About me: PC Software History (OS)

This page is to follow my “PC Hardware History” page. I will provide a bit of a background to my experiences with the PC, from a software/operating system perspective. This probably serves no other purpose than another excuse to head down memory lane.

MS-DOS

My first PC, the IBM XT, had two 360kb floppy drives, no hard drive and a whopping 512kb RAM. To boot up the PC, I would have to stick in Disk 1 of 2 for my Microsft DOS 3.1. The boot process would take about a minute or two. Once booted up, all you would see was a simple “a:\” prompt. I had a couple of floppies that had come with my PC. There were two with games, and another two with utilities. The games disks were labelled “Action Games” and “Sports Games”. I was ten or eleven at this point, and this was new and exciting stuff for me! I remember sticking in the “Action Games” disk, and doing what was written on the sleeve of the disk by whichever computer guy sold this PC to my family. “type para.exe to run Parachute game”. I remember the parachute game being such an exciting game! I spent hours playing it, swinging the cannon left and right shooting these parachutists coming down at you. You really had to have an imagination back then. I could have sworn those parachutists had faces that grimaced when they were shot…when in fact it was about eight pixels put together in black and white! Sound effects consisted of “beep” and white noise for an explosion!

I remember the day I was told about “DIR”. This opened up new worlds for me! Loading up the games floppies would now entail an extra step “DIR”…now I could see lots of files! I tried running every one of them. I realised a couple things that day. 1. If a file ends with EXE or COM then it can run. 2. fdisk.exe is not a game!

Then came my first PC with a harddrive, a super fast 80286 processor, and extended memory (two whole megabyte of them!). I was still using DOS, but by this point I was up to DOS 6.22. I had an Adlib (clone) sound card, which totally blew my mind. I mean, real sounding synthetic music, right out of my computer! Awesome. I had every MOD file going, these were exciting times. I had also learnt at this point batch and Basic scripting. You had to have a custom menu if you were cool. I had myself a fantastic menu, check it out:

**********************
    super cool menu!
**********************
1) Games
2) Utilities
3) Music
4) Exit
**********************

Totally awesome! Each number corresponded with a batch file I created that would either display another menu or open an application (i.e. 1.bat would load a “menu” of games). The exit button always had to be there, although it was fairly redundant, because all it did was a CLS (clearscreen)…the prompt was already down there!

There were two things that you would be constantly fighting for in these early days of computing. Base memory availability and hard drive space. Base memory was the initial memory that the PC had. This was limited to 640kb. Extended memory was generally in the region of 2mb to 8mb (more than that would have been ridiculous! A game would NEVER need more than 8mb of RAM!). So, why was the 640kb so important when you had mb’s of other memory? Executable files needed to run from this memory space. After DOS had loaded and any other files that were needed on boot up, you were left with just over 450kb. So, you had to get a bit clever with things, and load “himem.sys” and “DOS=HIGH, UMB” at startup. Felt like such an achievement to get over 600kb free base/conventional memory after running “mem”. Then of course you have the harddrive space. I had 20mb hard drive. You never have enough space, but 20mb, come on! A friend of mine told me about this application called Stacker, version 3. Damnit! Why the hell did I only find out about this after 2 versions have already been out?! It took me over 3 hours to “Stackerise” my harddrive. After Stacker performed it’s magic, I suddenly had a whopping 40mb of hard drive space! This was amazing to me…until I started putting software back on my PC. That 40mb kept dropping, and dropping. By the time I had put 18mb of software on my PC, my 40MB Stackered drive, was only a 28mb drive. I thought to myself, at least I have that extra 8mb…not thinking for a second the drop in the performance of my computer, which was now running at about half the speed it should because of all the compressing and decompressing it was constantly doing!

Windows 3.11

This will be a short topic.

