MS-DOS; short for Microsoft Disk Operating System, is an operating system for x86-based personal computers. It was the most commonly used member of the DOS family of operating systems, and was the main operating system for IBM PC compatible personal computers during the 1980s to the mid 1990s, until it was gradually superseded by operating systems offering a graphical user interface (GUI), in particular by various generations of the Microsoft Windows operating system.
MS-DOS grew from a 1981 request by IBM for an operating system for its IBM PC range of personal computers. Microsoft quickly bought the rights to QDOS (Quick and Dirty Operating System), also known as 86-DOS, from Seattle Computer Products, and began work on modifying it to meet IBM's specification. The first edition, MS-DOS 1.0, was launched in 1982. The version shipped with IBM's PCs was called PC DOS. Although MS-DOS and PC DOS were initially developed in parallel by Microsoft and IBM, the two products eventually went their separate ways.
During its life, several competing products were released for the x86 platform, and MS-DOS itself would go through eight versions, until development ceased in 2000. Ultimately it was the key product in Microsoft's growth from a programming languages company to a diverse software development firm, providing the company with essential revenue and marketing resources. It was also the underlying basic operating system on which early versions of Windows ran as a GUI.
MS-DOS was a renamed form of 86-DOS – informally known as the Quick-and-Dirty Operating System or Q-DOS – owned by Seattle Computer Products, written by Tim Paterson. Microsoft needed an operating system for the then-new Intel 8086 but it had none available, so it bought 86-DOS for $75,000 and licensed it as its own then released a version of it as MS-DOS 1.0. Development started in 1981, and MS-DOS 1.0 was released with the IBM PC in 1982. (86-DOS, in turn, was a clone of Digital Research's CP/M (for 8080/Z80 processors), ported to run on 8086 processors and with two notable differences compared to CP/M, an improved disk sector buffering logic and the introduction of FAT12 instead of the CP/M filesystem. This became possible because of the increased availability of RAM compared to what was typically available when CP/M was designed originally.)
Originally MS-DOS was designed to be an operating system that could run on any 8086-family computer. Each computer would have its own distinct hardware and its own version of MS-DOS, similar to the situation that existed for CP/M, and with MS-DOS emulating the same solution as CP/M to adapt for different hardware platforms. To this end, MS-DOS was designed with a modular structure with internal device drivers, minimally for primary disk drives and the console, integrated with the kernel and loaded by the boot loader, and installable device drivers for other devices loaded and integrated at boot time. The OEM would use a development kit provided by Microsoft to build a version of MS-DOS with their basic I/O drivers and a standard Microsoft kernel, which they would typically supply on disk to end users along with the hardware. Thus, there were many different versions of "MS-DOS" for different hardware, and there is a major distinction between an IBM-compatible (or ISA) machine and an MS-DOS [compatible] machine. Some machines, like the Tandy 2000, were MS-DOS compatible but not IBM-compatible, so they could only run software written exclusively for MS-DOS without dependence on the peripheral hardware of the IBM PC architecture.
This design would have worked well for compatibility, if application programs had only used MS-DOS services to perform device I/O, and indeed the same design philosophy is embodied in Windows NT (see Hardware Abstraction Layer). However, in MS-DOS's early days, the greater speed attainable by programs through direct control of hardware was of particular importance, especially for games, which often pushed the limits of their contemporary hardware. Very soon an IBM-compatible architecture became the goal, and before long all 8086-family computers closely emulated IBM's hardware, and only a single version of MS-DOS for a fixed hardware platform was needed for the market. This version is the version of MS-DOS that is discussed here, as the dozens of other OEM versions of "MS-DOS" were only relevant to the systems they were designed for, and in any case were very similar in function and capability to the same-numbered standard version for the IBM PC, with a few notable exceptions.
