Personal computers began appearing in the mid 1970’s, initially as hobbyist toys that didn’t even have keyboards or screens. The first real one, named Altair by a magazine editor’s 12-year old daughter who liked a Star Trek episode that took place in that solar system, was built around a jazzed-up calculator chip, the Intel 8080.
Produced as a do-it-yourself kit by a company called MITS, it came with 256 bytes of memory. Since it lacked a keyboard, you entered data by flipping switches on the front panel in binary sequence. Because it had no screen, you had to decode the patterns of blinking lights it produced. And it didn’t let you store data permanently.
Two teenagers, Bill Gates and Paul Allen, who had started a company called Traf-o-Data to make Intel-based computers to measure how many cars ran across a rubber hose stretched across the road, saw a picture of the Altos on the cover of an electronics magazine and developed a version of BASIC for it. Gates upgraded AltairBasic later to include primitive file and disk-storage abilities.
The pair changed the company name to Microsoft; by 1976 the industry had progressed to the point where Gates was railing against software pirates (although back then pirates were making copies of punched paper tape rather than floppies). A few years later Gates became the worlds youngest billionaire.
Soon after the Altair introduction, some hard-driving salespeople became the market leaders with their Imsai 8080, another Intel-based machine, and the first computer aimed squarely at small businesses. To let users store data efficiently, Imsai developed a floppy disk drive whose motors and circuits were run by a program called CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers), which had been licensed from Intergalactic Digital Research - later shortened to Digital Research. DR’s Gary Kildall had created CP/M while working for Intel, to scale down the PL/1 programming language into a version that would fit on a microcomputer. Intel hadn’t seen much value in this brand new CP/M thingy and had given Kildall all rights to it.
The early versions of DOS owe quite a bit to CP/M. In fact, things like the .COM formats of CP/M and DOS and the basic system calls were so similar that programmers could easily switch up from CP/M. CP/M uses a command interpreter called CCP (or Console Command Processor) and two fundamental system files called BDOS and BIOS to handle files and I/O. This arrangement is nearly identical to the DOS COMMAND.COM, IBMDOS.COM and IBMBIO.COM system trio. What was especially remarkable about CP/M was that it took up only 4k of space. DOS 1.0 doubled that and it has been mushrooming ever since.
Chain store magnate and leathercrafter Charles Tandy tried unsuccessfully to buy computers from Imsai, then ended up creating his own system, the TRS-80, which contained a Zilog Z-80 chip, 4096 bytes of memory, and came fully assembled rather than in a kit. To shave a few dollars off the price he designed it to work entirely in upper case letters. Customers snapped them up as fast as Tandy could make them.
What really kicked the microcomputer business into high gear, however, were a handful of visionary renegades from California and Florida.
In 1976 Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, whose early careers included a stint peddling “black box” devices to circumvent telephone toll billing computers, bought some 6502 chips and built a few hundred copies of a computer they christened the Apple I. It too worked only in upper case letters. Their second-generation Apple II offered an optional floppy disk drive, and sold several orders of magnitude more. On reason for its success was a revolutionary program called Visicalc. Visicalc turned Apple’s little computer into a powerful financial analysis and planning machine.
But not all operating systems run on all chips. CP/M worked on the 8080 and Z80 chips but not on Apples 6502.
Microsoft’s Gates and Allen moved to Seattle to write programming languages for computers built around Intel and Zilog processor chips and running CP/M. Dismayed that their languages woudln’t work on Apples, they considered translating them all to run on Apples proprietary operating system, an arduous job. Instead they joined the crowd, licensed CP/M, and sold it along with an add-in board that had a Zilog chip on it. Apple owners could stick the Microsoft boards in their computers and run any CP/M program.
But Apple was an 8-bit machine and Gates and Allen felt Intel’s new 16-bit processors were the wave of the future. So did a local board maker called Tim Patterson who worked for Seattle Computer Products. All earlier processor chips managed data in 8-bit chunks. Intel’s new 8086/8088 chips finally doubled the processor power.
