29 July 2011

30 Years Of MS-DOS

MS-DOS logo

If there is a piece of software that was pivotal for the rise and spread of Personal Computing, that sure is MS-DOS.

Unlike the slow starting revolution of Windows that took a whole decade to breakout, MS-DOS was a explosive success that kickstarted  the rise of Microsoft into a high gear of not stopping momentum (in every sense of the word) for 25 years.

I will refrain from reiterating the usual history summary of MS-DOS and will leave that to its Wikipedia entry instead:


And if you feel more like reading a longer retelling  about MS-DOS 30th birthday, two of the best takes I have read yesterday and today have to be:

El Reg - Tony Smith’s Microsoft's MS-DOS is 30 today that while includes the usual dosage of slanted backhanded pseudo-praising they do in this kind of occasions, It is still a rock solid article.

And the nice bit of nostalgia-infused article from PCmag that posts   the original interview to Bill Gates they published about how MS-DOS came to be. This last one,  is the one I recommend the most for you to also read:

MS-DOS Turns 30: PCMag's Original Interview With Bill Gates

In this interview you can read a often overlooked part of the history of how Bill Gates also had a lot to do with pushing along for better PC hardware. With the how and the why.

Now, given those links cover most of that there is to be said MS-DOS in the context of its 30th. I will instead just give you the timeline of MS-DOS and Post-DOS with year marks plus some a retrospective musings of my own :

MS-DOS Releases Timeline:

  • [1981]     MS-DOS 1.x  
  • Version 1.12 (OEM) - Compaq release of PC-DOS 1.10
    • Version 1.19 (OEM)[7] - Zenith OEM
    • Version 1.25 (OEM) - Microsoft repackaging of PC-DOS 1.10
  • [1983]    MS-DOS 2.x –( Support for 10 MB hard disk drives and tree-structure filing system
    • Version 2.0 (OEM)
    • Version 2.1 (OEM)
    • Version 2.11 (OEM)
    • Version 2.2 (OEM)
    • Version 2.21 (OEM)
  • [1984]   MS-DOS 3.x
    • Version 3.0 (OEM) - Support for larger hard disk drives
    • Version 3.1 (OEM) - Support for Microsoft Networks
    • Version 3.2 (OEM)
    • Version 3.21 (OEM)
    • Version 3.25 (OEM)
    • Version 3.3 (OEM)
    • Version 3.3a (OEM)
    • Version 3.3r (OEM)
    • Version 3.31 (OEM) - Compaq 3.31 supports FAT16 and larger drives.
    • Version 3.35 (OEM)
  • [1988]   MS-DOS 4.x - includes a graphical/mouse interface.
    • Version 4.00 (OEM)
    • Version 4.01 (OEM) - IBM patched Version 4.00 before Microsoft released it.
    • Version 4.01a (OEM)
  • [1991]  MS-DOS 5.x
    • Version 5.0 (Retail) - includes a full-screen editor. A number of bugs required reissue.
    • Version 5.0a (Retail) - With this release, IBM and Microsoft versions diverge.
    • Version 5.0.500 (WinNT) - All Windows NT 32-bit versions ship with files from DOS 5.0
  • [1992]  MS-DOS 6.x
    • Version 6.0 (Retail) - Online help through QBASIC. Disk compression and antivirus included.
    • Version 6.2 (Retail) - Microsoft and IBM alternate versions, IBM has 6.1, 6.3
    • Version 6.21 (Retail) - Stacker-infringing DBLSPACE removed.
    • Version 6.22 (Retail) - New DRVSPACE compression.
  • [1995]  MS-DOS 7.x
    • Version 7.0 (Win95,95A) - Support for long file names. New editor.
    • Version 7.1 (Win95B-Win98SE) - Support for FAT32 file system
  • [2000]  MS-DOS 8.0
    • Version 8.0 (WinME) - Integrated drivers for faster Windows loading.
    • Version 8.0 (WinXP) - DOS boot disks created by XP and later contain files from WinME. The internal DOS is still 5.0

