"Made it, Ma! Top of the world!" -Arthur "Cody" Jarrett

On July 27th, 1981, Microsoft took their modified/rebranded version of QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System) and released it as MS-DOS — Microsoft’s Disk Operating System.

(If you have not seen Triumph of the Nerds yet, do so.)

In 1980 we had a TRS-80 III that used TR-DOS. We moved to an Apple compatible machine in 1982, and picked up an IBM XT a year or two after that. I learned my way around DOS at a pretty early age, as being able to change drives, navigate through directory structures and launch executables were all skills needed to play and copy games.

I don’t ever remember using DOS 1.0, but our IBM PC Jr. shipped with DOS 2.1 and I remember those diskettes vividly. It’s funny what memories stick with you. I remember using DOS 3.3 for a long time, but don’t remember 4.0 at all. I do remember using version 5, and all the different versions of 6 — 6.0, 6.2, 6.21, and 6.22.

If you ever want to hear an old school PC guy groan, mention EDLIN. EDLIN was the old DOS-based editor (EDit LINe) before EDIT was released with DOS 5.0. EDLIN was finally dropped from Vista/Win7 but was included all the way up to Windows XP. If you’re still running XP, I dare you to go to a command line and type “EDLIN FILE.TXT” and see what you can get to work. It’s like a less user-friendly version of VI, if you can imagine such a thing.

One of the major limitations of DOS was its 8.3 file name structure. This meant every file on your computer was limited to a name no longer than 8 characters with a 3 character extension. Instead of “Rob’s List of Favorite Songs.txt”, you might have “rsnglst1.txt”. Multiply that times a thousand and you can see how without good directory structures, it was often difficult to find old files. Early versions of DOS had a bug which prevented two files from having the same name even if they were in different directories. Back then you could easily hide files from other users, using the attrib +h command. DOS was full of little tricks.

DOS also came with BASIC, which is what I and probably most computer people my age first programmed in. My programs were pretty crude and horrible, but they were fun to write. Like most kids I wrote a lot of simple math programs and bad games. Probably the most advanced thing I ever programmed in BASIC was a Dungeons and Dragons character generator. It started out life as just a simple blank character sheet form, but ended up as a program that would randomly generate both playable characters (PCs) and non-playable characters (NPCs) for use in adventures.

DOS also allowed you to link commands together in batch files. 30 years later I am still using batch files — I use them every single day at work, in fact. While other Microsoft scripting solutions like VB Scripting and Powershell have since been released, there’s still something to be said for a batch file that can be slapped out in seconds and save me hours worth of work. My home backups and several other scheduled maintenance tasks are all batch files.

Those of you who were really into computers back then remember the trials and tribulations of editing your config.sys and autoexec.bat files to get everything just right. Many of us had multiple configurations to choose from, depending on if we were playing games or not. Some games needed EMS; some needed XMS. It was all a balancing act that involved deciding just how much RAM you wanted to set aside for different processes and drivers. Today’s crop of point-and-click users would have been lost. (Think “getting a wireless router to work times 100″.) When I worked at Best Buy in late 94/early 95, people would bring their machines in after purchasing a game and pay $39.95 for me to configure their machines to play it.

One of the last additions to DOS that I remember was DBLSPACE, a utility that MAGICALLY “doubled” the size of users’ hard drives’. Really what they did was compress compressible files on the fly. In 1994, Stac Electronics sued Microsoft for including DoubleSpace with DOS, claiming that the code was based on their own STACKER code (a competing product that Microsoft had at one time considered buying). According to Wikipedia Stac Electronics was awarded $120 million dollars, Microsoft was awarded $13 million in a counterclaim, and ultimately the suit was settled when Microsoft “[made] a $39.9 million investment in Stac Electronics, and additionally [paid] Stac about $43 million in royalties on their patents.”

The first version of Windows I ever used, Windows 3.1, sat literally on top of DOS. Windows 95, however, booted directly into Windows and for the first time, I didn’t get to see DOS before I saw Windows. The first time I installed Windows 95, I put a shortcut to CMD.EXE in the startup folder so that when Windows 95 launched, I would be treated to a DOS prompt. Old habits die hard.

Like I said, I still use DOS today. I wrote Batch-o-Matic specifically to work with DOS Batch files. Over the years Microsoft has tried to wean us off of DOS by incorporating fewer features with every new operating system they release, but as long as I can leverage “the little command line that could”, I’ll continue doing so.

Happy 30th Birthday, MS-DOS!

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5 Responses to “Happy 30th Birthday, MS-DOS!”

  1. AArdvark says:

    http://www.cryptonomicon.com/beginning.html

  2. AArdvark says:

    http://artlung.com/smorgasborg/C_R_Y_P_T_O_N_O_M_I_C_O_N.shtml

    this is the whole article

  3. Dave Farquhar says:

    DOS 1 was pretty short-lived. DOS 4 flopped on the marketplace because it was buggy. I can’t remember the specifics anymore, but I think some of the included support programs had fatal buts. It was possible to avoid but most people preferred to just stick with 3.3 until the much-better DOS 5 came out. One time someone bet me that I couldn’t make a boot disk with both network and CD-ROM drivers on it. I made one in five minutes using DOS 4 because its system files were small enough to let the other stuff fit. Then I got cocky, zipped up some of the files, loaded ramdrive.sys, unzipped the files to the ramdisk, and used that.

    I remember the days when people would trade DOS boot disks like recipes. Someone would come up with a configuration that worked well for a particular game, and it would circulate like wildfire. You could do boot menus with DOS 6, but not a lot of people bothered.

    I actually ran OS/2 for most of DOS 6’s heyday, but got pretty good at tweaking the startup files and making boot menus.

  4. Zeno says:

    My first foray into MS-DOS was something like version 3.3, circa 1989. I was in the Marines at the time and we had a couple of computers in the staff office which the admin guys used to all their work on – mostly memos, personnel files, discipline reports and things like that. There was zero security on these machines or files because the general assumption was that the average jarhead was too thick to know how to use a PC. So I taught myself “command-line kung-fu” straight out of the OS manuals which the admins just had lying around. I dug up a lot of dirt on my fellow leathernecks in this way.

  5. RealNC says:

    All I can say is good riddance to that piece of crap. DOS had nothing to celebrate over.