George R.R. Martin, author of the popular Game of Thrones fantasy series of recently explained his reasons for using a DOS computer running WordStar 4 by saying, “If I wanted a capital, I would have typed a capital. I know how to work the shift key.”
Days after Marin’s admission, the internet was abuzz with fans of the books and the HBO series, wondering why an author would intentionally choose old tools over modern ones available on Windows or Mac. Many people joked that the old software was partially responsible for the delays in the latest installment to the series, but a closer listen to Martin reveals a number of advantages most writers can relate to.
Martin’s DOS computer isn’t connected to the internet which reduces interruptions (as well as viruses) and allows for more focused writing sessions. WordStar is a simple word processor that stays out of the way, unlike some of today’s software that attempts to correct not only spelling errors but provide grammar suggestions. It can all feel heavy handed compared to the writing tools from 20 years ago. And then there’s DOS. Unlike Windows, DOS doesn’t require weekly updates or patches. DOS was also built in the days before multitasking was prevalent. So while running multiple programs isn’t doable, running a single program like WordStar is right up its alley.
Although there are several DOS variants, Microsoft is responsible for bringing it to the masses by licensing it to early computer builders. MS-DOS was release in the summer of 1981 and supported up through MS-DOS version 8 in 2000. I bought my first computer in 1993 from the now defunct, ZEOS Computers, and it came standard with Windows 3.1 and MS-DOS 6.0. Nearly every game available at that time ran on MS-DOS, and I had little reason to boot into Windows except to look around. Compared to Windows at the time, DOS was stable and fast.
But as Martin has shown there is still a contingency of interest around DOS, so I decided to take a closer look at what, if any, activity and development is taking place around DOS. With a little research I was able to determine that today DOS is primarily being used for three purposes: providing support for legacy bus software, classic DOS games, and embedded systems. This makes a lot of sense because each of these scenarios require lightweight software running close to the hardware, and that’s one thing DOS does very well.
Like many other software products that were conceived pre-Internet, DOS wasn’t envisioned as a network-capable platform. Jim Hall, who kicked off the Free-DOS project over 20 years ago, and is still involved with it today, said, “DOS was designed long before TCP and networks, and it doesn’t do networking in the kernel. Apps now load their own support, and there’s not really any way we’re going to get away from that.” That statement alone places a limit on what DOS can do in an age where we live in Firefox or Chrome and nearly every other application that assumes a persistent Internet connection.
Most companies have long since moved to creating software for Windows, Mac, or Linux. While there is a lot of abandonware available for DOS, there’s not a lot of commercial software still being built. One of the few products I could find was a pharmacy system from National Health Systems that still runs on DOS. One of the most popular DOS applications was WordPerfect, and Columbia University even provides instructions on how to get WordPerfect for DOS running on a Windows 7 or Windows 8 PC. Does anyone else remember accessing Review Codes with an F11 keystroke? Those were simpler times.
So while DOS might not be dead, it’s not likely to be revived for a larger audience anytime soon. Linux has taken over a good portion of the embedded market where DOS used to play. Today’s games are as likely run on console from Sony or Microsoft as they are a desktop PC.
But there will also be a place for DOS in the heart of the tinkerer. Hall captures this well when he says, “I generally think having fun with DOS is an important factor,” he said. “In that sense, it is also a bit like a model train. You can learn to know a lot about it, and you can do a lot with it yourself, but you would not use it for your daily commute.” For those of us who can’t wait for the next Game of Thrones installment, let’s hope DOS sticks around for a while longer.
Photo credit: Javier Cantero via Wikimedia