While MS-DOS appeared on PC clones, true IBM computers used PC DOS, a rebranded form of MS-DOS. Ironically, the dependence on IBM-compatible hardware caused major problems for the computer industry when the original design had to be changed. For example, the original design could support no more than 640 kilobytes of memory (the 640 KB barrier), because IBM's hardware design reserved the address space above this limit for peripheral devices and ROM. Manufacturers had to develop complicated schemes (EMS and XMS, and other minor proprietary ones) to access additional memory. This limitation would not have been a problem if the original idea of interfacing with hardware through MS-DOS had endured. (However, MS-DOS was also a real-mode operating system, and the Intel x86 architecture only supports up to 1 MB of memory address space in Real Mode, even on Pentium 4 and later x86 CPUs, so for simple access to megabytes of memory, MS-DOS would have had to be rewritten to run in 80286 or 80386 Protected Mode.) Also, Microsoft originally described MS-DOS as "an operating system for Intel 8086-based microcomputers", and the 8086 CPU (and its cousin the 8088) itself has only 1 MiB of total memory address space.
Microsoft licensed or released versions of MS-DOS under different names like Lifeboat Associates "Software Bus 86" aka SB-DOS, COMPAQ-DOS, NCR-DOS or Z-DOS before it eventually enforced the MS-DOS name for all versions but the IBM one, which was originally called "IBM Personal Computer DOS", later shortened to IBM PC DOS. (Competitors released compatible DOS systems such as DR DOS and PTS-DOS that could also run DOS applications.)
The following versions of MS-DOS were released to the public:
- MS-DOS 1.x
- Version 1.12 (OEM) - Compaq release of PC DOS 1.10
- Version 1.19 (OEM) - Zenith OEM
- Version 1.25 (OEM) - Microsoft repackaging of PC DOS 1.10
- MS-DOS 2.x - Support for 10 MB hard disk drives and tree-structure filing system
- Version 2.0 (OEM)
- Version 2.1 (OEM)
- Version 2.11 (OEM)
- MS-DOS 3.x
- MS-DOS 4.x - includes a graphical/mouse interface.
- Version 4.00 (OEM)
- Version 4.01 (OEM) - IBM patched Version 4.00 before Microsoft released it. First version to introduce volume serial number when formatting hard disks and floppy disks (Disk duplication also)
- Version 4.01a (OEM)
- MS-DOS 5.x
- Version 5.0 (Retail) - includes a full-screen editor. A number of bugs required reissue.
- Version 5.0a (Retail) - With this release, IBM and Microsoft versions diverge.
- Version 5.0.500 (WinNT) - All Windows NT 32-bit versions ship with files from DOS 5.0
- MS-DOS 6.x
- Version 6.0 (Retail) - Online help through QBASIC. Disk compression and antivirus included.
- Version 6.1 (none) - IBM and Microsoft alternate DOS 6 versions. IBM released 6.3 also.
- Version 6.2 (Retail) - Scandisk as replacement for CHKDSK. Fix serious bugs in DBLSPACE.
- Version 6.21 (Retail) - Stacker-infringing DBLSPACE removed.
- Version 6.22 (Retail) - New DRVSPACE compression.
- MS-DOS 7.x
- Version 7.0 (Win95, 95A) - Support for VFAT long file names. New editor. JO.SYS is an alternative filename of the IO.SYS kernel file and used as such for "special purposes". JO.SYS allows booting from CD-ROM to hard disk.
- Version 7.1 (Win95B - Win98SE) - Support for FAT32 file system. Last general purpose DOS to load Windows.
- MS-DOS 8.0
- Version 8.0 (WinME) - Integrated drivers for faster Windows loading. Four different kernels (IO.SYS) observed.
- Version 8.0 (WinXP) - DOS boot disks created by XP and later contain files from WinME. The internal command prompt still reports version 5.0
Microsoft DOS was released through the OEM channel, until DRI released DR DOS 5.0 as a retail upgrade. With PC DOS 5.00.1, the IBM-Microsoft agreement started to end, and IBM entered the retail DOS market with IBMDOS 5.00.1, 5.02, 6.00 and PC DOS 6.10, 6.30, 7.00 and 2000.
A number of beta versions have surfaced on the Internet, such as 5.0 (a ten-diskette version in the same vein as 4.0), 7.00 beta 1 (based on 6.00), 7.00 beta 2 (based on 6.22). An OEM source package for 6.00, and a late release of 6.2(b) have also been seen. These are not retail versions.
