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From Dos To Windows 8 In Review

Updated on August 26, 2012

I love windows 7. It’s the best OS Microsoft has ever come up with. Yes, Microsoft is the company so many love to hate, but it must be said that it brought us into the computer age kicking and screaming. It was and still is number one for the PC.

Before Microsoft there was one OS used by the up to date office and lab of the time. It was UNIX, a multi tasking, multi user OS developed by AT&T in 1969. It cost over 1000 dollars per license by the early 1980s when I started getting interested in computers. It was obviously too costly for most people, as were the machines it ran on.

For a long time there was no operating system. Programmers had to be able to write their own drivers for the hardware they were working with, usually built into the programs they wanted to run. This was also the age of the punch card.

The first cheep mass market single task, single user OS was called CP/M. It was created by Gary Kildall of Digital Research. It only ran on the Intel 8080 compatible processor chip, but it ran many different manufacturers hardware.

We had some personal computer companies like Atari creating small operating systems which were all called dos at the time; dos meaning “disk operating system”. But it was limited to the device it was built for.

Commodore 64 was the first personal computer I ran into, but it was very limited. Programs had to be coded in each time they were used unless you had a tape drive which was horrendously slow and buggy. Even then retrieving information was hit and miss. It had no OS to speak of.

Amiga gave us an OS and computer that was just that much better than the Commodore. And of course Apple and several others created their own OS and computer at the time. The trouble was that the OS was always proprietary and only worked on the manufacturers proprietary hardware.

Floppy drives were the first new technology to make our lives easier and then came hard disks. All the manufacturers of computers had to find ways to incorporate them in to their operating systems. The computer age was on its way.

Enter IBM. Well they had been in the computer game from the very beginning. They created a new kind of computer using all the latest technology, but they had no OS for it. They based their new PC on a chip by Intel: the 8086. So who do they go to for an OS? Enter Bill Gates.

Microsoft had created a “softcard” in 1980: a hardware device which made the CP/M operating system compatible with the chip Apple used in their computers. That meant that the Apple II would be able to run the most popular business software of the time, and compete in the business market. IBM got the idea that Bill Gates owned CP/M. Of course he didn’t.

When Digital Research (who did own the OS) and IBM couldn’t come to an agreement, Bill Gates bought a 16 bit version of CP/M called Qdos. It was only used for testing specific equipment for Seattle Equipment Manufacturers. Microsoft developed it and in 1981 it became MS dos.

IBM now had an OS for their new XT computer; the first real PC. They also developed business software that became the standard.

The thing was that because IBM made the most popular office software of the day and made their computers from non-proprietary hardware other manufactures started making clones of the IBM PC. They called them IBM compatible. These clones were often cheaper than an IBM but they were still too expensive for most of us. The advantage to the guy like me with no money to speak of was that you could now build a computer from parts cheaper than you could buy a store bought computer. You could upgrade it over time to do what you wanted it to do with hardware made by many different manufacturers.

In 1982 AMD licensed the rights from Intel to manufacture 8086 chip sets, making buying mother boards and processors for home made computers even cheaper.

At this point it is important to note that we have been talking about two different things which worked in tandem to develop the PC industry: hardware and software. The operating system has two main functions. One is to run the hardware (that is the computer) for the software you want to run, and the other is to create an interface between the user and the computer. Hardware consists of all the physical aspects of the computer, like your DVD player, your monitor, your hard drive, etc.

This is why it is unfair and misleading for Apple to compare a Mac to a Windows PC. A Mac is a proprietary machine running a limited number of programs created by Apple themselves. A PC can run Microsoft or Linux or an OS by whoever decides to write an OS for the Intel compatible chip set. Microsoft has never manufactured a PC and they allowed anyone at all to write for their many operating systems, creating opportunities for programmers to let their imagination run wild, thereby giving us a lot of choice.

That’s the problem as well as Microsoft’s great appeal. Not all bits of new software can be tested with all chip set combinations and all other software on every computer. A proprietary system where all the software is written for one specific chip set and is tested with all other software of the machine is bound to be more stable more often. This is why computer manufacturers will only support the software that came with the computer. As soon as you install any new program you are running the risk of messing up your computer.