I got a copy of this from a friend, he gave me his original Windows install “stiffy” disks…all 19 of them! I formatted my hard drive completely…I knew this would take a bit of time (about 45 minutes). I made myself some lunch, to eat in front of the computer while I installed this amazing operating system that allowed you to use a “mouse” thingy. I owned a mouse. I had never used the mouse. I was so excited to use the mouse! So, I have a plate of sandwiches, I got myself comfortable in my chair…the format was done, I put the first disk in and rebooted. My sandwiches were finished by the 5th disk. By the 19th disk, it was dinner time! Over 4 hours to install…This had better be worth it. After dinner, I rushed back to my PC, booted for the first time into Windows. I hated it, hated every little thing about it (except the mouse…that was cool…oh and solitaire). It took over 8 minutes to boot into Windows, everything ran dog slow, and my hard drive was full so I couldn’t install anything! I removed it, and went back to DOS 6.22. The end.

Windows 95

I was hesitatant, why would I want to use Windows 95, when DOS does everything I need, plus my menu’s were really rocking now:

. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-
`-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `
Da Rockin’ Menu
. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-
`-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `

1.Games
11. California Games
12. Montezumo’s Revenge
13. Kings Quest
14. Police Quest 2
2.Utilities
21. PC Cillian
22. Norton Utilities
23. Paint Shop Pro

. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-. ,-
`-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `-‘ `

But I took the plunge. The biggest reason was because I had just bought my brand spanking new Intel Pentium 200 with MMX. To use all this power, I needed an operating system that would allow me to. Plus if I wanted to play any of the new games or use any of the new applications out there, I needed Windows.

Windows 95 was good. Yes, it had problems. BSOD’s at least once or twice a week. The cause of this was normally a breeze coming in from an open window, or possibly because I blinked a bit quickly. Also there were the problems with Plug and Pray…sorry, Plug and Play. Sometimes it worked well…I could plug and unplug my speakers multiple times, and no problems WHATSOEVER.

I did like this OS though…I still had much love for DOS, and would use it alot still, from the command shell. Windows made everything a whole lot easier. This was probably part of the problem I had with it. I am sure if you, like myself, grew up using DOS, having to configure your sound cards manually, getting the IRQ’s right and having to play with dip switches to fight the address conflicts, then you would also have a bit of resentment for an OS that allowed the average Joe to just boot up, and everything works…sort of automatically. It took away some of the mystery and some of the art of working with computers.

Windows 98

I never installed Windows 98 on any of my PC’s. This was because I really had a problem with the “fluff” that was added. It was basically Windows 95 with fancy skins and themes. This was far more of a resource hog. Living in South Africa, I couldn’t just upgrade my computer any time a new OS or game demanded it. If I had the money, I probably would have gone to Windows 98. But again, this is probably a common theme with me, I didn’t like the dumbing down. Even though I felt Windows 95 was a dumbing down of DOS, I thought the same about Windows 98 being a dumbing down of Windows 95. I like a bit of a challenge, I don’t like to just have everything handed to me on a platter. Networking was a challenge, the quirks of Windows 95 were fun to work out. Of course, when an upgrade like 98 comes out, it irons those quirks out…suddenly all the knowledge you have built up is made redundant!

I had a lot of experience with Windows 98 though, it was the most popular operating system to date. The average user loved it. It was pretty looking and powerful on the right hardware, and much less likely to crash than Win95. I did like what it had on offer, there were many improvements over Windows95. The networking was much improved, and the plug and play actually worked (mostly…if you had old enough hardware!). I think of Windows 95 and Windows 98 as equivalent to the Windows 2000 and Windows XP debate I will bring up a bit later.

On the whole, good step up from Microsoft.

Windows NT

Another short topic. This was possibly the biggest step Microsoft ever made. Windows NT brought the most stable kernel yet. All Windows versions up ot this point were built on the DOS kernel. So in effect, Windows NT was the first true 32 bit operating system. Not a 32 bit operating system, built on a 16 bit framework, on top of an 8 bit kernel, by a 2 bit company. (No, I am not a Microsoft hater, but too easy to jump on the bandwagon, eh kids?)

