With my hard disk still away for warranty, my main computer is still out of action. So today I’m writing about that which requires no screen shot for we have all seen it. I am of course referring to MS-DOS, which is for many of us my age, the first operating system we had experience with. I’ll forgo the history as that is easy to find on the internet. Today I’ll be trying to focus on the experience of using a DOS based computer.

The User Interface

The user interface was very, very different to what most users would expect to see today. The main means of interaction with the operating system directly was via the command line. Most commands were focused around operating on files that reside on disks (either floppy or hard disks). There were few other functions that the operating system provided out of the box. For new users the command line interface could be confusing and difficult to use. However there were some programs available called shells that made the system a bit more accessible to the average user. The one I used the most was dosshell that came with dos 4.01, it was relatively easy to use compared to the alternatives, and provided access to all the base features of the operating system with a few exceptions.

The Good

What made DOS good was it’s simplicity, this made it basically bullet proof. It was near impossible to crash it without either a hardware failure or third party software failure. It is notable in that pretty much all the versions of DOS made by microsoft are backwards compatible with older versions. Such backwards compatibility today is practically unheard of. The simplicity also meant that it runs on pretty much any hardware, your computer would run it as long as it had the base PC hardware required. It used very little in the way of memory and disk space.

The Bad

The 640kByte memory barrier was a big issue for many software designers for a long time. You could use more memory if you used XMS, EMS or a dos extender, but not all configurations were made equal. It could be hard to get the basic configuration right to run some programs, of which games were the most notorious. In some cases it was easier to create a separate boot disk.  As a programmer, the operating system did not provide anything in the way of support for different hardware configurations. So a lot of special hardware would have limited support for it in software, and if you didn’t have that hardware the software would simply not work at all.

There were not many options to change within the system, but for each new bit of hardware you had to install a new driver that took up precious extra memory. Changing the options themselves was a bit of a black art, and could be difficult in the earlier versions as the text editor provided was very basic indeed.

As the capabilities of hardware increased, and people moved to more seamless environments such as windows and the Macintosh systems of the time, DOS became less relevant as an operating system. We now demand more from our operating systems. They have to support a wide variety of hardware, connect us to the internet, and provide some basic software.

What would you use it for now?

It is often used as an embedded operating system where resources are limited, or for booting diagnostic utility programs. For myself I have a copy installed on an old machine for nostalgic purposes, mostly playing old games on old hardware. Somehow there is still something special about using disks and typing at the command line for me, but if you are not that way inclined there are many ways to run old software. Including running a emulator such as dosbox, or running a  copy in a virtual machine. Again if you are like me you may want the real deal. If you don’t have access to MS-DOS there is a free clone called FreeDOS if you don’t have the original, and it is basically compatible with some nice extensions and hardware fixes. Modern hardware should be capable of running either the original MS-DOS or  FreeDOS, but you should be aware that modern hardware will most likely be too fast for some old software, so some testing will be in order.

I’m interested to find out what other people have experienced with DOS. If you have something you’d like to share please leave a comment bellow.


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