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C:\> @ 30

Yesterday MS-DOS had it’s 30th birthday!

I remember when it was all CP/M round here. Well not really but I do recall using one of those God-awful Amstrad PCW256s with the green screen and utterly non-standard 3″ disks. Almost everything Amstrad ever made was maliciously non-standard. When they took over the Spectrum from Sinclair they switched pins on the standard Atari joystick port so you had to buy an Amstrad stick. Of course adapters came along but…

Anyway. I remember howls of outrage at the bloatededness of DOS 4.01 (as compared to 3.3). I remember people saying Windows would never catch on. I would argue before 3.1 (scaleable fonts!!!) that was not an unreasonable idea.

And I remember the 640K limit and loading drivers into the high memory area (between 640K and 1024K) and creating boot disks to get games to work. Try explaining this to the iJobs and PS3 generation and you might as well say you started out with a wooden difference engine made by getting a Victorian beadle to force workhouse orphans to gnaw the cogs with their teeth.

My last real memory of MS-DOS is instructive, perhaps. I was setting up a laptop for a neighbour. As tends to be the way with laptops the OS (Vista in this case) came freeze-dried and had to self-install on first run. This was also my first experience of Vista (or Fistula as I came to think of it). Anyway during this process this factory-fresh HP crashes. And for one brief instant I see on the screen an MS-DOS version number (can’t recall it). Still chained like the mad woman in the attic then. Still turning the wheels down in the engine room like the gimp it truly is. I would not bet against it still railing against the dying of the light in Windows 7. It’s like re-capitulation in embryology. It’s the appendix that rumbles but never quite bursts. It is the id to the ego of Windows.

My own first real experience of DOS was with my first PC – a second-hand Elonex “laptop” (Mains only – it was a size too – it looked like it had done the digital equivalent of eating it’s way through an entire branch of Greggs, 16 shades of orange plasma screen, 4 Meg RAM, 105 Meg HD, 386SX-16). I came to MS-DOS from AmigaDos which is/was very Unix-like in syntax and methodology. You could set-up pipes and things. DOS was a rude awakening I can tell you.

Oh, well happy birthday DOS! You were always bloody awful but you were there at least.

And if this is a day late… Well, that is fitting.

Altogether now!

Abort, Retry, Fail?


  1. Bucko says:

    “Try explaining this to the iJobs and PS3 generation”
    I had trouble and I’m quite good with computers. I did think MS-DOS began with Windows 3.1 though, untill I just read this.

    “Abort, Retry, Fail?”
    Excellent. I’d forgotten all about that.

  2. Kevin B says:

    Shit, is it really only thirty years? Seems like a bloody lifetime to me. OK, I suppose thirty years is a lifetime to some people but even so. Seems like most of my working life involved computers, (cue “We ‘ad to load ‘t bootstrap by ‘and with ‘t front panel switches on a PDP-11 in my day! Try telling ‘t kids today about stuff like that. They don’t know they’re born!” rant), but it seems DOS was fairly late in the game, and Windows even later.

    Still Nick, if you’re really nostalgic, Windows 7 command prompt has all the look and feel of DOS. I still use tracert to find out why the intertubes are acting all constipated.

  3. Kendall says:

    Makes me nostalgic for the days when those of us using a half decent OS/GUI could laugh smugly at all the DOS/Windows users. Of course most of us ended up assimilated by the collective in the end.

    I started using an IBM compatible in the tail end of the DOS gaming days, so I do have painful memories of the boot disk voodoo needed to get games working on my cutting edge 486. I could never believe that out of all the computers and operating systems developed during the 80s it was this kludge ridden piece of shit that had dominated the competition.

  4. Sam Duncan says:

    Kevin, does it have tab completion and drag-and-drop from the desktop yet? (Actually, some Xterms still don’t have the latter, come to think of it.) I know there’s been some improvement lately.

    I blame DOS and the Windows comamnd prompt for the general fear of the commandline. I’d be scared of it too if that was my only experience.

    Nick: Ah, AmigaDOS. There is no justice. Should’ve been huge. Actually, I saw some sales figures the other day, and until the iMac came along the only year DOS/Windows’ global market share ever took a serious hit was 1991, the Amiga’s biggest. It really could have been huge. But there was no followup. The A1200 was too little, too late (it really was: development was starved because Commodore wanted to extend the C64 line with a project it eventually canned). Sad.

  5. fred says:

    Ahhh, the joys of bootdisk fu. A different one for each game almost, cos they all wanted a different mix of the two types of upper memory ( can’t remember what they were called now) and this driver or not that driver. One game even required a clean boot!

    And the fun of hard- defining IRQ numbers by getting into the heart of the beast and physically moving jumpers ( for goalposts, clearly…)

    Happy days!

  6. Kevin B says:

    Sam, about all it has is DOSKEY which allows you to up arrow to a previous command, move about in it and sort of edit it. You can’t cut and paste within the window, but you can paste text from another window. i.e. you can develop a script in notepad* and paste it into your DOS window and run it**, (then reload the OS from DVD).

    * or vi. I feel sure that someone has developed vi for windows. After all, why use wysiwyg when you can s/str1/str2/g on your regular expressions. (I find wholemeal is good for regular expressions. And beer. Lors of beer.)

    ** Don’t try this at home unless you are certified.

  7. Robert Edwards says:

    Fair points, all, but I remember Locomotive software as being rather good. Naturally, it had little to do with Amstrad…

  8. NickM says:

    The Amiga story was an entire vale of tears.

    Doskey! MS-DOS was virtually unusable without it. As to notepad or vi or whatever. Notepad++ is a pretty good text editor for Windows.