Windows NT was the most stable OS yet. Well, technically DOS was, and always will be the most stable operating system. You could have that command prompt sitting there flashing for years on end…Only thing that would make it crash was hardware failure! This was probably because absolutely nothing was happening at this point, just blink blink blink blink! Unlike todays operating systems…is your ipod plugged in? Is there an update from Microsoft? Can Realplayer take some more ram (it probably will anyway)? Is the ipod plugged in yet? Ping? Anything happening on the USB ports? etc etc etc… But Windows NT was just rock solid. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t perfect. I mean, it wasn’t actually meant for the home user, it was built for business use. It had limited compatibility with games and hardware.

I loved this operating system mostly for one reason, it led to the creation of my favourite operating system ever, Windows 2000.

Windows 2000

I used Windows 2000 for over 5 years. The longest I have had an operating system installed on my main computer. There was never a good enough reason for me to change. It ran everything I wanted to run, it ran efficiently, it was perfect.

Windows 2000 was built using the Windows NT kernel. So we had the stability of WinNT, but the ability to run modern games, and install almost any hardware. I used Windows 2000 on 3 different computers, each more powerful than the one before. I had the choice of going to XP, but never did it. I saw XP as a fluffy version of Windows 2000. The same view I had with Windows 95 to Windows 98. I liked the simple Start bar, the simple control panel. I had to use XP on a laptop I had for a while, I disabled all the fluff. I made the tool bar look like the classic toolbar. And tried to get rid of as much of the superfluous crud. Problem is, the memory and CPU footprint was still huge, almost double what a clean install of Windows 2000 was.

There isn’t much more to say about Windows 2000. It was just that good. I would leave my PC on 24/7, and it would never just reboot itself, or start memory hogging. Only crashes I remember having was with games that were badly made, or applications causing issues. These crashes were inevitably recoverable. The threads were kept seperate from the kernel, and this meant glorious computing! If Microsoft hadn’t stopped supporting it, or providing updates I would probably still be using it now. Well, that is a lie actually. I am about to say something that is not common perception or opinion…I love Vista! But first…

Windows XP

I know why this operating system was made. I understand the marketting reasons. I understand the appeal. From a technical standpoint, I just don’t get it. Windows 2000 has the same features. There are artifical restrictions set by Microsoft to limit what will run on Windows 2000. For example…there is no technical reason for Internet Explorer 7 not to work on Windows 2000…this is purely a marketting decision.

Windows 2000 was just far sleeker, and far more efficient, in my opinion of course!

Windows ME

Yes, I know, this should come before Windows XP.

WHAT A LOAD OF ABSOLUTE CRAP! What the hell was Microsoft thinking? Windows ME was built (badly!) on top of the Windows 98. This came out after Windows 2000. I bought a machine that had this preloaded. I wiped it off within 2 hours of use. Complete waste of time…an embarressment!

Windows Vista

I am sure you see a pattern here, I am always hesitant to change to a newer operating system. Especially right in the beginning when the inevitable bugs are around. However, Vista I have been excited for, for a long time! A whole new kernel, new look and the sexy Aero desktop.

When I finally got Vista, I was not dissapointed. It was drop dead gorgeous. The start button is finally innovative…Click “start”, then start typing part of what app you need press return, and voila your app is launched. No clicking on the different sections/sub sections. The Aero desktop is awesome. Plug and play, is TRULY plug and play. Buy decent name brand hardware, newer than 3 years, and it will work…ok, it might work.

I have had problems with it, but slowly they are being resolved with driver updates and Microsoft updates. I have it on my desktop and laptop PC. This is as big a change as Microsoft made when going to Windows NT.

The upsides of Vista far outweight the downsides. There is still a way to go for it to be perfect, and it will probably take a whole new iteration of Vista to make the necessary changes…but it is exciting what will come based on what is already here!

Conclusion

Yes, this is a Microsoft heavy article. I have used other operating systems, but the majority of my experiences have been with Microsoft operating systems. There will be an article in the future on something I am very excited about, which is based on Linux. I think it will be huge: Linux MCE (Media Center Edition). This blows Microsofts attempts out of the water…It is miles ahead in terms of home media center PC control (and much much more!)

Watch out for my next article, talking about the history of applications I have used, including programming languages, Internet, Chat, BBS’s, etc etc etc.

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