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Less is More: The Orthodox File Manager (OFM) Paradigm

by Dr Nikolai Bezroukov

Content : Foreword : Ch01 : Ch02 : Ch03 : Ch04 : Ch05 : Ch06 : Ch07 : OFM1999 : OFM2004 : OFM2012


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Ch. 3: The History of DOS Orthodox file Managers

Introduction

I am writing this chapter about semi-forgotten but very influential epoch in programming. There have always been a gifted young programmers, and there always will be. But PC revolution was a unique period that probably will never be repeated. It was a real revolution in programming despite the fact that DOS was a pretty primitive OS, actually a program loader and a couple of dozens of utilities: PC was the first computer that gave programmer unlimited time to develop their own programs as well as a large scale social activities around it in the form of PC user groups. And at the beginning the field was quite open for anybody with talent to make his/her mark: it was era of re-invention of old concepts on a new level and creation of new one, kind of programming gold rush.  Companies like Borland and Lotus were created in garages before they became large players.  A combination of qualities of the DOS and rich software landscape it created still attract people to it more then 10 years after it demise. In a way this chapter is a small contribution to the legitimizing the enormous scope of the DOS contribution to the programming art. People say that form liberates, and it looks like working with primitive OS really liberate programmers to do their best and paradoxically to a certain extent enhances not diminishes their creative abilities. And it does not surprise me that abandonware movement is going pretty strong.

Today's computers are much faster, run much more complex OSes but with Internet there is no longer social breeding ground like PC users groups anymore, places where individual programmers and groups can develop and hone their craft.  Many such groups were publishing their own newsletters which permit marketing of software by regional software developers. There is simply much less reason to drive one of two hours to such a meeting in order to see new versions of software and exchange your own software with the members of the club. Floppies were the first really democratic medium for software delivery and dramatically lowered the barrier of entry for small firms and individual programmers.  DOS application development history is a tale of raw determination, jealousy, ruthlessness, round-the-clock exhaustion, close calls, and the numerous successes and failures of the people chain which made it the most popular OS of the time. They all were and are very talented programmers being molded by the events and hardware of the times, and in this chapter I tried to reflect on that  past period (in Norton Commander story probably more then in others).  I hope that this might inspire some readers to try one or several DOS OFM managers themselves.

Due to them along with purely commercial software development shareware software development industry was quickly created.  The Association of Shareware Professionals (ASP) was formed in April 1987  and was pretty influential.

Now with Internet as the main communication medium and the ability to download anything directly made  programmers more isolated and more working in his or her bedroom or office; there is less opportunity for new ideas to spark and made a huge influence.  In a way programming is a social activity and it benefit greatly from face-to-face contacts and face-to-face discussions.

Also modern tools and libraries allow writing of pretty complex programs by even untalented/semi-talented people. As a result there is a solid layer of mediocre products on the market, making it harder for the cream to rise to the top. This is actually true for open source programming too.

The economics of programming changed too.  First PC start-ups operated in the untapped market with phenomenal growth and were run by maverick programmers who can instantly recognize the talent and were more willing to give freedom and cultivate programmers own suggestions into commercial products. Barrier of entry was also much lower then now. That's how Norton Commander was born: Peter Norton saw the potential and gave his OK for the product. In the current start-ups its much more faceless and you more need to perform a given role in a scheme defines by the founder(s); it also more about money and if start-up cannot make profit for venture investors with the initial version, it rarely get a second chance. 

DOS was one of first really affordable operating systems. Digital Research wanted $495 for CP/M-86. IBM sold PC-DOS was $40 and many software developers found it easier to port existing CP/M software to DOS than to the new version of CP/M. Since IBM's $39.95 DOS was far cheaper than anyone else's alternative everyone bought DOS. Formally the IBM PC shipped without an operating system.  IBM didn't start bundling DOS until the second generation AT/339 came out.

Until its acquisition of QDOS and development of MS DOS of its base Microsoft had been mainly a vendor of computer programming languages. It stated with BASIC interpreter: Gates and co-founder Paul Allen had written Microsoft BASIC and were selling it on disks and tape mostly to PC hobbyists.  Later they added several other languages.  But due to the tremendous success of MS DOS Microsoft became the operating systems company. As PC became the most popular personal computer, revenue from its sales fueled Microsoft's phenomenal growth, and MS-DOS was the key to company's rapid emergence as the dominant firm in the software industry. This product continued to be the largest single contributor to Microsoft's income well after it had become more famous for Windows. 

The original version of DOS (version 1.0) was released in 1981 and quickly superseded by newer versions due to phenomenal speed of development by Microsoft. For several years they produced a new version each year and each version contained significant enhancements: 

Additions and improvements in subsequent versions included support for multiple hard disk partitions, for disk compression and for larger partitions as well as an improved disk checking program, improved memory management, a disk defragmenter and an improved text editor.

In spite of its very small size and relative simplicity, it is one of the most successful operating systems that has been developed.  Paradoxically this simple system was more popular then all versions of Unix combined despite the fact that Unix is much more complex and richer OS or may be because of that.  Due to mass market created by DOS and PCs the quality of DOS applications was very high and in most cases they simply wiped the floor of their Unix counterparts. DOS has more then a dozen variant with three main: MS DOS (Microsoft), PC DOS (IBM) and DR DOS (Digital Research, the authors of DR-DOS).

DOS history outline

Although many of the features were copied from UNIX and CP/M, MS-DOS was a distinct OS that surpassed Unix in the command line interface sophistication mainly due to the standardization of  PC keyboard  and direct control of the screen.

DOS  OFM implementations were historically first and are still  important as they can be used in any DOS emulator on other operating systems like Linux.  Small is beautiful and DOS OFMs like DN, Norton Commander and Volkov Commander will forever remain the classic utilities, a powerful testament to the talent and skills of the OFM pioneers.

Of course, I am unable to review all implementations of the DOS period of OFM development, but I will try to cover the most prominent ones. We will also briefly consider OS/2 implementations with OS/2 another interesting but also extinct  OS.

The selection is somewhat subjective and biased by the value of a particular implementation to the development of the OFM paradigm. But as a rule the most important implementations were also the most popular. BTW in Eastern Europe Norton Commander interface was the standard interface for DOS, to the extent that many users would not be able to recognize regular DOS interface as a "legitimate" DOS.  As NC (2.0 and 3.0 but not 4.0) was considered to be classic by many Eastern European assembler programmers people disassembled Norton Commander to recreate libraries in order to see how it was written.  Unfortunately John Socha's famous book  Peter Norton's Assembly Language Book for the IBM PC  was not available in Russian translation at this time.

The DOS line of OFMs was the dominant line probably until 1994 or so. That changed only with the introduction of Windows 95 and Windows NT.  We will not discuss Win32 implementations (FAR, Total Commander, Norton Commander for Windows) in this chapter. They will be discussed in Chapter 5

Please note that some  DOS implementation migrated to Win32 (NC, DN), but some like Volkov Commander were never ported to Win32 API.

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