of Windows versions 1 and 2 were markedly different.

The taskbar of SharpEnviro, which is a shell replacement for Windows

Desktop applications are also considered shells, as long as they use a third-party engine. Likewise, many individuals and developers dissatisfied with the interface of Windows Explorer have developed software that either alters the functioning and appearance of the shell or replaces it entirely. WindowBlinds by StarDock is a good example of the former sort of application. LiteStep, SharpE and Emerge Desktop are good examples of the latter.

Interoperability programmes and purpose-designed software lets Windows users use equivalents of many of the various Unix-based GUIs discussed below, as well as Macintosh. An equivalent of the OS/2 Presentation Manager for version 3.0 can run some OS/2 programmes under some conditions using the OS/2 environmental subsystem in versions of Windows NT. For an example of the first, X Window-type environments can be run using combinations of Windows/Unix interoperability packages, communications suites such as Hummingbird Connectivity, and/or X server programmes for Windows such as WinaXe and others.

Unix-like systemsEdit

Drag-and-dropping of a file between KDesktop and Konqueror in KDE

Graphical shells typically build on top of a windowing system. In the case of X Window System or Wayland, the shell consists of the X window manager or the Wayland compositor, as well as of one or multiple programs providing the functionality to start installed applications, to manage open windows and virtual desktops, and often to support a widget engine.

In the case of OS X, Quartz could be thought of as the windowing system, and the shell consists of the Finder,[5] the Dock,[5] SystemUIServer,[5] and Mission Control.[6]

Voice user interfaceEdit

A voice user interface is a type of human–machine interface where the input takes place over the human's voice. It is being enabled by speech recognition software.

Other usesEdit

"Shell" is also used loosely to describe application software that is "built around" a particular component, such as web browsers and email clients, in analogy to the shells found in nature.

In expert systems, a shell is a piece of software that is an "empty" expert system without the knowledge base for any particular application.[7]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "Operating system shells". AIX 6.1 Information Center. IBM Corp. Retrieved September 16, 2012.
  2. ^ "V6 Thompson Shell Port - History". Retrieved 2012-08-14.
  3. ^ Tom Van Vleck (1995-02-05). "Unix and Multics". Retrieved 2012-08-14.
  4. ^ Louis Pouzin (2000-11-25). "The Origin of the Shell". Retrieved 2012-08-14.
  5. ^ a b c "The Life Cycle of a Daemon". Apple Inc.
  6. ^ "Restart Mission Control in OS X Lion". OSXDaily. Nov 23, 2011.
  7. ^ British Computer Society: The BCS glossary of ICT and computing terms. Pearson Education. 2005. p. 135. ISBN 978-0-13-147957-9.