Thinking From the Box

Why Not Use DOS?

Eric McCann - 2002.01.10

Late 2001: At the Windows XP launch, Bill Gates officially says "good-bye" to DOS. With a so-so parody of HAL from 2001 ("Bill, what are you doing?") he typed "EXIT" at the Command Prompt, says "Good-bye, DOS," and hits <Enter>. The window disappears, and as far as Bill is concerned, DOS no longer exists.

Maybe he's right. After all, Windows does so much for you now - multiple users, networking, point-and-click interface - but it does it at a cost. You can't run it on a 486 and probably wouldn't want to try on a Pentium class system (even though 266 MHz chips are still available). You need a fast CPU, a lot of hard drive space (much larger than my first hard drives), and a lot of RAM to run it.

Do you really need a computer that would have outclassed most "supercomputers" five or ten years ago to read your email or write a letter to your parents or kids? Despite what the Wintel manufacturing world would have you believe - no! For just a few dollars (if someone even charges you), you can go find a PC with a 386, 486, or Pentium processor and have it run DOS.

DOS is sometimes credited with scaring people away from the PC. It's "too hard to use," it's "cryptic." It doesn't even have a GUI or mouse support! These are good points to someone new to the PC world, but let's look at what it has to offer - and what its problems are.

DOS: The Good

  1. It's small. Small, frankly, means fast. A very basic DOS system (I'm using MS-DOS names as a basis, here, but other DOS variants use similar files) consists of three files: IO.SYS, MSDOS.SYS (or something similar), and COMMAND.COM. Gigabytes? Megabytes? No, we're talking a few kilobytes here. And you have a bootable, usable system. Need more? Well, yes, but we'll get to that.
  2. It's configurable: COMMAND.COM doesn't actually have to be the default interface. Yes, you still have to deal with a command line, but you can get a lot more flexibility with a different interface (called a command interpreter). 4DOS was very popular for a long time, and, as I recall, it gave you many options such as file type coloring and other display options.
  3. It runs on any PC. Yep, anything from the original IBM PC to the latest-and-greatest 2 GHz box. You won't be able to find a system that the base DOS files won't make bootable (assuming you're using FAT).
  4. It has a large number of applications. Okay, they're somewhat hard to find now, but before there was Windows (a DOS application in and of itself), there was DOS - and Lotus 1-2-3, dBase, WordPerfect, games (Wing Commander, anyone?), and more.
  5. Microsoft isn't the only source! Yes, everyone knows of MS-DOS and pretty much means MS-DOS when they say "DOS," but other companies made DOS as well - and often made it better than Microsoft. IBM made (and I believe still makes) PC-DOS, which has a number of advantages such as REXX (a very powerful scripting language, in addition to BASIC), DYNALOAD (want to load a driver you need just for a game, but free the memory afterwards?), E (a flexible text editor, in addition to EDIT), Stacker (which sued Microsoft for unlawful use of its compression technology, but stuck with IBM), PenDOS - I can't say I've seen this used much, but, yes, pen input for DOS.
      There's also OpenDOS (formerly Caldera DOS, Novell DOS/NDOS, and DR-DOS). Under Digital Research (the DR in DR-DOS) it was the best performing DOS at the time and consistently out-featured and outperformed MS-DOS. You'd notice if you tried to install Windows 3.11 on it, though, that the installer would complain that Windows was "incompatible." It wasn't - this was just one of the first obvious ploys of Microsoft's attempting to shut others out. Other features? Personal NetWare, peer-to-peer networking, and it's actually multitasking! I think it's great they included NetWare. <g> There's more, but again, I didn't get to play with this much.
  6. The command line: Some people hate it, but others love it. I can type in a command faster, often, than going to start-programs-blah-blah program, add whatever parameters I need, and have it start any which way I want.
  7. You have direct access to the hardware. If something doesn't work, it's reasonably easy to track down. No wondering if it's a Windows file, a system DLL, a replaced DLL, some .lib file, etc. Printer doesn't work? COPY c:\autoexec.bat LPT1: - if it prints, the printer's fine. If it doesn't, turn the printer on.
  8. Hardware configuration: There's no Plug and Play support for most of DOS's life. This, to me, was a blessing when I had a triple-boot system running DOS, OS/2, and Win95 and swapped my 14.4 modem for a 28.8, jumpered to the same settings, DOS and OS/2 took to it immediately. Windows decided to reconfigure everything through the miracle of Plug and Play - it took me roughly an hour to fix.

