They are part of the environment in which a process runs. For example, a running process can query the value of the TEMP environment variable to discover a suitable location to store temporary files, or the HOME or USERPROFILE variable to find the directory structure owned by the user running the process.
They were introduced in their modern form in 1979 with Version 7 Unix, so are included in all Unix operating system flavors and variants from that point onward including Linux and OS X. From PC DOS 2.0 in 1982, all succeeding Microsoft operating systems including Microsoft Windows, and OS/2 also have included them as a feature, although with somewhat different syntax, usage and standard variable names.
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