*Yes the timeline comes from the wikipedia entry. I just added the year marks to it*

As you can see from this very general timeline I have year marked. MS-DOS development spreads over for 20 years. But only goes for official general retail as MS-DOS for 12 years, plus 7 years of support after that. How can this be so? Well, because until Windows 2000 and Windows XP,  every single Windows release had MS-DOS as its foundation. And there were actually 3 stages to this:

Stage 1: Windows IS just a skin, a controller and some hacked up add-ons for  MS-DOS (Win 1.0-Win 3.1) from 1985 to 1990

Stage 2: Windows IS a whole exo-construction that uses MS-DOS as its backend. A backend that was still over half of what was important in the OS. (Win 95,Win 98 and Win ME) from 1995 to 2000.

Stage 3: Windows IS with all its parts now a full OS by itself running with a new heart as its core (NT) but with MS-DOS still forming a still important (during the firsts years after they were released at least), yet now just a minor part of it. (Win 2000 – Windows XP) from 2000 to 2001.


After it was known that MS-DOS would not have a separate release for what was going to be named MS-DOS 7.0. A movement started forming around the idea of continuing MS-DOS beyond Microsoft. This was then known as FreeDOS. A project that started in 1997 and took up to 2006 (9 years) to get to a 1.0 state release that essentially takes all there was to it about MS-DOS 6.0 and adds stuff from PdDOS, GNUDOS, and other versions of DOS into account, with its own interpretation of that.  Long before FreeDOS was finalized in 2006, another project, in this case aiming for a fully virtualized PC running MS-DOS is born in 2002 that ended up being called DOSBOX. Which would take a whole 7 years for it to get good enough for it to replace any need of FreeDOS.

But from 2001 and on it is where it gets bit fuzzy. As in a way, thanks to the fact that Windows XP to this very day (jul29) is still being the dominant OS in the world.  MS-DOS happens to continue to be very well alive and well in spirit as MS-DOS regardless of the alternatives to it.  But thanks to the alternatives of FreeDOS and DOSBOX, you can also still in a way be running MS-DOS in a Windows Vista or Windows 7 PC for the foreseeable future . Even if these were the two Windows OS released that finally put the nail in the coffin to Windows MS-DOS support,  by purging it out of the OS insides since 2006.

MS-DOS retrospectively

For me, MS-DOS like with everyone else was the gateway to Microsoft and to computers as something that could be what you made of them. You could use them for Work or for Play. And because there was a clear divide in mindset and perspective of these two uses while you used MS-DOS.  For me it always left me with a different impression than the Commodore and the Amiga. As those ended up being more for play and learning than MS-DOS. It also didn’t hurt that MS-DOS had the winning ecosystem of software, uses and games very rapidly.  By 1989, Commodore and Amiga were a memory and  ecosystems that would never have a chance to ever catch up.  Something that also happened with BeOS.  BeOS at the moment it was released in 1991, was around 5 years ahead in software sophistication and OS management than Windows was. But that didn’t mattered much as MS-DOS still at the moment was king and had already started its  winning tag-teaming with Windows.  By 1995 Windows was catching up to the state of  BeOS. And the combination of the teaming of ecosystems from MS-DOS and Windows was still miles and miles ahead of anything else. Something that to this very day persist to anything else with good reason.  No matter what haters and flamebaiting  IT pundits may want you to believe otherwise.

What is crazy, is that 30 years after the introduction of MS-DOS, it is still alive inside Windows XP thanks to XP resilience . That 30 years later you can still find it being used. Hell, one example comes from one of my local bakery’s that got this old cashier that is running MS-DOS (what I believe is 3.0 or something like that) in it.  And of course beyond Microsoft support of MS-DOS, it will continue to live on thanks to FreeDOS and DOSBOX for anyone that wants it.

MS-DOS has to be one of the most important pieces of software ever still working today, one of the most influential OSes of all time and the OS with the most widespread use that has been used the longest amount of time.  And because of that, I don’t even mind how old that makes me feel. I instead, will have a drink to that. Who is with me?





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