Patterson’s board had an 8086, and he needed a new 16-bit operating system to take advantage of it. Digital Reserach had announced that it was going to tweak CP/M into a 16-bit version, but Patterson couldn’t wait. In early 1980 he started work on one of his own design called QDOS (Quick & Dirty Operating System) that was to become 86-DOS (or SCP-DOS) and eventually just plain DOS. To make it relatively easy for programmers to translate CP/M softwrae to his system, he retained fundamental CP/M file management structures and mimicked the way it loaded and ran programs. Patterson then added a device known as a File Allocation Table (FAT) which Gates had used in Altair disk BASIC, and a few other refinements.
In late 1980, IBM approached Microsoft and revealed that it was considering production of its own 8-bit computer. Vast helpings of money, ego, pride and general corporate paranoia have tempered details of this exchange, but the popular version is that IBM wanted Microsoft to design a version of BASIC for its new machine that would be delivered on a ROM chip inside the IBM chassis. Gates was happy to oblige and wanted to do a whole raft of languages, as the story goes, but argued that IBM should consider a 16-bit computer instead. When IBM asked who made a 16-bit operating system, Gates is said to have suggested that IBM contact Gary Kildall - and supposedly even dialled the phone to Digital Research himself.
Here the tale gets very fuzzy. According to the one telling it, when IBM trooped down to see Digital Research the next day, Kildall’s wife and lawyer were hesitant to sign IBM’s strict non-disclosure agreements. Other stories had Kildall out flying his plane while IBM executives waited impatiently for him to land. Microsoft’s own publications admits that Gates and Allen had heard rumours that Kildall was about to buy a version of BASIC from one of Microsoft’s competitors and give it away free with every copy of CP/M-86, which didn’t exactly endear him to them.
In any event, Gates and Allen bought the rights to Patterson’s 86-DOS for around $50,000.00 and proposed to IBM that Microsoft provide BASIC, FORTRAN, Pascal, COBOL, an 8086 Assembler, and the 86-DOS operating system for the new computer. IBM agreed in November 1980, and on August 12, 1981 introduced the world to its new PC and its main operating system, Microsoft’s DOS 1.0, which IBM called PC-DOS. At the announcement, IBM announced that users would someday be able to buy two competing operating systems: CP/M-86 or the UCSD-p System. But IBM priced these much higher than DOS, and since they were late reaching the market and received little support from other software vendors, they went nowhere.
Computer hardware isn’t useful without software. And IBM initially didn’t offer much software - EasyWriter, a bug-filled version of a mediocre word processor; Adventure, a mainframe text game adapted to run on microcomputers, a DOS version of VisiCalc, some artless business software, a few Microsoft languages and one or two other packages.
The most powerful and popular programs back then - dBase II and WordStar
Many of the DOS features that todays users truly hate - such as overly brief eight-character filenames with three letter extensions, terse prompts like A>, and unfriendly or missing messages (such as the stony silence in response to file deletions) were directly swiped from CP/M. So were underlying structures such as File Control Blocks (FCB’s), Program Segment Prefixes, and reliance on CP/M’s memory loading addresses.
DOS did change a few CP/M quirks. File lengths that were rounded off in CP/M were reported precisely in DOS. Some commands were turned around to be more logical. Programmers could treat I/O to peripheral devices like printers and screens the same way that they handled files. DOS’s variable record lengths made disk storage and retrieval far more efficient. DOS could load and run larger .EXE format files in addition to the smaller CP/M-standard COM-format files which were limited to 64k. And it could keep a program loaded but inactive in memory, so that users could pop it onto their screens whenever they needed it . DOS relied on a FAT, first used by Bill Gates and Tom Patterson, to keep track of where all the various pieces of a file were stored, and could read and write more than one piece of data at a time, which speeded up disk activity significantly.
DOS at least theoretically made it easier for programmers to create their own version of the COMMAND.COM user interface, although none has ever caught on. But the ability to run scripts of commands called batch files became very popular. When DOS reported inevitable errors, it did so in a slightly friendlier way than CP/M, and it handled severe hardware errors far better. DOS also sniffed out new disks automatically while CP/M forced users to log such changes manually, and it kept track of the date files were created or changed.