It’s a problem Microsoft has faced from the beginning, but the model they chose is what made them money and put them on top, while Apple always lagged behind in the PC market except with people doing professional graphics.

MSdos, was pretty good in its day. Games like Duke Nukem and Doom were dos based and ran from a floppy drive. Pretty darn good graphics if you had a good VGA monitor and the right graphics card. And the programs were so small.

Yes you had to be a geek, but many of us were. At least the people like me who had no money to have other people fix it when it broke were geeks by necessity. Just running dos was a learning experience.

In 1991 Linus Torvalds released a version of UNIX called Linux. It was a free alternative to Unix and MS dos. But of course only real geeks used it. It didn’t have the limitations of dos like a 64k memory limit, and it was capable of multi tasking. But it didn’t run any of the games or office programs dos did.

But it could run on an 8086 processor, whereas Unix couldn’t. Still, few of us except the real geeks used it. The great appeal is that it is free in most of its many versions, and anyone can write for it. Most of the apps are all free as well. IT’s a geeks labor of love to this day, and it has come a very long way. Even Apple now uses a Linux based Os rather than their own Mac OS.

In 1987 Microsoft and IBM released OS/2, it was just an updated MS Dos, but is could do some multi tasking. By 1988 it had basic windows interface. IBM took the project over using it mostly for their commercial computers, mainframes and PC/2 line of computers.

In 1992 Microsoft gave MS Dos a windows interface with Windows 3.1. for the general IBM clone market. It was still slow because everything it did was still translated through dos. It was a 16 bit operating system now running on a minimum of one meg of ram and an Intel 286 compatible chip set.

The nice thing about it was that you could go into .ini files and .bat files and modify things if you were having problems. Win 3.1 could do almost anything we needed it to do. But the hardware kept changing.

Yes, Bill probably stole the idea for windows from Steve Jobs, but he made it work. Someone was going to and Apple hadn’t yet, though they soon would. And it wasn’t a new idea.

Linux, being a free OS came up with many versions of a windows interface. Most looked cheep and home made in comparison to Microsoft’s more professional look. The exception, in the early days, being the KDE GUI. These days you can run a KDE desktop on a Windows machine. I’ll to try it when it’s out of its beta stage.

Linux became known for making bullet proof hardware firewalls and servers the way Unix was, but unlike Unix it also runs on Intel chips. That makes Linux ideal for repurposing old obsolete PCs. But it was mainly because of its reliance on the command line and the fact that because it is free and there are so many different versions of it, not that many Windows software manufacturers port their software to it.

In reality, the average Linux user has a hard time paying for software, as there is always a free version of anything available. Games are the only notable exception, and that’s big. At least it was.

After 3.1 Microsoft developed windows 95. It was the best interface yet but it was buggy and ushered in the era of the Blue Screen of Death. This was followed by Windows 98, the first “sort of” 32 bit OS. For backward compatibility it ran mostly in 16 bit

Both win95 and win 98 used MS dos as their base and had horrible resource issues because of it. USB function and other upgrades were added to 98 second edition, making it over all the best OS Microsoft had come up with. The trouble was, it was still a pain.

The registry added since win 95 was the beginning of taking control from the geek. Most programs couldn’t be dropped into the operating system whole anymore. They had to be installed. You couldn’t do it manually anymore because of all the registry entries that had to be created. It was supposed to be a 32 bit system, but still relied heavily on16 bit. It was plagued with problems.

Win 98 was win 95 updated and almost fixed. Win 98 second edition along with some service packs made it a pretty good OS by comparison to win 95 and a world away from win 3.1

Of course Microsoft came out with Windows NT in 1993. That was two years before win 95. But it was geared to the business and server users which had been running Unix, not the home user. Unix did use a very basic OS/2 like windows structure, but it still wasn’t as user friendly as NT.

NT was certainly a departure from dos. It, like Unix and Linux could recognize and use more than one processor. It could now read and use all the memory on the system for the OS, as opposed to only being allowed to use 64 K and depend on programs to use the extended memory.

In other words, most of the limitations of dos were gone by 1993.

The NT in the name means simply: New Technology. Well that’s what Bill Gates said in an interview adding that it had no real meaning by the time of that interview. But in fact the project was originally started as an update on OS/2 until it was taken over by Microsoft. One of the original developers named it for the Intel chip set they were targeting it for, the N Ten, actually written N 10.