On microcomputers based on the Intel 8086 and 8088 processors, including the IBM PC and clones, the initial competition to the PC DOS/MS-DOS line came from Digital Research, whose CP/M operating system had inspired MS-DOS. In fact, there remains controversy as to whether Q-DOS was more or less plagiarised from early versions of CP/M code. Digital Research released CP/M-86 a few months after MS-DOS, and it was offered as an alternative to MS-DOS and Microsoft's licensing requirements, but at a higher price. Executable programs for CP/M-86 and MS-DOS were not interchangeable with each other; much applications software was sold in both MS-DOS and CP/M-86 versions until MS-DOS became preponderant (later Digital Research operating systems could run both MS-DOS and CP/M-86 software). MS-DOS originally supported the simple .COM, which was modelled after a similar but binary incompatible format known from CP/M-80. CP/M-86 instead supported a relocatable format using the file extension .CMD to avoid name conflicts with CP/M-80 and MS-DOS .COM files. MS-DOS version 2.0 added a more advanced relocatable .EXE executable file format.
Most of the machines in the early days of MS-DOS had differing system architectures and there was a certain degree of incompatibility, and subsequently vendor lock-in. Users who began using MS-DOS with their machines were compelled to continue using the version customized for their hardware, or face trying to get all of their proprietary hardware and software to work with the new system.
In the business world the 808x-based machines that MS-DOS was tied to faced competition from the Unix operating system which ran on many different hardware architectures. Microsoft itself sold a version of Unix for the PC called Xenix.
In the emerging world of home users, a variety of other computers based on various other processors were in serious competition with the IBM PC: the Apple II, early Apple Macintosh, the Commodore 64 and others did not use the 808x processor; many 808x machines of different architectures used custom versions of MS-DOS. At first all these machines were in competition. In time the IBM PC hardware configuration became dominant in the 808x market as software written to communicate directly with the PC hardware without using standard operating system calls ran much faster, but on true PC-compatibles only. Non-PC-compatible 808x machines were too small a market to have fast software written for them alone, and the market remained open only for IBM PCs and machines that closely imitated their architecture, all running either a single version of MS-DOS compatible only with PCs, or the equivalent IBM PC DOS. Most clones cost much less than IBM-branded machines of similar performance, and became widely used by home users, while IBM PCs had a large share of the business computer market.
Microsoft and IBM together began what was intended as the follow-on to MS-DOS/PC DOS, called OS/2. When OS/2 was released in 1987, Microsoft began an advertising campaign announcing that "DOS is Dead" and stating that version 4 was the last full release. OS/2 was designed for efficient multi-tasking — an IBM specialty derived from deep experience with mainframe operating systems — and offered a number of advanced features that had been designed together with similar look and feel; it was seen as the legitimate heir to the "kludgy" DOS platform.
MS-DOS had grown in spurts, with many significant features being taken or duplicated from Microsoft's other products and operating systems. MS-DOS also grew by incorporating, by direct licensing or feature duplicating, the functionality of tools and utilities developed by independent companies, such as Norton Utilities, PC Tools (Microsoft Anti-Virus), QEMM expanded memory manager, Stacker disk compression, and others.
During the period when Digital Research was competing in the operating system market some computers, like Amstrad PC1512, were sold with floppy disks for two operating systems (only one of which could be used at a time), MS-DOS and CP/M-86 or a derivative of it. Digital Research produced DOS Plus, which was compatible with MS-DOS 2.11, supported CP/M-86 programs, had additional features including multi-tasking, and could read and write disks in CP/M and MS-DOS format.
While OS/2 was under protracted development, Digital Research released the MS-DOS compatible DR DOS 5.0, which included features only available as third-party add-ons for MS-DOS (and still maintained considerable internal CP/M-86 compatibility). Unwilling to lose any portion of the market, Microsoft responded by announcing the "pending" release of MS-DOS 5.0 in May 1990. This effectively killed most DR DOS sales until the actual release of MS-DOS 5.0 in June 1991. Digital Research brought out DR DOS 6.0, which sold well until the "pre-announcement" of MS-DOS 6.0 again stifled the sales of DR DOS.
