For System Recovery, DOS Is Still Boss

Even with all its faults--and there are many, starting with a general industry lack of support--DOS is still the preferred operating environment for building a rescue CD to help bring up a crippled system.
One of the huge problems for using DOS as a recovery platform is that support for modern device interfaces such as USB and Firewire is practically non-existent.

Another major problem area for DOS is networking. For starters, there are two different types of network drivers that are commonly used: if you need to access an XP or Samba server then you'll need to use one of the Microsoft clients (see here for a workgroup-class client, and here for a full-scale LAN Manager client, although either will work). But almost all of the other TCP/IP tools for DOS, including things like SSH clients, use a packet driver interface and not the Microsoft sockets API. If you need to use both stacks simultaneously, you have to rely on shim drivers to link them, and you may not have enough memory left for the network applications to run.

The only good news here is that most modern Ethernet cards still come with DOS drivers, presumably because of the large number of Windows 9x users still out there, but this doesn't apply to wireless cards.

The abandonment of DOS seems to be a pretty common phenomenon, actually. As yet another example of this, one of the shareware DOS utilities that I purchased had an immediate and fatal bug in the registration process, indicating that I was probably the first person to actually buy that version of the software. Meanwhile, the folks at Datalight say that they only sell a few dozen licenses for ROM-DOS to individual users per year, and those are known hobbyist customers. (Not to worry, their OEM customers are still buying BIOS-flash tools by the trainload.)

Even though there are still millions of people using Windows 9x systems, and probably half of them are using DOS batch files and various kinds of utilities, they do not seem to be buying much in the way of DOS-based applications or systems--and the market is reacting to this trend accordingly. Remember this tale the next time somebody starts going on about the installed base of some product: DOS has millions of users, and they ain't buying nothin'.

Clearly the industry has moved as far away from DOS as it possibly can--but no further--and the only buyers left anymore are people who need to manipulate the hardware that DOS is best suited to support directly. All the industry really needs to finish the move is a platform that can provide a fast, lightweight character mode interface suitable for poking at disks and system firmware. Linux probably has the most potential here--it can be booted into a lightweight UI pretty quickly, and you can make a small and optimized installation if you know exactly what you need. But it's still a pig compared to DOS.

Until hardware vendors can put a mini-kernel on a floppy with the drivers and tools they need, and as long as the x86 is still being developed and used, we'll probably be stuck with DOS.

Editor's Choice
Samuel Greengard, Contributing Reporter
Cynthia Harvey, Freelance Journalist, InformationWeek
Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter
John Edwards, Technology Journalist & Author
Astrid Gobardhan, Data Privacy Officer, VFS Global
Sara Peters, Editor-in-Chief, InformationWeek / Network Computing