Device drivers, or more commonly just “drivers”, have been around as long as personal computers but are still poorly understood, even by many IT professionals. If you bought a new printer or upgraded your video card, then you most likely needed to install new drivers on your system to get it to work. Perhaps your DVD drive stopped working right and you had to go to the manufacturer’s website to download new drivers. You know they’re important but you don’t actually know what they do.
In a nutshell, a device driver is just a small program that allows the operating system, such as Windows, to talk to the hardware device, such as a printer. Different manufacturers make printers that speak different “languages”, so each one has different drivers. Likewise, models from the same manufacturer may speak different dialects of the same language; a driver for one model may work well enough to run the basic functions of a similar model but more advanced features won’t work.
Some common devices even speak the same basic language across all manufacturers. A good example is video cards. If you need to install drivers to use your new video card, how is it you can use a monitor connected to that video card even before you load any drivers? The operating system comes with a very basic driver that will work with almost any video card to give it just enough function to be useable. However, you will still need the drivers for that specific video card to get the full range of resolutions, outputs and any other options that may be available.
Because drivers fill the well-defined role of getting an operating system to talk to a hardware device, it must match not only the device but also the operating system. This is why you can’t use a Windows 8 driver on a PC running Ubuntu. Linux and Windows speak different languages. To put it in human terms, if you want to talk to a Spanish speaker then you will need someone who speaks both Spanish and English to translate. However, if a German wishes to speak to the same Spaniard, then someone who knows both English and Spanish is will not be able to help and you will need a German/Spanish speaker. Fortunately, most hardware manufacturers include drivers for all major systems on the CDs that come with the product. Many USB devices come with the drivers loaded right on the device for automatic installation by the operating system.
Recently, there has been work towards eliminating drivers in their traditional role in favor of “universal” drivers that will work with any device from any manufacturer without limitations or loss of functionality. The major obstacle is that every vendor has features specific to their products and universal drivers can’t account for new features from every different vendor. In the meantime, operating system vendors such as Microsoft and Apple are doing their best to provide as many drivers as possible through Internet updates so that most devices will “just work” when you plug them in; the operating system automatically detects the device and then selects, downloads and installs the correct driver. If computer engineers are successful at eliminating device drivers, few people will be sad to see them go after years of poor function and computer crashes due to poorly designed device drivers.