Microsoft had been accused of carefully orchestrating leaks about future versions of MS-DOS in an attempt to create what in the industry is called FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) regarding DR DOS. For example, in October 1990, shortly after the release of DR DOS 5.0, and long before the eventual June 1991 release of MS-DOS 5.0, stories on feature enhancements in MS-DOS started to appear in InfoWorld and PC Week. Brad Silverberg, Vice President of Systems Software at Microsoft and General Manager of its Windows and MS-DOS Business Unit, wrote a forceful letter to PC Week (November 5, 1990), denying that Microsoft was engaged in FUD tactics ("to serve our customers better, we decided to be more forthcoming about version 5.0") and denying that Microsoft copied features from DR DOS:
"The feature enhancements of MS-DOS version 5.0 were decided and development was begun long before we heard about DR DOS 5.0. There will be some similar features. With 50 million MS-DOS users, it shouldn't be surprising that DRI has heard some of the same requests from customers that we have." – (Schulman et al. 1994).
The pact between Microsoft and IBM to promote OS/2 began to fall apart in 1990 when Windows 3.0 became a marketplace success. Much of Microsoft's further contributions to OS/2 also went in to creating a third GUI replacement for DOS, Windows NT.
IBM, which had already been developing the next version of OS/2, carried on development of the platform without Microsoft and sold it as the alternative to DOS and Windows.
As a response to Digital Research's DR DOS 6.0, which bundled SuperStor disk compression, Microsoft opened negotiations with Stac Electronics, vendor of the most popular DOS disk compression tool, Stacker. In the due diligence process, Stac engineers had shown Microsoft part of the Stacker source code. Stac was unwilling to meet Microsoft's terms for licensing Stacker and withdrew from the negotiations. Microsoft chose to license Vertisoft's DoubleDisk, using it as the core for its DoubleSpace disk compression.
MS-DOS 6.0 and 6.20 were released in 1993, both including the Microsoft DoubleSpace disk compression utility program. Stac successfully sued Microsoft for patent infringement regarding the compression algorithm used in DoubleSpace. This resulted in the 1994 release of MS-DOS 6.21, which had disk-compression removed. Shortly afterwards came version 6.22, with a new version of the disk compression system, DriveSpace, which had a different compression algorithm to avoid the infringing code.
Prior to 1995, Microsoft licensed MS-DOS (and Windows) to computer manufacturers under three types of agreement: per-processor (a fee for each system the company sold), per-system (a fee for each system of a particular model), or per-copy (a fee for each copy of MS-DOS installed). The largest manufacturers used the per-processor arrangement, which had the lowest fee. This arrangement made it expensive for the large manufacturers to migrate to any other operating system, such as DR DOS. In 1991, the U.S. government Federal Trade Commission began investigating Microsoft's licensing procedures, resulting in a 1994 settlement agreement limiting Microsoft to per-copy licensing. Digital Research did not gain by this settlement, and years later its successor in interest, Caldera, sued Microsoft for damages. It was believed that the settlement ran in the order of $150m, but was revealed in November 2009 with the release of the Settlement Agreement to be $280m.
Use of undocumented APIs
Microsoft also used a variety of tactics in MS-DOS and several of their applications and development tools that, while operating perfectly when running on genuine MS-DOS (and PC DOS), would break when run on another vendor's implementation of DOS. Notable examples of this practice included:
- Microsoft's QuickPascal released in early 1989 was the first MS product that checked for MS-DOS by modifying the program's Program Segment Prefix using undocumented DOS functions, and then checked whether or not the associated value changed in a fixed position within the DOS data segment (also undocumented). This check also made it into later MS products, including Microsoft QuickC v2.5, Programmer's Workbench and Microsoft C v6.0.
- The (once infamous) AARD code, a block of code in the Windows 3.1 beta installer. It was XOR encrypted, self-modifying, and deliberately obfuscated, using various undocumented DOS structures and functions to determine whether or not Windows really was running on MS-DOS.
- Note that the Windows 3.0 beta code only gave a warning that Windows would not operate properly on a "foreign" OS. It did in fact run just fine on DR DOS 6.0.
- Interrupt routines called by Windows to inform MS-DOS that Windows is starting/exiting, information that MS-DOS retained in an IN_WINDOWS flag, in spite of the fact that MS-DOS and Windows were supposed to be two separate products.