It also split the COMMAND.COM interface into several parts, a mixed blessing. When the PC was new, and IBM offered it with a maximum of 64k memory, this feature was welcome since it let other space-hungry software temporarily steal a few thousand characters of memory from DOS. When the user was finished with the software he’d have to insert his DOS disk in drive A: so that the part of DOS that hadn’t been stolen could reload the part that had. Trouble was that a short time later users were buying systems with ten times that much memory, and the amount of space freed up by this technique was relatively insignificant. But floppy disk users still had to contend with keeping a DOS disk handy to reload the “transient” stolen part.
One of the worst things about the first IBM PC and its operating system was that it could store only 160k of data on floppy disks that were clearly capable of storing twice as much. A standard floppy has two usable sides, but the first PC - and DOS - could only use one.
The initial DOS release contained several nasty bugs. In mid-1982, IBM began shipping PC’s with double-sided drives, and released DOS version 1.1 to handle the new storage abilities and to fix several of the early bugs. Microsoft then released its own generic upgrade which it called MS-DOS 1.25.
The initial release of DOS was tiny and relatively crude. Version 1.0 TIME and DATE commands were separate short programs rather than part of the main COMMAND.COM interface. While the DOS 1.0 directory listing noted the date a file was changed or created, it ignored the time. The MODE command couldn’t set communications speeds or protocols, or let the PC’s parallel printer adaptor work with the many serial printers on the market. The COPY command wouldn’t join or concatenate several small files into a larger one. The onscreen messages and prompts were especially ugly and cryptic.
DOS 1.1 fixed all these problems, or at least made them less irritating. The biggest problem of all was that DOS was still constrained by its CP/M heritage and its clanky internal structure. And although IBM doubled the amount of disk storage space from 160k to 320k, users found this was far from enough. They demanded disks that were faster and more efficient.
In March 1983, IBM announced its PC-XT, a beefed-up version of the standard PC that came with three addtional internal expansion slots (for a total of eight), a ten-megabyte hard disk, and a new version of DOS - 2.0.
The new hard disk - which IBM referred to as a fixed disk - could hold the equivalent of more than 31 double-sided floppies. But all that storage space introduced a new problem. DOS 1.0 and 1.1 had crammed all the file information for each floppy disk into a single directory. A single-sided floppy had room for a maximum of 64 directory entries, and you could fit only 112 on a double-sided diskette.
Keeping track of all the files on a hard disk meant coming up with a new DOS file management and directory system. CP/M had dealt with large disks by splitting them (or partitioning) them evenly into smaller ones, an inelegant and inefficient solution. But UNIX, an operating system developed by the phone company, could handle vast volumes of files with relative style and ease. Microsoft had licensed UNIX, and was offering a version of it called XENIX. At the heart of UNIX/XENIX was a hierarchical or tree-structured directory system that gave users lots of flexibility in dividing up the available storage space.
Microsoft adapted this tree-structured system as the core of a significant new incarnation of DOS - version 2.0. But it blundered slightly. UNIX used a slash (/) to identify the subdirectory levels that acted as branches on the tree structure. But earlier DOS versions used slashes as switches (command suffixes such as the /s in FORMAT /s) that turned optional features on and off. Microsoft substituted a backslash () to identify subdirectory levels, which eneded up confusing a whole generation of DOS and UNIX users, and caused much consternation abroad where foreign keyboards often didn’t come with backslash characters.
IBM and Microsoft also had to find a way to deal with an explosion in the number and type of devices that manufacturers were stamping out for the PC. One of DOS’s main roles was to manage the communication between the PC and anything else you could hook up to it. If DOS had to contain explicit internal tables and instructions for every possible device it would end up being absurdly large and cumbersome.
