April 14, 2014

MS-DOS at 30


On the 30th anniversary of MS-DOS, PC Magazine republished the interview with Bill Gates that ran in its February/March 1982 inaugural issue. As I've said before, there's not much about the past I get nostalgic about. One exception is the dawn of the personal computing era.

Gates proves to have been quite insightful about where the technology was headed, such as the need for a microprocessor that could access more memory. Even so, probably even he couldn't have anticipated how inexpensive memory would become.

Now in the 8088 (the Intel 16-bit microcomputer used by IBM), that limit, the logical address space limit, is for all practical purposes gone away. The chip is designed to address up to a megabyte (1 million characters). IBM's announced support for up to a quarter megabyte, that is 256K, and is very much in the relevant range. In other words, that factor will make all the difference in terms of quality end user interface integrated software.

In all fairness, flipping through the first issue (February/March 1982) of PC Magazine (in which the interview appeared), you will see ads for 256 KB RAM expansion cards priced at a gobsmacking $675. And more. That's not factoring in inflation.

While replacing the keyboard on my ThinkPad, I upped the RAM from 1.5 GB to 2 GB. The keyboard and a 1 GB SODIMM (replacing the OEM 512 MB) cost about 50 bucks. Doubling the hard drive capacity wouldn't cost much more but I'm giving that a pass for now.

Well, you'll probably still have local floppies in a lot of cases, but most of the storage size-wise will be in shared file servers--and although optical disk may have had an impact, even at present prices and capacities large (magnetic) disks would suffice. There are 300-megabyte disks down in the $10,000 to $15,000 range now. If you can spread it across 20 users--that is, with a good networking scheme--you could justify it. So, while there ought to be some improvement there, I don't think that we've got any bottleneck even today. Networking is probably one of the big challenges.

I took an introductory PASCAL programming class in the early 1980s and the computer lab had Apple II computers networked just as Gates describes. These days, a 2 TB (terabyte) NAS (Network-attached storage) unit goes for less than $200.

Gates was also spot-on about putting a computer on everybody's desk "for an incredibly low cost." He nailed the importance of the user interface and the commodification of hardware. Unfortunately, he was also right that "we'll be able to write big fat programs."

We can let them run somewhat inefficiently because there will be so much horsepower that just sits there. The real focus won't be who can cram it down it, or who can do it in the machine language. It will be who can define the right end-user interface and properly integrate the main packages.

Gates spends a lot of time talking about BASIC, now a macro language embedded in Office. I wonder if he could have guessed that 30 years later, the bulk of interpreted code would be on the server side, as in 60 million WordPress installations running on top of PHP.

A fair number of which are devoted to pictures of cute cats. Hey, what's a high-tech revolution for?

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Back to the digital future
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