May 2002

For almost a dozen years, we have heard the steady sound of a bell tolling. A stable, reliable operating system being used by millions of people was going to just disappear. It would die an ignominious death due to lack of support, limited popularity, and the absence of compatible products. Nobody would have to "kill" it; it would simply fade away. It was only a matter of time before essentially nobody would be using it, so it was safe for computer magazines to ignore it and for industry wonks to poke fun at it.

Surprise! That operating system turned out to be a different product: DOS.

I have a "premium" client who runs a chain of auto service shops. Being the sharp cookie that he is, he happily runs a 100% Microsoft-free enterprise on the desktop, at least as far as his accounting and billing mechanisms are concerned. (Sure, there's a single box running the W-product in a corner of one shop, but it's somebody else's headache.) The gentleman in charge of these shops can close each night's accounts with a brief flurry of activity, as multiple printers clank out synchronized reports and accurately calculated summaries. And it's all done with DOS.

Now we're not talking about the monopolist's DOS. This is pure IBM DOS, so we don't have to worry about some kind of goofy bugs being left in the product. IBM spent a lot of time and effort to be able to declare their DOS Y2K-ready, and the product works fine. But whether from IBM or from that convicted monopoly company, DOS has been clearly marginalized and forced off of the information highway.

I found this out a couple of weeks ago, as I attempted to find an effective backup system to replace the client's aging DOS-based tape drives. First I looked at Iomega products, but the article about "click of death" made me turn away in disgust. Then I looked at Syquest, but they had just discontinued the 230MB EZ-Flyer. I decided not to go with tape drives, because I wanted a drive-letter-based system in order to be able to use off-the-shelf DOS-based backup software with it. This left me with the option of using a CD-RW drive and DOS drivers. I thought that I had finally come up with a cheap and easy solution.

Then I got even worse news. Not only were hardware makers discontinuing the low-end backup devices, but software makers were refusing to sell DOS versions of their products. Novastor told me they would not be supporting or selling DOS products any longer. Other DOS-based software vendors seemed to just disappear as they got swallowed by better-financed, bigger software companies. I was beginning to see a trend, and I didn't like it.

At the same time, I noticed that I could find plenty of native OS/2-based backup products. Compatible hardware was relatively easy to find, and compatible software came in several OS/2-friendly varieties. Novastor did not seem to be pushing OS/2 versions any more, but Pegasus Systems was still selling their OS/2 backup utility, as were many others. I began to realize that OS/2 was weathering the storm quite well, but DOS was being ignored and forgotten.

There seems to be a few reasons for this situation. For one thing, OS/2 has always been directed toward the larger companies, for whom backups are a dogmatic requirement or mandate. Also, OS/2 users have come to expect that they will have to pay a premium in order to get products for the best platform available instead of the monopoly platforms. And OS/2 applications have a built-in constituency of vocal users that DOS just does not have.

Furthermore, IBM has shown that it is continuing to provide support and updates for this OS. We just don't see even the most rudimentary efforts at enhancement of DOS coming from Microsoft. So we can conclude that from both a supplier and a power-user perspective, OS/2 has become the survivor platform that DOS did not. Sure, there are still millions of dedicated DOS systems out there, and obviously there are still satisfied DOS users. But OS/2 is becoming a more viable platform with a longer future and more options than DOS.

So installed base isn't everything. The depth and the intensity of support for a platform will often outweigh the sheer numbers of users. Now, all I have to do is figure out whether I should nudge my customer upward to the futuristic OS/2 system, or try to squeeze a few more years out of the dead-end DOS platform.

Most recent revision: April 28, 2002
Copyright © 2002, Tom Nadeau
All Rights Reserved.