After five tries in 10 years, Microsoft may be getting the hang of it.
Version 5 of the company's Disk Operating System (DOS) for IBM-compatible computers is not only much easier to use than the older versions, but also far more powerful.
DOS 5 atones for many of the sins of its ancestors. It comes with a host of features and accessories that previously had required add-on software from third parties.
Most important, it's the first version that takes advantage of advanced memory handling in the 80286 and 80386 processors that have dominated the market for the past four years.
If you have one of these computers, DOS 5 will give you more memory to run today's complex programs. It even provides rudimentary task-switching, which lets you load several programs at the same time and switch from one to the other with a single keystroke.
Microsoft also has broken with precedent by selling DOS 5 directly to the public, instead of relying on computer manufacturers to sell it with their machines.
The DOS 5 upgrade kit is available in retail stores at a list price of $99, but I picked one up at Egghead Software for $39.95. Even at list price, it's a bargain.
Also, unlike previous releases, DOS 5 was thoroughly tested before being unleashed on the public. Microsoft claims that 7,000 beta testers worked with it for almost a year before its June 11 introduction. For those who know that their computer has something called DOS but don't know exactly what it is, DOS is the underlying software that controls the operations of your machine.
Your computer is essentially a dumb box full of chips. When you turn it on, it looks to its primary disk drive for a program that tells it how to manage the flow of information between the central processor, memory chips, keyboard, monitor, disk drives, printer and the most important device -- you. That underlying program is DOS.
When you type a command and your computer does something -- or gives you some unintelligible error message -- you're really talking to DOS. When you run a program such as WordPerfect, the program communicates with you and your computer through DOS.
The original DOS was a "quick hack," as they say in the trade. Microsoft cobbled it together a decade ago when IBM was searching desperately for an operating system for its new personal computer.
Besides its arcane command syntax -- fine for hackers but mystifying to the average human -- DOS's main limitation was that it allowed only 640K for itself and application programs.
That was fine at a time when computers came with only 64K of memory as standard equipment and 640K commanded a small fortune.
But over the years, application programs (particularly those with graphics) grew more complex. The price of memory chips plummeted, and Intel developed new processors that could access far more memory than the original 8088.
Eventually 640K became a barrier as users tried to cram the operating system, application software, network drivers and a variety of memory resident programs into the same little closet.
Although it doesn't truly break the 640K barrier, DOS 5 makes the best of a bad situation. It also includes new functions and utilities that users of larger mainframe and minicomputer systems have enjoyed for years.
Among its new features:
*On 80286 and 80386 machines with at least a megabyte of RAM, DOS 5 loads itself into high memory that's not normally used by application programs. This results in a gain of at least 45K of usable memory -- a real boon to folks who like memory resident programs such as Sidekick.
*On 80386 machines, DOS 5 will also load device drivers (such as mouse, video and special disk software) into high memory, freeing even more conventional memory for programs.
*DOS 5 has an improved "Shell," a graphic-based control program borrowed from Microsoft Windows that makes it easy to manage files and launch programs without memorizing the operating system's commands.
*Microsoft now includes software that can "undelete" deleted files and "unformat" a disk that has accidentally been formatted. These file security programs, licensed from Central Point Software, were previously available only from third parties.
*Online help is available for all DOS commands. The syntax is as weird as ever, but at least you won't have to consult a manual all the time.
*A new DIR command will search for files across multiple directories, and sort entries by name, time, date or size.
*A real text editor replaces the dreaded EDLIN program, making it possible to create and edit text files (including the batch command files many users employ) quickly and easily.
*A program called DOSKEY lets you recall and edit previous commands, saving untold keystrokes. DOSKEY also will record and save "macros," strings of frequently used commands.