Disks to Downloads, DOS to Dust

Storage

Image by succo from Pixabay

This is another of my “young ‘uns today don’t know how lucky they are” articles, cue the wavy picture and harp music…

When I started with computers you didn’t install anything, nothing had any permanent storage to speak of and software had to be loaded from a cassette or floppy disk every time it was used, as such task switching, a matter of a fraction of a second now involved making a mug of tea.

Move on to the nineties and PCs had gained hard drives and Windows but there were still computers such as Amstrad’s PCW that had a one-at-a-time way of working, the operating system came with whatever you were running because at that time it was what was called a Disk Operating System (DOS), hence MS-DOS. A DOS had a command line into which you typed commands to copy files, delete them, format disks, and other functions. There were reference wheels and cards for all these now archaic commands, I still have mine, unsurprisingly, and if you look you can still find them in Windows though strangely the commandline now runs inside Windows whereas once Windows ran from the commandline.  

Anyway, because PCs, unlike other computers with a specific operating system written for its fixed set of components, have a multitude of differing hardware the OS had to be tailored to each computer and so came along device drivers – programs added to the OS to operate them. Windows, like all modern OSes do more than operate the disks and as such are bigger and more complicated.  Early on displays were pretty much the same and used the same convention for displaying blocks of text, the same applied to printers but soon things became more complicated and later new developments such as CD-ROM drives worked in new ways that the OS was never designed to cope with and more drivers were required. These things were a nightmare to use, you had to manually edit configuration files, decide which part of the limited memory to load the drivers into, and when larger memory became available which went far beyond what the OS originally worked in you needed drivers to operate the higher memory which you could then populate with other drivers and then also use programs that knew if the extended memory was present that they could use it, if you’d configured it correctly. Do this all wrong and nothing would work because nothing had enough memory to work.

No wonder people were terrified of computers, it seemed to be a black art. More like a pain in the art.

Somewhere I still have a copy of PC Today magazine from the middle of 1991 which featured the brand new MS-DOS 5.0 on the cover. In the days when Operating Systems came in shiny cardboard boxes with a manual that listed every command and could be repurposed as a door stop after you upgraded.

Windows improved the situation somewhat but still relied on many of the DOS drivers for CD-ROMs etc until Windows 95 and Windows NT finally relegated the old DOS to a legacy subsystem to run old software, a PC within a PC, a Virtual Machine, though the configuration files still remain for those of us who know what they mean to tweak and those who don’t to Google. As we moved into later eras through 16-bit into 32-bit so memory could just be continuous so at least one problem disappeared.

It was with joy that the time came when Windows would automatically install a new piece of hardware’s drivers from a CD-ROM, except that sometimes it would be allowed to find the drivers itself and others it had to be told where to find them, depending on what the driver and software were for. It was still a huge improvement. In pre-broadband days though you still had to do some work to install the OS. You’d install Windows on a blank PC to be confronted by default drivers which meant a screen display with huge fonts and buttons that could be seen clearly from the next room and no space on the desktop – the dreaded 640×480 resolution (my current monitor has a roomy 1440×900 pixels). From this starting point you had to install the proper video driver so you could see what you were doing, the sound card so you could hear it beeping in complaint and hear the cheery startup sound that was the first thing to find itself disabled in the settings, and anything else unusual. Often this wouldn’t go according to plan and you’d see yellow warning triangles in Device Manager and have to start again – removing and reinstalling drivers, until you had a working PC but less hair.

Today you just download a copy of the Windows 10 disk from the internet, burn it onto a DVD pop it in the drive (or use a USB stick), go into the computers BIOS (basic input/output system) settings – the only throwback to the old days – tell it to boot from the external disk and set it going. As long as you’ve provided it with an internet connection via a wireless or wired network connection it’ll install, use whatever driver it can to connect to the outside world, download all the correct drivers and a couple of hours later you’ve got a working PC. Mostly. It only needs help if you’ve got obscure or old hardware it can’t find drivers for but even then the right ones are often only a download and install away. This is all possible thanks to all the manufacturers working together to try to make the disparate bits of a Windows PC work together.

I should say at this point “other operating systems are available” but these such as the various Linux distributions are similarly streamlined these days.

Beyond the operating system installing software has become even easier, not even a disk is required – I’ve recently installed Norton Security with nothing more than a piece of cardboard with a number on it and a broadband connection.

See, not everything about the older days of computing are better, I do like some progress too. The geek in me though does miss the shiny software boxes.