Microsoft designed a new version of DOS with hooks in it so that manufacturers of peripheral equipment could supply installable device driver programs to hook the new hardware effortlessly into the operating system. Users could load these specific additional sets of instructions into DOS as needed, through a special CONFIG.SYS file. This file also let users customise their systems by telling DOS how much memory it should devote to disk buffers, how many files could be opened simultaneously, and how frequently DOS should check to see whether a user was hitting the Ctrl-Break panic button. It also made it easy for users to load a replacement command processor if they weren’t planning on using the standard COMMAND.COM, or tell DOS if they were storing COMMAND.COM in an unusual place. And it gave users extended screen and keyboard control with ANSI.SYS, a special device driver supplied by Microsoft in an unsuccessful attempt to standardise certain parts of the user interface across different computer systems.
Version 2.0 introduced several new commands most users can’t live without. Its hard to believe, but versions 1.0 and 1.1 didn’t have any way to clear the screen. CLS now does it. This version was also the first to offer batch file commands such as ECHO, IF, FOR, SHIFT and GOTO.
DOS 2.0 also introduced a raft of commands and utilities to give users cintrol of hard disks although some, like the pathetic TREE command - designed to “display the entire directory structure” are a bad joke.
Perhaps to compensate, IBM threw in a gem that has become a power users best friend - the mini-assembler in DEBUG. You can become an absolute computer whiz without ever having to learn a single thing about hex codes or assembly language. But if you want to climb inside your system and stomp on the gas pedal, there’s no better way. Its a lot easier than you think.
One of the most significant changes in DOS 2.0 was the way it dealt with files internally. To remain compatible with CP/M, DOS 1.0 and 1.1 kept track of critical file information with a device called a File Control Block (FCB). But as programs became more sophisticated they were forced to manipulate the data stored in FCB’s directly, which was awkward and potentially dangerous. And FCB’s had no provision for subdirectory names.
DOS 2.0 introduced file handles as an optional way to streamline disk management. Once DOS knew about a particular file in a partcular directory, it could act on that file simply by using a two-character shorthand code called a handle. In addition, DOS established five special handles that made it a snap to switch inputs and outputs. Normally the keyboard and screen (which DOS collectively refers to as CON:) act as both the input and output. But DOS 2.0 let users “redirect” input or output to or from printers, files or other devices. And it allowed users to “pipe” streams of data through filters to do things like turn uppercase files into lowercase, strip out extraneous characters, or sort records into alphabetical order.
The sample filters DOS 2.0 provided are actually pretty useful. They’ll let you slog through files and skim out the text you want saved or discarded. They’ll sort your directories (or any list of names, numbers, or items that have carriage returns at the end of each entry) lightning fast. And they’ll paue your displays for you so you’ll never again have text scrolling off your screen too quickly to read.
To top it off, DOS 2.0 provided rundimentary background processing. DOS was originally designed as a sigle-tasking operating system that let users do just one thing at a time. But the designers of version 2.0 threw in a PRINT spooler command that could print out one file while a user was actively working on another.
While spoolers are nothing new, this one was. Spoolers normally lop off a big chunk of RAM and trick DOS into sending files to memory that were really destined for the printer. Then they wait for a quiet moment and re-route the files onto your printed page. When they’re done printing, however, they still hold on to all the memory they’ve hogged - very inefficient. The DOS PRINT command reads files off your disks and uses your precious memory much more sparingly. It watches how you work, and about 18 times each second, if you’re not doing something at that precise moment, it sneaks a few characters at a time to the printer. Your computer is so fast that this “time slicing” technique makes it appear that it’s doing two things at once, when it really alternating so quickly you don’t notice it. And the best part is that if you happen to be working on something that tales more of your computer’s constant attention than usual, you can adjust how frequently the spooler tries to intercede.
In addition, DOS increased the number of 512-byte sectors from eight to nine. While DOS kept the number of tracks at 40, this upped the storage capacity of each disk from 320k to 360k. DOS 2.0 also let users add electronic volume labels to their disks, gave them access to part of the memory called the environment, in which critical system settings were maintained, made memory allocation more efficient, and threw in more than two dozen new commands.