End of MS-DOS
Today, MS-DOS is rarely used for desktop computing. Since the release of Windows 95, it was integrated as a full product used for bootstrapping, troubleshooting, and backwards-compatibility with old DOS games and no longer released as a standalone product.
Windows XP contains a copy of the Windows Me boot disk, stripped down to bootstrap only. This is accessible only by formatting a floppy as an "MS-DOS startup disk". Files like the driver for the CD-ROM support were deleted from the Windows ME bootdisk and the startup files (AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS) no longer had a content. This modified disk was the base for creating the MS-DOS image for Windows XP. Some of the deleted files can be recovered with an undelete tool. With Windows Vista the files on the startup disk are dated 18 April 2005 but are otherwise unchanged, including the string "MS-DOS Version 8 © Copyright 1981-1999 Microsoft Corp" inside
However the only versions of DOS currently recognized as stand-alone OSs, and supported as such by the Microsoft Corporation are DOS 6.0 and 6.22, both of which remain available for download via their MSDN, volume license, and OEM license partner websites, for customers with valid login credentials.
MS-DOS is still used in embedded x86 systems due to its simple architecture and minimal memory and processor requirements. The command line interpreter of NT-based versions of Windows, cmd.exe, maintains most of the same commands and some compatibility with DOS batch files.
Windows command-line interface
All versions of Microsoft Windows have had an MS-DOS like command-line interface (CLI). This could run many DOS and variously Win32, OS/2 1.x and Posix command line utilities in the same command-line session, allowing piping between commands. The user interface, and the icon up to Windows 2000, followed the native MS-DOS interface.
Consumer Windows (up to 3.11, Win9x, WinME) ran as a Graphical User Interface (GUI) running on top of MS-DOS. With Windows 95, 98, and ME the MS-DOS part was integrated, treating both operating systems as a complete package. The command line accessed the DOS command line (usually command.com), through a Windows module (winoldap.mod).
A new line of Windows, (Windows NT), boot through a kernel whose sole purpose is to load Windows. One can not run Win32 applications in the loader system in the manner that OS/2, UNIX or Consumer Windows can launch character mode sessions.
The command session permits running of various supported command line utilities from Win32, MS-DOS, OS/2 1.x and POSIX. The emulators for MS-DOS, OS/2 and POSIX use the host's window in the same way that Win16 applications use the Win32 explorer. Using the host's window allows one to pipe output between emulations.
The MS-DOS emulation is done through the NTVDM (NT Virtual DOS Machine). This is a modified SoftPC (a former product similar to VirtualPC), running a modified MS-DOS 5 (ntio.sys and ntdos.sys). The output is handled by the console DLLs, so that the program at the prompt (cmd.exe, 4nt.exe, tcc.exe), can see the output. Command.com passes most of its commands down to the underlying processor (cmd.exe, 4nt.exe, ...), but is generally not used. If you need commands that rely on TSR programs, you must launch these from command.com. 64-bit Windows does not have either the DOS emulation, or the DOS commands (edit, debug, edlin, kbd16), that come with 32-bit Windows.
The DOS version returns 5.00 or 5.50, depending on which interrupt is used to determine it. Utilities from MS-DOS 5.00 run in this emulation without modification. The very early beta programs of NT show MS-DOS 30.00, but programs running in MS-DOS 30.00 would assume that OS/2 was in control.
The OS/2 emulation is handled through OS2SS.EXE and OS2.EXE, and DOSCALLS.DLL. OS2.EXE is a version of the OS/2 shell (cmd.exe), which passes commands down to the OS2SS.EXE, and input-output to the Windows NT shell. Windows 2000 was the last version of NT to support OS/2. The emulation is OS/2 1.30.
POSIX is emulated through the POSIX shell, but no emulated shell: the commands are handled directly in CMD.EXE.
The Command Prompt is often called the MS-DOS prompt. In part, this was the official name for it in Windows 9x and early versions of Windows NT, and in part because the SoftPC emulation of DOS redirects output into it. Some purists object to this name, because the underlying binaries are Win32 console applications, rather than DOS programs. This confusion does not exist under OS/2 because there are separate DOS and OS/2 prompts, and running a DOS program under OS/2 will launch a separate DOS window to run the application.