  9. NickM says:

    Here it is:

    That’s just part one. It’s long. And sad.

  10. ivan says:

    If only IBM hadn’t joined with MS we might have a descent GUI OS that everyone uses – one that has an active desktop for starters, where icons actually do something and are not just short cuts that will, maybe, open something. I refer to OS/2 that is still more advanced than win7 even though Warp 4 came out in 1996.

    DOS 1.1 was slightly better than the punched cards I used when I started with computers that took up whole floors and had 65k memory.

  11. Michael says:

    Ah you young whippersnappers! I still have a copy of DOS 1.1 and Multiplan! On proper discs not these micro whatsits… The “Joy” of finding the file you worked on is actually bigger than the ruddy disc to save it on… Yes I have a ZX81 with the 16k expansion pack and a few programmes on real 45 rpm discs too! Heating my lunch on the heatsink of the Computer – be honest some of my fellow grumpy old men did that too? Punched cards? Lord I remember them and the input keyboards that had all 10 digits from 0-9 for each column!
    And you tell the young kids of today… they won’t belive you!
    Yes, I still have my Microsoft T-Shirt from Windows 95! (And a spare)
    TTFN :)

  12. Twenty_Rothmans says:

    Try running MS FlightSim to check that your compatible was compatible before you buy. And was that 8087 coprocessor ever worth it? The crystal to get your 8088 to go at 8 Mhz?

    AX=0000 BX=0000 etc

    I forget how to reboot or format from debug, but it could be done.

  13. John Galt says:


    (cue “We ‘ad to load ‘t bootstrap by ‘and with ‘t front panel switches on a PDP-11 in my day! Try telling ‘t kids today about stuff like that. They don’t know they’re born!” rant)

    We used to dream of a PDP-11. You try booting a PDP-8 from the front panel. The chief operator (Phil from Wakey) could do it from memory. Later on in his career he earned ₤1,000 from DEC for finding out why their new VAX/VMS 6420 kept crashing during cluster synchronization.

    Those were the days.

  14. Bod says:

    I’m going to confound Nick here and *not* fall into ’4 Yorkshiremen’ mode, but I was at one of the initial ‘train the trainer’ courses with IBM (in Boca Raton, FL, no less) when we had to absorb the ‘substantial enhancements’ introduced in DOS 3.0 in memory management and user experience.

    Which is you compare the complexity of modern desktop OSes, this is a bit of a gutbuster in its own right. From a timeline perspective, DOS 3.x and networking (primitive though it was) pretty much drove Concurrent-CP/M into the grave, which was a bittersweet moment for me since I’d cut my teeth on writing drivers for CP/M and MP/M, and for the time, they made MS-DOS look like horrid bloatware.

    But just like laudanum and prima nocte, MS-DOS is now just a peccadillo for a small number of nostalgic afficionadoes, and rightly so. I’d probably put harboring nostalgia for MS-DOS in the same category as enjoying (and using) your own personal collection of Victorian anti-masturbation devices.

    I think I can honestly ‘fess up and admit that I do have a box of 3.5 in disks in the closet with MS-DOS, Word Perfect 5.1 and a handful of excrementally awful games, but they’re just for archival and educational purposes. My war medals, as it were.

  15. fred says:


    We were still using word perfect 5.1 at work until about 18 months ago, running in a 16 bit emulator which was ghastly and unstable, particularly if Acrobat was running in the background. Now we have a proprietary text editor that is possibly worse than WP but is at least stable… mostly.

    We also than ran OS2 until about 2005, with Netscape 4. The OS2 machines would often require at least one restart before you could even start working, and were sensitive to the order in which the proprietary applications were loaded! Awful.

  16. Ian B says:

    I have Visual Basic For DOS hanging around somewhere still, I think. It was one of my stranger purchases.

  17. The Apiarist says:

    We’re still using W3.1 to run a custom-built bit of code that’s too costly to get rewritten. Only problem is keeping the 386 PCs going! (The code clock runs off the processor crystal and if it’s faster than about 20 MHz it’ll shake the hardware to pieces.)

  18. ivan says:


    Obviously someone hadn’t set up OS/2 correctly. Here it hums along without any problems. We have it running on boxes with the AMD equivalent of a pent2 up to 4 core AMD Phenom II. The older machines are for the CAM tools and the 4 core is for desktops.

  19. Bod says:

    The only way I’d even dare to run OS/2 nowadays is on a VM. While I have a lot of respect for the code that came out of IBM/Microsoft’s Unholy Alliance (I even wrote some of the more arcane documentation for some of the kernel DLLs while I was with IBM) the hardware compatibility concerns are something I don’t want to even contemplate.

    The firm that brought me over to the US (and I subsequently moved on from) only decommissioned their last OS/2 Lotus Notes servers in 2008, but every dog has its day, and running what amounts to Abandonware that is what? 15+ years beyond its EOL date? – is an abomination!

  20. Dizzy Ringo says:

    What a load of ingrates – my first computer was machine code – I thought DOS was a lightyears improvement!

    Wasn’t there a story that IBM went to Apple first but they didn’t have time to speak with them and so Bill Gates nipped smartly in?

  21. Roue le Jour says:

    Dizzy Ringo,

    Nope. IBM never approached Apple. Wikipedia has the story or you could watch the movie ‘Pirates of Silicon Valley’ if you want it with jokes.


    I used to make a nice living off OS/2 in it’s non GUI incarnation as it was the best available embedded OS for years.

    The Apiarist,

    I’m sure I could give a very competitive quote if you’re interested, I live in a very cheap economy. (Rural Thailand.)

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