With so many changes and features, you’d think a brand new version of DOS would be filled with insidious bugs. And you’d be right. In March 1984, a year after the PC-XT introduction, IBM released DOS 2.1 to excise these software errors - and to handle a hardware error it produced called the PC-Jr.
The less said about the PC-Jr the better. While it provided more colours onscreen in graphics mode than IBM’s real microcomputers, and came with three-voice sound that could play chords, it was utterly non-standard inside and out. In fact, it used such a cheap, flimsy disk drive that DOS 2.1 had to slow down the drive performance so the thing wouldn’t crash.
What’s especially sad about all this is that lots of users still rely on DOS 2.1, which means they have to put up with unacceptably slow disk access times even though the’re using machines that could handle much higher speeds. A pity, and another good reason to upgrade to a more recent DOS version.
Microsoft ended up producing versions 2.05, 2.11, 2.2 and 2.25 with an added modicum of international time, date, keyboard and currency support. These may come in handy if you need to work with Korean Hangeul or Japanese Kanji characters; today Microsoft sells DOS in more than 60 assorted languages.
IBM’s PC and PC-XT brought microcomputing into the mainstream of American business. But these machines were both relatively slow and small. In fact, they weren’t really even true 16-bit computers. While an Intell 8088 CPU ticked away inside each one, their system bus - the connecting pathway of wires that ties the CPU to all other parts of the system - was a bottleneck that worked in eight-bit chunks only.
IBM introduced its first genuine 16-bit system, the PC-AT. Compared to IBM’s earlier releases, this was a real rocketship of a computer. Inside was an 80286 CPU with a trick up its sleeve - it could run everything IBM and Microsoft could throw at it and it could also accomodate Microsoft’s ne operating system, OS/2. And it needed a new version of DOS - 3.0.
Engineers measure computer performance in many ways. Two prime indicators are the clock speed of the CPU and the average access time of the hard disk. The faster the clock, the faster a computer processes instrauctions and the faster just about everything runs. The speedier the hard disk access time, the sppedier it can read and write programs and data. The higher the clock speed and the lower the average access time, the faster the system.
Both the PC and the PC-XT run at 4.77 MHz. IBM sold many different brands of hard disks for the XT, and the average access time was somewhere between 80 and 115 milliseconds.
The official clock speed of IBM’s first AT was 6MHz, but users quickly found out that by replacing a socketed $4 quartz crystal on the main system board they could boost performance to 8 or even 9 MHz without any ill effects. (IBM is famous for publishing ultraconservative specifications and holding down performance a bit on purpose.) When IBM discovered that users were hot-rodding their systems, they wrote a program that acted as a speed governor and put it on a system ROM chip to stop tampering.
All of IBM’s AT hard disks ran at 40ms or better. Unfortunately, the first big batch of AT’s came with CMI-brand drives that crashed in shockingly high numbers. Hard disks - rapidly spinning precision-crafted aluminium platters with magnetic coatings on both sides - need precise feedback on where their magnetic read/write heads are located. If the location mechanism is off by even a tiny bit the heads can write bad data over good or wipe out important tables that tell the computer where files are stored.
Hard disk heads actually “fly” on a cushion of air directly above the surface of the platters themselves. All decent hard disks retract or ‘park” the magnetic heads when the power goes off so they don’t sink down and plough furrows into your data. To save money, CMI disks used what many believe was an unreliable implementation of “wedge servo” technology. Most other hard disks used a dedicated positioning surface, a whole side of a hard disk platter contained no data and instead acted as a map to those that did. But not CMI’s AT drives. And these drives didn’t park the heads when you turned the power off. The heads just dropped down onto the data and scarped against it.
IBM never really admitted doing anything wrong, but tens of thousands of users know different. If this black episode in computing history had a silver lining, it was that it taught hard disk users how absolutley imperative it is to make frequent and comprehensive backup copies of their work.