So why did Microsoft give consumers what amounted to an inferior system in Win 95?

Windows NT was the first real 32 bit OS. It didn’t run dos games. The simple reason we got stuck with win 95 and subsequent inferior operating systems was because we wanted backward compatibility, and we were still running a lot of dos and dos based programs.

NT went through a lot of versions starting with NT 3.1 and losing its name by Win 2000; which was advertized as: Built on NT technology.” By Win 2000 a virtual dos machine was added so we could still run some of those dos based games and programs. But most people were used to windows 98 although they cursed the blue screen of death.

What happened next was a bit of a shock. Windows Millennium was supposed to be a big step forward for the desktop. No more dos running in the background. Well not really. Millennium ended up being a real bomb in more ways than one. It was incredibly buggy. It was the nightmare of win 95 all over again.

But the reason it was that buggy was, in my opinion, because it was an introduction to features that were to become fully operable in the next installment of Windows. It was almost a beta. This opinion would be borne out by the launch of Windows XP a year later.

Windows XP was NT based with all the multimedia and backward compatibility we wanted. No more blue screens of death. Well not many.

It was truly the best OS of its time, and defiantly a breakthrough OS for Microsoft. It had its problems but then so do all operating systems. It became the standard as win 98 had done. The great innovation that came with it was that it introduced a 64 bit version.

Even though XP was an NT product, Microsoft kept their line of server and business operating systems going with Win 2003 and Windows 2012. All very stable operating systems.

But Microsoft wasn’t done yet. As more hardware was invented and upgraded, it was time for yet another version of Windows for all the rest of us: Windows Vista. Again the promise of a much better OS and again, like Millennium, a dry run or beta test for features that would only be perfected on the next OS.

It seems that Windows was developing a pattern or always had one. Microsoft seems to have gotten the idea that the best way to develop an OS is by selling the prototype, for the next stable release and let the users tell them what’s wrong or right with it.

Windows 7 was night and day compared to Windows Vista. It was again, and is as of the writing of this essay, the best OS Microsoft ever made, thanks to the lessons learned in Vista. I can really say I love Windows 7.

So why do we need Windows 8 and is it another beta for the next as yet unnamed stable version of the NT OS?

As it happens I download and am currently running Windows 8 preview on my computer. So far I like it. I am dual booting Windows 7 and 8 from separate hard drives. You only get the option to choose which hard drive to install it on if you boot your PC with the Windows 8 Preview DVD that you can download for free.

Better to do that than to replace your OS, as you have to do if you run the ISO or live install from your version of Windows.

I am assuming here that anyone who decides to try Windows 8 Preview will already know how to download and burn an ISO file, and install to a separate hard drive. I do not recommend doing it any other way due to the fact that this is a beta program which could leave you without an OS at the end of the Preview period in September of 2012.

Anyone not geeky enough not to care if they have to redo their OS should not try this at home.

The biggest difference in Windows 8 is that the start menu is designed like a cell phone menu. If you have a touch screen you can scroll your start menu just like you would your Iphone menu. Your start menu is active in that the icons can be live, as in always on the internet and updating.

This is an apps based start menu, with the standard desk top set up as an app. You will see your current wallpaper in an app thumbnail. If you right click you get a symbol that says “All Apps”. Click on it you will see all the programs on your computer in icon form, with headings. Again, this is a scroll across the screen system, not the popup menu system we are used to.

The apps store has a lot of free and demo games and apps which act much the same as cell phone apps. We can see where all this is going.

When you click on your desktop you will notice something odd. There is no start button. In fact, Microsoft finally came up with a great reason for that windows key we all have on our key boards. It is the only way to get to your start menu and all those apps. It is also the way to get out of those apps when you are in them.

For now you can still use windows explorer to get into the file system the old way. But it seems to me that we are being weaned off the desktop model, and eventually the desktop will be replaced by the start menu all together as most apps will be online. Microsoft has been trying to get people to use online versions of their office suit and other programs for years. The cell phone industry is making that goal a reality.