All versions of Windows for x86-64 and Itanium architectures no longer include the NTVDM and can therefore no longer natively run MS-DOS or 16-bit Windows applications. There are alternatives in the form of Virtual machine emulators such as Microsoft's own Virtual PC, as well as VMware, DOSBox, and others.
From 1983 onwards, various companies worked on graphical user interfaces (GUIs) capable of running on PC hardware. With DOS being the dominant operating system several companies released alternate shells, e.g. Microsoft Word for DOS, XTree, and the Norton Commander. However, this required duplication of effort and did not provide much consistency in interface design (even between products from the same company).
Later, in 1985, Microsoft Windows was released as Microsoft's first attempt at providing a consistent user interface (for applications). The early versions of Windows ran on top of MS-DOS and its clones. At first Windows met with little success, but this was also true for most other companies' efforts as well, for example GEM. After version 3.0 (1990), Windows gained market acceptance.
Later versions (Windows 95, Windows 98 and Windows Me) used the DOS boot process to launch into protected mode. Basic features related to the file system, such as long file names, were only available to DOS when running as a subsystem of Windows. Windows NT ran independently of DOS but included a DOS subsystem so applications could run in a virtual machine under the new OS. With the latest Windows releases, even dual-booting MS-DOS is problematic as DOS may not be able to read the basic file system.
Several similar products were produced by other companies. In the case of PC DOS and DR DOS, it is common but incorrect to call these "clones". Given that Microsoft manufactured PC DOS for IBM, PC DOS and MS-DOS were (to continue the genetic analogy) "identical twins" that diverged only in adulthood and eventually became quite different products. Although DR DOS is regarded as a clone of MS-DOS, the DR DOS versions appeared months and years before Microsoft's products. (For example, MS-DOS 4, released in July 1988, was followed by DR DOS 5.0 in May 1990. MS-DOS 5.0 came in April 1991, with DR DOS 6.0 being released the following June. MS-DOS 6.0 did not arrive until April 1993, with Novell DOS 7, DR DOS' successor, following the next month. What made the difference in the end was Microsoft's control of the Windows platform and their programming practices which intentionally made Windows appear as if it ran poorly on competing versions of DOS.< DRI (DOS 6 update) had to release interim releases to circumvent Windows limitations inserted artificially, designed specifically to provide Microsoft with an unfair competitive advantage.
These products are collectively referred to as DOS. However, MS-DOS can be a generic reference to DOS on IBM-PC compatible computers.
Physical RAM limit
The maximum physical RAM that MS-DOS 6.22 supports is 64 MB.
Physical hard disk drive limit
The maximum capacity of hard disk drive that MS-DOS 6.22 supports is 8.4 GB or 7.84 GiB (8,422,686,720 bytes or 1,024 cylinders x 255 heads per cylinder x 63 sectors per head x 512 bytes per sector).
- Bad command or file name
- Comparison of DOS operating systems
- DOSKey, MS-DOS utility
- History of Microsoft Windows
- List of DOS commands
- List of Microsoft Windows versions
- List of MS-DOS games
- Microsoft Windows
- MS-DOS API
- Timeline of DOS operating systems
- Win32 console - a text-rendering system akin to MS-DOS
- 4DOS - designed to replace the default command interpreter COMMAND.COM
- Tao ExDOS - Commercial solution for DOS software on new Windows systems.
- MS-DOS Resources - Information on various aspects of MS-DOS including downloads
- Current License Agreement Policies for MS-DOS and Windows
- Tim Paterson on DOS - Paterson wrote the QDOS OS
- MS-DOS: A Brief Introduction
- Richard Bonner's DOS website
- Batfiles - the DOS batch file programming handbook and tutorial
- Arachne graphical browser for DOS
- MS-DOS Reference
- Ralf Brown's Interrupt List
- DOS command overview
- DOSBox, a multiplatform DOS emulator
- Garbo - An MS-DOS program distribution library at the University of Vaasa, Finland
- MS-DOS 6 Technical Reference at Microsoft TechNet
- Promotional video for MS-DOS 5
- List of all released Microsoft Operating Systems and betas
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