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Sometimes I miss DOS

Published: 03/24/2009

Before I owned my first computer, I remember my friends working on theirs using something called "DOS" and "Wordstar" and "commands." They played Prince of Persia to pass the time. I had absolutely no concept whatsoever of what a computer was except it represented some hybrid combination of a TV and a typewriter. People would tell me it was a sophisticated calculator, had the ability to make life easier, would revolutionize the world, yadda yadda. I couldn't relate.

College years were upon me and I decided that I needed something to write papers with. I had a few variety of friends, some of them being knowledgeable about computers and stuff. Once the word got out that I was thinking of getting one of these expensive gadgets, these friends came to my assistance. Conversations were abound regarding "386 vs. 486" and whether I should go "PC or Mac" (back then I was thinking about a Quadra because I was interested in doing music recording). I needed a printer, and although I understood the concept of this device there was still the choice of "dot matrix or inkjet."

In the end, I ended up with a 486DX/33 with 32 MB of memory. All in a beige box. With a turbo button on the front. I had something called ISA slots and I think my video card had about a whopping 1 MB of memory or less. My friend went out and bought everything for me, assembled the whitebox, he brought it over, I handed him money (the rig cost me $2000 including the printer), he connected it all together, we powered it on, and he left. I was left sitting there looking at this thing with a cursor blinking on the screen.

Okay, so now what?

I knew only a couple of commands that I had witnessed friends using on their machines at their homes. I typed them. They did ... something. I started thinking back to the last reference of "computer" that I could think of and I remembered Wargames. Honestly, as dumb as it sounds, I'm pretty sure I typed in the words "Hello, Joshua" on the 14" Impression monitor just to see what happened. My computer spit at me.

It wasn't until I typed help that I realized there were a whole bunch of legitimate things I could type. I had no idea what they'd do, but at least this help menu (nice to have a full install of DOS, eh?) started giving me clues on what to do.

I learned the hard way, through bits and pieces ... hence the name of this site. I eventually came to understand fundamental concepts like directory structures, command parameters, etc.. It took me months to get through figuring out the basics, however.

DOS 4.0 was a heck of a starting point though with no user manual except the help screens. My friends eventually brought over something more entertaining (Wolf 3D) and I spent a lot of time on it. Not quite the Atari 2600 experience that I was expecting.

I continued on with weird programs called Norton Utilities and other weird DOS collections. It was with Norton Disk Editor that it finally started dawning on me that I could restore deleted files ... most of the time. I spent hours looking at Speedisk do its thing.

It wasn't until a while later when I took the plunge to Windows 3.1, and eventually 3.11 because the opening logo looked cooler. It wasn't networked. I had no concept of what a network was. Actually, my first network that I set up was a dial-connection to a Doom peer, and even then it hadn't occured to me that I was part of a network. I eventually discovered the world of dial-in bulletin boards. Strange worlds, they were. By '95, I was introduced to something called Trumpet Winsock and the use of Netscape Navigator. I think my modem was a 2400 baud. Yeah, I was playing with power.

Those were the simpler days when the operating system was primitive compared to the NT-based platforms or Linux / BSD environments that we can take for granted today. When DOS crashed, it crashed. You knew it. Batch files were an interesting challenge, even though I could barely write any beyond the extreme basics. Every game had slightly different memory requirements so you had to create a config.sys with multiple boot configurations just to optimize it. I don't remember how many times I typed in mem /c |more just to see how much conventional memory I had left.

And DOS booted fast. At least compared to any current OS. While FAT16 sucked, it wasn't as mysterious as NTFS with its not-very-well-documented MFT internal layout.

I spent many a frustrated night trying to figure something out, a lot of times resorting to a reinstall of a program or perhaps DOS itself. I was learning just enough to be extremely dangerous to risk complete data loss. At least I had backed up a lot of my info on those sometimes-unreliable floppy disks. I eventually stopped using the 5.25" floppy drives. I backed up many a program using pkzip disk spanning. Microsoft Office took over thirty diskettes.

SoundBlaster 16 was the rage. Motherboards and expansion cards had loads of jumpers to set. I think my first hard disk was a Maxtor with about 250 MB of capacity (which I think I still have lying around). Doom was mind-blowing. X-Wing and Tie Fighter were absolutely addicting. I started missing out on day light.

Ah, yes... The innocent days are long gone. If I could go back in time and meet myself, I'd take along a Computer Basics 101 book so I wouldn't have taken so long to learn by trial-and-error. There's something to be said about being persistent and discovering things the hard way, however.

But if I want to re-live much of it again, at least it's easy using VMware and FreeDOS. I think I still have my entire collection of DOS programs in my disorganized software archive.

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