A Beast Of Burden

In last week's column, anticipating the forthcoming release of Microsoft's new consumer operating system, Windows XP, I toasted a future without DOS.

In last weeks column, anticipating the forthcoming release of Microsofts new consumer operating system, Windows XP, I toasted a future without DOS. My e-mail in-box is now packed, and another 20 online readers have joined the fray. The spontaneous vote among these respondents is closer than a box full of Florida ballots, but before declaring a tie, allow me to introduce one little pregnant chad: I really meant to vote for one candidate, but not against the other.

Which is to say that what I should have been cheering was the promise of a Windows without DOS, not the demise of DOS itself.

Several readers objected to my describing MS-DOS as Microsofts "pet beast." Thats because they interpreted "beast" as a synonym for monster. If Id been having a more articulate day, I would have written "beast of burden." I think of DOS as a mighty ox that long ago plowed our fields every day, almost without fail. Then Microsoft decided we needed a newer, flashier beast, so it gave us a baby elephant named Gooey. It wasnt big enough to pull the plow, but Gooey looked so great all duded up in MS Circusware that Microsoft paraded it around on the back of the ox. Eventually, the elephant got so monstrous we couldnt even see the ox, and Microsoft tried to persuade us the ox wasnt there anymore. But it was a sorry illusion; DOS was still the beast pulling the plow. And more and more often, it was stumbling under the ever increasing weight of Gooey.

OK, so Aesop Im not. The point is that if DOS were an actual air-breathing beast, the Microsoft farm would have been shut down for animal abuse long ago. Theres also such a thing as code abuse — paradoxically, a sin for which Microsoft severely punishes third-party developers, but is quick to absolve its own wunderkind.

In truth, the mature DOS is indeed a solid, remarkably stable operating system, especially when you consider that it was never designed to address more than 640-kilobytes of RAM, yet is now chugging along in the bowels of machines that use gigabytes of memory. And this OS that many programmers insisted was "non- re-entrant," meaning not designed to allow multiple applications to share the same code, now supports an extremely complex multitasking platform. Code abuse.

Nor was Microsoft the only villain. While no complex code is bug-free, much of DOS early reputation for poor stability was the result of bad programmers who broke the rules by, for instance, bypassing the OS and sending instructions directly to the computers basic input/ output system. When Compaq Computer introduced the first of a generation of early "IBM compatibles," legitimate variations in the machines BIOS often caused such programs to crash, and DOS was blamed.

We users were also abusive. I recall simultaneously running four "terminate and stay resident" programs (TSRs), demanding more attention than DOS could give.

Other readers bemoaned the loss of a command line. Actually, the NT kernel that Windows XP will use does have an emulator that supports command line instructions for many DOS tasks. I couldnt find evidence that Microsoft plans to use the emulator in XP, however.

Some concerns about the demise of DOS were far from trivial. "So what do we do in scientific computing, where if you use Microsoft C/C++, you can edit and compile under Windows, but when the program operates, it runs under DOS?" wondered Walter Delashmit, an electrical engineer from Dallas.

The most compelling trouncing of my column came not from a reader but from my laptop. Soon after submitting my prose, I was hit with a virus that not only prevented Windows from booting, but even destroyed earlier versions of the Windows Registry and prevented reinstallation of the OS without reformatting the disk drive.

So there I sat at 2 a.m., booting an old copy of DOS 6.0 from a floppy and using an old DOS driver to copy data files to a parallel Zip drive. Perhaps I was premature in toasting the demise of this trusty old ox.