In any event, a PC-AT running at 8MHz was 67 percent faster than a standard PC or PC-XT. The PC-AT hard disk was twice as fast as the speediest XT disk drive, which made everything seem a lot more energetic, and ended up turbocharging disk-intensive applications such as database searches. On top of all that, the PC-AT could deal with memory in 16-bit chunks, while the PC and PC-XT had to lumber along with half that amount. Clone makers soon started producing respectable AT imitations that chugged along even faster. To avoid falling behind the competition too much, IBM eventually had to nudge the performance upward slightly each time it refined the AT design.
IBM’s newest PS/2 line of hardware and many high-performance clones on the market make even the fastest AT look like its standing still. With CPU sppeds of up to 25MHz, hard disk access times in the high teens, and a 32-bit bus that moves data four times as efficiently as the one in the original PC, these hot new micros give refrigerator-sized minicomputers a good run for their money.
The PC-AT was originally delivered with a 20-megabyte hard disk, although subsequent versions have enhanced both the speed and capacity of its hard disk. Still, 20Mb storage meant that backin it all up would take 56 standard 360k floppies. The mind reels. Apparently, so did IBM’s. It dropped a quad-density floppy disk drive, with 1.2Mb capacity into each AT. IBM refers to these as high-capacity drives. Unhappy users have called them something else, unprintable here.
The PC-AT’s new DOS, version 3.0, could handle the increased floppy disk storage. But it also had to understand every other floppy format. In the space of six years IBM had introduced single-sided and double-sided drives, with eight or nine sectors, and in double or quad density, so downward compatibility meant having to deal with:
Well, there’s compatibility and there’s compatibility. Out of the 25 different possible combinations of using the DISKCOPY command to move information from one to the other, 16 won’t work.
What’s more, IBM’s PS/2 hardware uses 3.5” diskettes, a whole new ball game. These smaller diskettes are sturdier, easier to transport, and vastly more efficient at storing information. IBM characteristically complicated matters by producing two different and slightly incompatible 3.5” disk formats, one that holds 720k and one capable of storing 1.44Mb of data. The 5.25” 320/360k format won’t go away very quickly, since so many vendors have made it the standard for program distribution. But the PC-AT’s 1.2Mb drive and the low-end PS/2 720k diskette are orphans.
All IBM microcomputers gave users a clock and calendar that could stamp DOS directory listings with the time and date files were created or most recently updated. But users had to set the clock each time they started their systems, unless they had purchased an add-in board with a battery-driven clock on it (and most did). The PC-AT came with its own internal battery run clock/calendar, but it wasn’t until DOS 3.3 taht users could reset it easily.
Program developers live by a rule: “The software is never finished.” Each release of DOS or any commercial application is quickly followed by a version with bug fixes, sppedups, and forgotten utilities. Market considerations force manufacturers to ship everything at the earliest possible date. Microsoft officially admits that DOS 3.0 “wasn’t quite ready” at the introduction of the PC-AT. But it went out the door anyway.
Today, virtually every desk in America has a telephone in one corner. IBM’s vision of the future puts a computer terminal next to it, and strings all the terminals together electronically. Networking computers this way has lots of advantages. It lets users “mail” messages and files to each other, and share centralised databases of information. Networks can also let users share expensive peripherals like plotters or laser printers, but it doesn’t make much sense installing three $1500 network hookups to share one $1500 laser printer. Today networks are interesting to a minority of users only - although the number grows as the costs and headaches associated with using them are reduced. Networks introduce their own special set of problems. Two users may reach for the same database records at the same time, and something has to mediate the conflict. Worse, giving users access to centralised information means someone has to decide who gets access to what. And then something has to keep track of the authorisation levels and enforce it all, and make sure the right data is routed to the right place.
Microsoft designed DOS version 3.0 to support the official IBM PC network hardware. Unfortunately, the AT was ready before the network features of DOS were, and the Microsoft designers had to deactivate these features in the final product. They finally turned them back on again in version 3.1, released in November 1984. But DOS 3.1 was picky; it would handle only certain well-behaved networks.