I noticed that I had to create a windows live account and log into Windows with my Windows Live/MSN email address, or create an account with my current address before I could log in to Windows 8 for the first time. In fact, for at least this preview version there is no option. You log into the computer with your email address and a mandatory password. This may all be just for the preview version but I kind of doubt it.

The other striking thing is that there is no standard shut down in the start menu. There is none on the desk top either. I found it eventually by putting my mouse in the top or bottom right hand corner of the screen. To my surprise a menu slid out with options on it. One was settings. On the settings menu is a symbol that reads: “Power” if you mouse over it. Clicking that gives you the log off, restart and shut down options. This also happens in the start menu.

If you put your mouse in the top or bottom left hand corner you see thumbnails of apps that are still running and your start menu. You would also get a thumbnail of your desktop if you did it while in the start menu. Until I found that I was beginning to worry that Microsoft had finally done away with their double and triple redundancy policy and I was a bit dismayed. But now I see they did build in the ability to do the same thing in several different ways, even though they are not the ways we are used to.

So far so good. Windows 8 seems stable enough, though I am no longer working as a tech so I don’t get to see all the bugs others may be seeing. After all, we will all put it through our own tests by adding software and apps.

I don’t personally like the apps environment. You can’t copy any of the text in the articles for one thing.

But the backward compatibility is still there. I have a rolodex program I have been using which came with windows 3.1 called Cardfile. It has worked in every version of Windows since then. The only thing the system asked me this time, which it never asked me before was: “Do you want to turn on 16 bit compatibility?” The program still works flawlessly.

Another program I tried and which I have also had on all my computers since my very first IBM XT and dos 3 is Norton Commander. (Yes of Norton Anti Virus fame. This was his first and one of his most famous programs. It was even copied and adapted for Linux.) It is a file management program that allows you to view files and execute simple commands like edit, copy and delete in dos without having to type them out. It too still works perfectly in Windows 8, and it automatically comes up in a dos window now when you click on it in Windows. This is an improvement in the virtual dos machine technology. In Windows 7 I had to run it from an already open dos window command. Clicking on it just flashes a dos window on and off.

I don’t need that program anymore, but I keep it around just for fun. I do still use my Cardfile program though.

We have to remember, of course, that this is a preview version of Windows 8 and not the release candidate, let alone the finished product. As such it is doing admirably. It found all my hardware and installed it except for one old nic card. All I had to do was change the video drivers for my ATI chip. Again, Age of Empires worked perfectly in XP, didn’t render the colors correctly in windows 7, but works perfectly again in Windows 8 using the same drivers I use in Windows 7.

Yes I have seen a few glitches, but minor ones so far. Mostly to do with the apps section. But then, that’s the new part. By the release or the next OS and some service packs everything should work perfectly. All that remains to be seen.

However I do have concerns to do mainly with privacy. I don’t much like the idea of the completely online cell phone/tablet style environment. If the desktop goes in the next OS or the following one, I will likely consider Linux as an alternative when my current OS of the time outlives its usefulness. If Microsoft no longer offers a traditional desktop environment of any kind I may have to.

The main reason I haven’t done so for any length of time in the past is because even the KDE desktop doesn’t look as professional as the Microsoft desktop can look. I just love the feel of the Windows desktop. Particularly the Windows 7 and 8 desktop. But that’s just me.

Who knows, perhaps Microsoft will come up with a way to keep the old timers like me until we type our last dot?

Will I make the switch to Windows 8 when it comes out? I haven’t decided yet. I’ll let you know when I’ve tried the release candidate, or the final product.

In the end we can now safely say that Microsoft did win the OS war, the IBM style PC won the computer war, and Apple won the cell phone war. At least for now.

One wonders where the PC will go from here. Always live online to be sure. At least if Microsoft has its way. And it likely will.

Tablets anyone?


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    • Lawrence Da-vid profile image

      Lawrence Da-vid 

      6 years ago

      Slarty! I must agree with you regarding Microsoft. Had it not been for that company, the desk top, lap top would not be as prevalent as it is today. They absolutely let the Government of this Country enter the computer age regarding micro's. I still have the original 5 1/4 floppy dos disk ever produced, up to and including the latest versions of dos pre windows. Fortunately, I do have an antique 8088 system....that's just past hammer/chisel/stone and the abacus that I play with at times.


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