DOS: The Bad and Ugly

  1. No long file names: You know that report you just sent out called "Income and Expense Projections for 1Q2003?" You can't call it that on DOS. It's time to get creative - IEPj1q03.doc might just do it. I hope you remember what it means.
  2. Networking, and just about anything else, needs a driver or TSR (Terminate and Stay Resident program, an early way of getting around the lack of multitasking in most DOS versions). And that means memory usage, which means...
  3. Memory management. This is a beauty of the Mac; Mac users don't have to deal with this - or with Windows' system resource heaps. DOS has kludged its way through memory, from the first "Nobody will need more than 640K," to upper memory, extended memory, and expanded memory. And with MS DOS's Memmaker - well, it helps, but doesn't do a very good job. You'll still get bitten by this in Win98 if you want to run a DOS program. Each one was added to the top of the other. And if you need to reconfigure, I hope you have multiple startup files...
  4. Startup files. AUTOEXEC.BAT, COMMAND.COM, NETSTART.BAT - all of which will become your friends or your worst nightmare. You can do interesting things with them, but they are not exactly "user friendly." You've got system variables, user variables, PATH statement limits (depending on which file you put it in!), and more.
  5. Security. What security? If you use a bootable floppy disk, you have the ultimate security - just boot from the floppy, and take it and your files with you when you're done. The computer is then rendered unusable, unless someone else has a boot floppy. And if you lose your boot floppy?
  6. The command line: The reason for the Mac and Windows' popularity. Do you really want to have to type: C: CD \ DIR CD \DIR1\DIR2\DIR3 XCopy file1 file2 /x/s/v/e/w/x=y:3?
      How about pkzip -& -x-v-y file1 a:\
      (You can, by the way, automate much of this by writing batch files, but most people seem to like drag and drop). To be honest, DOS commands make a bit more sense than Unix commands - COPY means COPY. What does CP mean? Move means Move. MD or MKDIR - which are you more comfortable with? ERASE or DEL work. But still, there are so many options that can go with these, and so many opportunities for mistakes, that people found this frustrating.
  7. Application commonality. One company would put "Save" under the "File" menu on the left. Another could put it under "Edit" on the right. There was no commonality - you had to learn each application's layout from scratch. The same goes for printers and other drivers. Have a nice new LaserJet? Hope all of your apps have drivers for it! And you have to check, and set it up - in every app.
  8. For most versions, it's a single-task environment. Need to copy that spreadsheet data to your word processor? Get ready for a process, save, exit, open spreadsheet, export, close spreadsheet, open word processor, import - if you're lucky.
  9. No plug and play. Yes, most BIOSes can take care of it now, but you still need to find and load the driver. And as far as I know, there's no USB or FireWire for DOS.


There are many points, both good and bad, about DOS. I know I haven't touched on all of them here. But,who should consider DOS, and for what?

  1. The single-task PC. DOS can still be a good network citizen, store files, print, and the like. It doesn't need anything all that fancy - set it up and let it go. Before the Internet times, people hooked up DOS PCs to banks of modems and ran bulletin boards that never went down. I met many interesting people, got some unique files, chatted (long before most had heard of IRC, much less Instant Messaging), and more over 2400-9600 bps modems dialed into dedicated DOS PCs. I even got email over FidoNet (sort of an adjunct to the Internet, before ISPs were widely available).
  2. The "I just need to do this" PC. You don't need to multitask; you just need to bang out some quick ideas for the book or meeting. Everything can read DOS files, it seems, and a stripped DOS installation and EDIT will boot up before you ever see the Windows desktop.
  3. The cheap PC. This is sort of related to the first two - get some 386 or 486 PCs for $10-$15. Let the kids bang away on one. Have another sitting there to receive faxes. Use a third to print, a fourth as a gateway - they're cheap, and you don't need a lot of horsepower to let them run. On the other hand, they take the burden off your more "heavily used" machines and avoid such things as printing slowdowns on the main computers.

Just a few ideas to consider.LEPC

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