Ten Momentous Moments in DOS History

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DOS Moments 6-10

6. Attack of the Clone
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 offered DOS 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 to rattle 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. Microsoft settled the lawsuit in 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.

In 2002, a startup bought DR-DOS to market it as a lightweight operating system for embedded applications; it continues to market it. DR-DOS, in other words, has remained a viable business proposition longer than MS-DOS. That may not qualify as getting the last laugh, but it's something.

7. DOS Invades the Pocket

In the 1980s, there were no such things as smartphones--hey, it was an era when even laptops were somewhat exotic. But folks still saw potential in the idea of cramming the DOS-based PC down into a form factor that was petite enough to fit in a pocket, or at least come close. In 1989, Atari released the $400 Portfolio and a startup called Poqet unveiled the $2000 Poqet PC. Both resembled shrunken notebooks, with tiny monochrome screens and QWERTY keyboards. And both ran versions of DOS--DIP DOS 2.11 in the case of the Portfolio, and MS-DOS 3.3 with the Poqet.

In 1991, these DOS dwarfs were joined by HP's $699 95LX, a more truly pocketable device that packed not only DOS but Lotus 1-2-3 and other desktop applications. The era of the DOS-based palmtop didn't survive the mid-1990s, but all these machines retain cult followings today.

8. The Race for Disk Space
In 2008, you can buy a 750GB hard disk for a couple of hundred bucks, giving you plenty of storage elbow room for a reasonable price. In the early 1990s, however, hard disks were much, much tinier and much, much pricier. (In 1993, a 250MB drive--that's 1/3000th of 750GB--set you back around $500). So Stac Electronics' Stacker and similar compression utilities appeared, cramming about twice as much data onto a drive by compressing it on the fly. In retrospect, they brought major downsides with them--data recovery became far tougher when your entire disk was compressed--but they were huge hits at the time.

In response, Digital Research began bundling a compression utility called SuperStor with DR-DOS 6.0 in 1991. In response to that, Microsoft added a compression feature called DoubleSpace to MS-DOS 6.0 in 1993. And that caused Stac to sue Microsoft, since the companies had been in talks involving Microsoft licensing the Stacker technology. Microsoft pulled DoubleSpace in MS-DOS 6.1, then added a version called DriveSpace that worked around Stac's patents to MS-DOS 6.22.

The last full-blown version of DriveSpace shipped with Windows 98. Almost nobody cared, since hard-disk space was no longer the precious commodity it had once been.

9. DOS Reachers Perfection, or Close Enough
In 1994, Microsoft released MS-DOS 6.22. By then, most

serious PC users were running Windows 3.1, so DOS was already most important as a piece of middleware between the computer and Windows. In 1995, Windows 95 would eliminate then need for a separate copy of of DOS, although it did that mostly by incorporating a DOS (version 7.0) into the Windows package itself. Only when Windows XP shipped in 2001 did the bulk of consumers get a version of Windows that didn't have DOS at its heart.

Once MS-DOS reached 6.22, it was as good as it was going to get--Microsoft stopped improving it but continued selling it. IBM, meanwhile, eventually released an upgrade called PC-DOS 2000, but it sounded more exciting than it was: It was mostly the archaic PC-DOS 7.0 with some fixes to make it Y2K compliant.

10. Still DOS After All These Years
On November 1st, 2001, Microsoft officially stopped selling MS-DOS, and the DOS era officially ended.

But only in theory. DOS remains so basically useful that it refuses to die. For one thing, an unknown--but hardly infinitesimal--number of companies such as drycleaners and car repair outfits still run their businesses on ancient DOS applications. Maybe they understand something that most of us don't.

IBM's PC-DOS is slightly less deceased than MS-DOS, if being able to buy it on Amazon counts for anything.  And other DOS variants are alive and kicking, period. DR-DOS (which has gone back to that name) is being sold as an operating system for embedded applications; FreeDOS, an open-source, DOS-compatible operating system, has inspired a thriving community. Even Dell will sell you a new Inspiron dual-core desktop running FreeDOS.

In short, you can't keep a good DOS down. Visit SaveDOS.com for more of our DOS coverage--or head straight to the SaveDOS community to share your thoughts about this operating system's past, present, and future.

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