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Ten Momentous Moments in DOS History

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Harry McCracken
PC World
Tuesday, April 1, 2008; 4:19 AM

As PC World launches itsSave DOScampaign, it's worth looking back at how DOS got to where it is today. Twenty-seven years into the history of the operating system, an awful lot has happened--good upgrades, bad upgrades, new horizons, legal tussles, and more. And while this history is by no means complete, it does include ten of the key moments that made DOS the most important operating system of its time...and maybe of all time.

In the beginning-which was 1980--there was an operating system from a company in Seattle. But the company wasn't Microsoft, and the operating system wasn't MS-DOS. Seattle Computer Products sold a computer-on-a-card product which needed an operating system, and a programmer namedTim Patersonwrote one called 86-DOS. (It was also known as QDOS, for Quick and Dirty DOS, reflecting how hastily it had been written.) 86-DOS was similar to Digital Research's popular CP/M operating system without being an exact copy. And it would be completely forgotten today, except for...

Also in 1980, IBM was secretly hatching plans to launch its first personal computer, entering a market dominated at the time by scrappy companies like Radio Shack, Apple, and Commodore. Big Blue initiated discussions with Digital Research about licensing CP/M, but negotiations went badly. So IBM also talked with Microsoft-a company known at the time mostly for its programming languages, not operating systems. Microsoft founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen sensed an opportunity, and acquired themselves an operating system, paying Seattle Computer Products $10,000 for a non-exclusive license to 86-DOS. It was one of the smartest $10,000 investments ever made by anybody. A spiffed-up version of QDOS into would be known as PC-DOS when sold by IBM, and MS-DOS when sold by Microsoft. And the fact that Microsoft's deal with IBM was also non-exclusive meant that when the original IBM PC   shipped in 1981, it was soon joined by an array of other DOS machines from a multitude of manufacturers. End result: an industry utterly dominated by DOS-based systems, and a Microsoft that made money on the vast majority of computers sold.

No operating system is worth much without useful applications.An application that's so good that people buy a particular machine with a particular operating system to use it is known as a killer app. And DOS's first killer app was unquestionably Mitch Kapor'sLotus 1-2-3, which appeared in 1983. The spreadsheet was a major advance on Visicalc, the original microcomputer spreadsheet, and therefore gave businesses of all kinds a major reason to opt for a DOS system rather than a non-DOS system from Apple, Tandy, or another major manufacturer of the day. DOS may well have been a massive success even if 1-2-3 had never existed, but it gave the still-young operating system a huge jump start.

Call it the Windows Me of the DOS era--the upgrade that arrived with great fanfare, was quickly discovered to be a stinker, and was remembered later mostly with shudders. In 1988, IBM released PC-DOS 4.0, a version with cutting-edge features like color graphics, mouse support, and the ability to work with hard drives with an implausibly gigantic 1GB of space. PC users werepretty darn excited. Then they discovered thenew version's multiple quirks and incompatibilities, and it quickly developed a bad reputation. Within months, IBM shipped PC-DOS 4.01, a cleaned-up version; Microsoft sidestepped MS-DOS 4.0 entirely and went straight to 4.01.

The 4.01 versions of the twin DOSs weren't bad, but the damage to DOS 4.x's rep had been done: DOS 3.3 remained popular for years, and many PC users didn't bother to upgrade until DOS 5.0 rolled around in 1991.

DOS and the command-line interface may be practically synonymous, but the whole notion of typing commands into computers was growing stale even in the early 1980s. Already, there was widespread agreement that the interface of the future was far more graphical.

The most striking graphical interfaces of the time belonged to Apple'sLisa(1983) and Macintosh (1984). But software companies were trying to slap graphical interfaces on top of DOS almost as soon as there was a DOS. At the time, many pundits thought the leading contender wasVisi On, from the company behind the Visicalc spreadsheet. By the time Visi On was released in December of 1983, though, Microsoft was hyping Windows, its own graphical interface for DOS. Many PC users chose to wait for it. And they waited and waited, since nearly two years went by before it actually arrived, making Windows 1.0 one of the era's most legendary pieces ofvaporware. (By the time it did show up, Visi On was conveniently defunct.)

In its early years, Windows was famous mostly for being less than impressive (at least in comparison to the Mac), and less than popular. Only with version 3.0 in 1990 did a Windows arrive that got PC users excited, even though it was still hobbled by DOS-based limitations such as eight-character file names. Windows 3.0 was so popular, in fact, that it gave DOS a second lease on life: The conventional wisdom had been that the PC universe was going to migrate from DOS to the next-generation IBM operating system known asOS/2. Instead, most everybody segued from DOS to Windows-on-top-of-DOS, and then to standalone Windows 95 when that came along.

DOS Moments 6-10

When DOS rather than CP/M became the default operating system for the IBM PC back in 1981, it spelled bad news for CP/M purveyor Digital Research. And the company reacted, in fits and starts. In 1983, it released a multi-user version of CP/M that was eventually marketed as Concurrent 86 DOS; in 1988, it offeredDOS Plus, which could run both CP/M and DOS apps. And in 1988, it unveiled a DOS-compatible operating system called DR-DOS--the "DR" was short for Digital Research, but many people called it "Doctor DOS." For a time, DR-DOS was at least arguably a better DOS than MS-DOS, since it gave users features like the ability to "break the 640K barrier" and compress disks before Microsoft got around to rolling them into MS-DOS.   And it was cheaper, which was one reason why some PC manufactures shipped machines with DR-DOS rather than MS-DOS. DR-DOS wasn't a runaway success, but it was apparently enough of a threat torattle Bill Gates.

DR-DOS's heyday, such as it was, was over by the mid-1990s, but its story didn't end there. In 1991, networking kingpin Novell bought Digital Research, and DR-DOS eventually became Novell DOS; in 1996, Novell sold the operating system to Caledera, which renamed it Caldera OpenDOS. Caldera also sued Microsoft for anti-competitive practices, saying that among other things, Microsoft designed its own applications to alarm users with scary error messages when run on top of DR-DOS. Microsoftsettled the lawsuitin 2000; by that time it felt like a flashback to the time in which DOS, rather than Windows, was the key to the company's dominance.


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