DOS 3.0 introduced a streamlined method for integrating FCB’s and handles. And while it provided a small handful of new features, none was a radical departure from DOS 2.1. In fact, IBM stated in its documentation that “DOS 3.0 does not replace DOS 2.1”. But it did fix a nasty 2.1 oversight, by making it harder for users to format their hard disks if they weren’t careful. (It wasn’t until version 2.0 that DOS even asked for confirmation if users tried to delete all the files on their disk with a single ERASE . command.) Version 3.0 also let users make files read-only to prevent any inadvertent changes or deletions.
Version 3.1 provided better “aliasing” features to combine drives and directories and to trick DOS into treating a subdirectory like a disk drive. DOS 3.2 introduced users to 3.5” diskettes (although the tools it provided to do this were downright awful), made it easier for them to upgrade DOS versions, and gave them one of the best but least-used new commands, XCOPY.
DOS 3.3, tossed off by IBM pitchment at the introduction of the PS/2 as an “interim solution” and the operating system for a string of dogs including the PC Convertible, Portable PC, and PC-Jr, deftly excised a heap of user headaches, and added a few sizzling new tricks.
As all seasoned hard disk users are aware, working efficiently on a hard disk machine means pigeonholing related programs and data in electronic file drawers called subdirectories. But users who are currently working in one subdirectory often want to execute a program or look at data stored in another.
Since version 2.0, users had been able to tell the PATH command to check specified subdirectories for executable files (with filenames ending in COM, EXE or BAT). This let users run programs in other subdirectories, but it didn’t let them get at distant data. Nonexecutable files remained immune to even the most comprehensive search, forcing power users to purchase commercial “path extender” programs, or struggle with the DOS 3.1 SUBST command. The DOS 3.3 APPEND command made this process relatively easy - and a lot cleaner.
Serial ports are your system’s main gateway to the world. Version 3.3 let MODE cruise along with four serial ports rather than two (OS/2 can use 8) and cruise along at 19200 baud, double the previous limit. And IBM finally recognised that at least twice a year users need to reset their internal IBM clocks and provided a way of doing this without hunting down their Diagnostics disks, figure out which option adjusts the time, and grind through all the irritating preliminary screens. The 3.3 TIME and DATE commands automatically adjusted IBM CMOS memory to reflect the change.
Another improvement was the newfound ability of the DOS 3.3 ATTRIB command to gang-process all files within a directory and its related subdirectories, which made it easier to create backups and prevent inadvertent file deletions or changes. Unfortunately, the same process used by ATTRIB can also hide files from casual snooping, but IBM’s manual won’t show you how.
The original DOS architects preferred working with 512-byte disk sectors, and used a FAT to keep track of what data was in which sector. When they designed the FAT they used 16-bit addresses, which allowed a maximum of 65,536 (64k) table entries. This clamped a firm 32Mb limit on the size of any physical hard disk (512 x 65,536 = 33,554,432 bytes). To get around this limit, manufacturers either had to increase the sector size, which made their hardware non-standard and relatively wasteful, or come up with an entirely new file management scheme, which ended up being even more non-standard.
IBM tuned DOS 3.3 to divide physical hard disks into smaller “logical” drives, and fixed the FDISK command to create extended DOS partitions in addition to the primary ones they were able to carve out previously. Each extended partition could be further subdivided into logical drives 32Mb or smaller, with their own drive letters. Compaq quickly made it even easier to use enormous hard disks, by introducing DOS 3.31 that boasted 32-bit FAT addresses.
To expedite directory searches with the new generation of larger hard disks, DOS 3.3 provided a filename cache utility called FASTOPEN. Caches keep track of things in memory rather than on disk, which speeds many processes up significantly. FASTOPEN notes the location of files and subdirectories (which are really just special classes of files) the first time you hunt for them, and then directs DOS to the exact spot on the disk the next time you have to deal with them.
