Computers Before MS Windows: The Facts About MS-DOS You May Not Know

Computers Before MS Windows: The Facts About MS-DOS You May Not Know
  • Computers Before MS Windows: The Facts About MS-DOS You May Not Know

We are so used to Windows being the operating system on most computers we come across, that we’ve forgotten there was a time when Windows was not around yet. Before Microsoft released Windows, there was another operating system installed on most consumer computers: MS-DOS. As the MS part of its name may give away, it was also released by Microsoft. Get a taste of how it felt to use the command-line environment back in the DOS days. Get a taste of how it felt to use the command-line environment back in the DOS days.

Just as a hint: using MS-DOS wasn’t like launching the Command Prompt in your today’s Windows interface. A lot of the things that are common for Windows today simply weren’t there in DOS.

The DOS Computer Experience

The main difference in PC experience with Windows and MS-DOS is that there was no graphical interface in DOS. Upon booting up your PC, you would see a DOS prompt. You actually needed to know the different commands to enter at the prompt, or you wouldn’t be able to control your computer at all. Any action, such as launching a program, running a built-in utility, saving, copying files or anything else you might want to do on your computer required entering a specific command.


For example, if you needed to switch between drives or access a specific drive, say your floppy drive A:, you would need to type A: when you get to the prompt, then hit Enter.

You would use the CD command to change directories or use the DIR command to view files in the directory you are currently in. If you needed to run a program, you would actually have to know the name of the program’s executable file, as you’d need to type it at the prompt.

Let’s say you got a cool new game or program on a floppy disk and came home anxious to run it. You would stick the diskette into the floppy drive and wait for your PC to read it first. Then enter these commands one at a time:



INSTALL or SETUP (depending on what the program installer name is)

Then you would follow through the installation process, oftentimes needing to swap the diskettes because large applications didn’t fit on just one disk. The installer would basically unpack the program files into a folder on your local drive, after which you would be able to use the program without having to keep the floppy in the drive.

After that you would type in “C:”  to return to drive C, then use the “CD” command to go into the folder that contains the program you installed, and run this program using a command like PROGNAME. And keep in mind that the name of the program’s executable file couldn’t be longer than 8 characters (plus a period and a 3-character extension). MS-DOS simply didn’t support longer file names. 

There were some software programs that attempted to make things simpler for regular users. One of them was the popular Norton Commander – a file manager that allowed managing and viewing files without having to remember and use special commands. Most DOS programs were about getting text arranged on the screen.

No Multitasking

Multitasking? What multitasking? You could forget about it with DOS, as DOS could only do one thing at a time. If you opened a software program, it occupied the whole screen. To use another program, you would have to close the one you had open, then enter a command to launch the other program.

The “terminate and stay resident” (TSR) function was provided by DOS so you could get around the need to do the above. If a program supported this function, it could get connected to a keyboard shortcut. All you’d need to do was to enter the proper shortcut and the program would close, but stay in your computer’s memory. Another program could then be loaded from memory.

Although it may seem like multitasking, TSR wasn’t it. When you used this feature, the program actually shut down and was not running in the background. This function only offered a faster way to restart the program, but DOS could still only handle one program at a time.

That’s very different from what we have today! Nowadays our computers usually have multiple services and programs simultaneously running in the background. We can easily switch between several open programs and do several things at a time. DOS wasn’t anywhere close to being that powerful. 

Hardware Support and Real Mode

It may come as a surprise, but DOS actually didn’t offer any support for hardware devices like what we are used to today. If a program you installed had to use some hardware on your computer, it had to directly support the specific device you had. For instance, a game that needed to use your sound card had to support your sound card type, or it simply wouldn’t run on your PC. DOS game developers had to be sure to code in support for every type of sound card their users could possibly have. Good thing was that many of the sound cards used back then were compatible with Sound Blaster. You could use a SETUP program to get this setting configured separately for every program you used.

There was the real mode (or real address mode) that had to be used by any programs wanting to access memory of peripherals directly. When real mode was used, a program could write to any memory address on the computer’s hardware without any protection. This worked just because only one program at a time could be run. Protected mode was introduced in Windows 3.0 and it restricted the things running applications could do.

This is the main reason we are unable to run many of the DOS games in the Windows Command Prompt today: the command prompt uses protected mode, while DOS games require real mode. You can get free software or freebie games made for DOS in some giveaway or somewhere on the web today, but you would have to use DOSBox if you wanted to run any old DOS games or apps on your Windows computer. 

Early Windows Versions Were Released as DOS Programs

The popular Windows versions of the early days, such as Windows 3.0 and 3.1, were actually just programs meant to be used under MS-DOS, just like any other paid or free software that existed. You would turn on your MS-DOS computer and enter the WIN command upon seeing the prompt. This would launch your Windows program and show you the Program Manager desktop in the famous Windows 3 style. You could also have Windows automatically launched on your computer upon startup by adding the WIN command to the AUTOEXEC.BAT file – the command would be run automatically when you power up your PC.

Since Windows was just a program manager and not your operating system, you could just exit it and return to DOS, which you had to do if you wanted to run a program or a game that required real mode. 

If you are too young to remember, you might be thinking by now that it must have been Windows 95 or 98 that replaced DOS, but that wasn’t so. Windows versions from 95 to ME were still simply built into DOS and DOS was always there in the background. The earliest version of Windows that retired DOS was Windows XP. With XP came the switch to the modern 32-bit NT kernel. The desktop-style Windows became the brand-new interface designed with user convenience in mind. 

Well, what do you know? Today there are a lot of people (even at Microsoft) who feel that Windows desktop is so yesterday! The new era of simpler mobile GUI and touchscreen devices has arrived, and it’s hard to imagine where the technology progress will go from here.


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