The DOS BACKUP command had always been so pathetic that an entire industry of third-party backup software has evolved to fill the gap. While the version 3.3 enhancements aren’t going to put those developers out of business, they will bring some users back into the fold. Under previous DOS versions you had to format a tall stack of disks before strating the backup process. If you ran out of formatted disks halfway through you had to abort and either find a way to catch up, or start the whole elaborate, time-consuming procedure all over again.
In DOS 3.3 the BACKUP command can summon the FORMAT command and prepare unformatted disks if necessary - with certain irritating restrictions. And you have to limit the disks and drives you use; it still can’t mix and match. The DOS 3.3 BACKUP works faster and more efficiently than older versions, by copying all smaller files into a single enormous one, and by creating a guide file that tells DOS how to take the big file apart and restore it properly again later. It also creates a log file telling you what it did where.
The DOS 3.3 RESTORE gives you added flexibility in restoring backed-up files by date and time, as well as those deleted or changed since you last backed up, or files that are no longer on the target disk. Better yet, while older versions of RESTORE let you accidentally obliterate your system files (IBMBIO.COM, IBMDOS.COM and COMMAND.COM or their MS-DOS counterparts) with older backed-up versions, DOS 3.3 RESTORE won’t. Inadvertently mixing versions of hard disk system files is like replacing a heart surgeon in the middle of an operation, with a tree surgeon.
Batch files can take the anguish out of tricky or repetitive tasks. The first thing most power users do when they create a batch file is turn off the display by issuing an ECHO OFF command. This stops DOS from littering your screen with the frantic prompts, messages, and other electronic graffiti a batch file generates. But users had no authorised way of preventing this ECHO OFF command from adding to the screen clutter itself. Version 3.3 users can prevent such clutter simply by prefacing any command with an @ symbol.
In addition, DOS 3.3 could CALL one batch file from within another, execute it, and then return to the original batch file and continue executing it. Doing this kind of “nesting” under previous versions of DOS meant that each batch file had to load its own separate version of COMMAND.COM to do its work, exit, and drop back to yet another version - which was sort of like restarting a movie every time a latecomer walked into the theatre. DOS 3.3 also documented environment variables for the first time, which let users pass information back and forth from application to application.
DOS 3.0 to 3.2 came in five international flavours. By executing the appropriate KEYBxx command, users could transform the keyboard into British, German, French, Italian or Spanish modes. With version 3.3, IBM totally revamped the way DOS handled foreign alphabets. IBM’s manuals have gotten a bit better over the years, but the three abtruse and seemingly contradictory chunks on this international support virtually defy comprehension. IBM prefaced its long appendix-like treatment of the topic with the caveat “You can use code page switching without fully understanding everything about it.” After poring over the text, you’ll know why this was included.
For the first time, DOS 3.3 set a default number of disk buffers based on your system’s configuration. Under previous versions, it assumed evert PC and XT user really wanted only two and every AT user only three. DOS will now sniff out what hardware you have available, and allocate from two buffers (minimal RAM, no hi-density floppies, 3.5” diskettes, or hard disks) to 15 (and machine with more than 512k of RAM). If you’re using a big hard disk, you may want more than 15. Better yet, try a commercial file cache program.
IBM and Microsoft continue to add and adapt messages and prompts; the infamous and ubiquitous DOS error message “Abort, Retry, Ignore?” became a more chilling “Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail?” under DOS 3.3. This isn’t exactly friedly. When Microsoft originally designed DOS it published all the specifications so that other manufacturers could replace the COMMAND.COM user interface with something different, such as a visual shell. Several amateurs have tried, but nothing has come of it. Microsoft itself tried an easier interface called WINDOWS, but users have resisted, calling the interface overly large, ungainly, and slow. Microsoft and IBM have adapted Windows as a graphic front-end called Presentation Manager for OS/2.
DOS needs all sorts of help; way back when the EGA was first introduced, for instance, users complained that the MODE command couldn’t deal with any of the new graphics settings, such as 43 or 50 lines of text, or the far better colour selection. Now that VGA is becoming the norm, DOS still doesn’t directly handle anything better than CGA.
That’s All I know about the Development of DOS.