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The acronym DOS stands for disk operating system, an operating system component for computers that provides the abstraction of a file system resident on hard disk or floppy disk secondary storage. In some cases, the disk operating system was called DOS, and on the PC compatible platform, an entire family of operating systems was called DOS
DOS for IBM PC compatibles
In particular, DOS refers to the family of closely-related operating systems which dominated the IBM PC compatible market for the decade between 1985 and 1995: PC-DOS, MS-DOS, DR-DOS, FreeDOS, OpenDOS, PTS-DOS, and several others. Of these, MS-DOS from Microsoft became the most widely used.
MS-DOS (and the IBM PC-DOS which was licensed therefrom), and its predecessor, QDOS, was a successor to CP/M (Command Processor / (for) Microcomputers)—which was the dominant operating system for 8-bit Intel 8080 and Zilog Z80 based microcomputers.
DOS was one of the first operating systems for the PC compatible platform, and the first on that platform to gain widespread use (it was still widespread more than 10 years later). This was a quick and messy affair (the variant MS-DOS, sometimes colloquially referred to as Messy DOS, was developed from QDOS, which literally meant "Quick and Dirty Operating System").
IBM-PCs were only distributed with PC-DOS, whereas PC compatible computers from nearly all other manufacturers were distributed with MS-DOS. For the early years of this operating system family, PC-DOS was almost identical to MS-DOS. More recently, free versions of DOS such as FreeDOS and OpenDOS have started to appear.
Early versions of Microsoft Windows were little more than a graphical shell for DOS, and later versions of Windows were tightly integrated with MS-DOS. It is also possible to run DOS programs under OS/2 and Linux using virtual-machine emulators.
Because of the long existence and ubiquitousness of DOS in the world of the PC-compatible platform (DOS compatible programs were made well into the 90's), DOS was often considered to be the native operating system of the PC compatible platform.
Accessing hardware under DOS
The operating system offered a hardware abstraction layer that although adequate for developing character-based applications was woefully inadequate for accessing most of the hardware (such as the graphics hardware). This led to application programmers accessing the hardware directly. The result of this was that each application would have to have a set of device drivers written for it to use the various types of hardware on offer (different printers, etc.), and when some new hardware was released, the hardware manufacturers would have to make sure that device drivers for their hardware for the popular applications became available.
DOS and other PC operating systems
Early versions of Microsoft Windows were "shell-type" programs that ran under DOS. Later versions were launched under DOS but "extended" it by going into protected mode. Still later versions of MS Windows ran independently of DOS but included much of the old code such that it could run in virtual machines under the new OS and the latest versions of MS Windows are continually dropping ever more of the DOS ancestry. Windows Me was the last Microsoft OS to run on DOS.
Under Linux (running on x86-based systems) it's possible to run copies of DOS and many of its clones under dosemu (a Linux native virtual machine program for running real mode programs). There are a number of other emulators for running DOS and/or DOS-based software under various versions of UNIX, even on non-x86 platforms; one such emulator is DOSBox.
See also: List of DOS commands
Reserved device names under DOS
There are reserved device names in DOS that cannot be used as filenames regardless of extension; these restrictions also affect several Windows versions, in some cases causing crashes and security vulnerabilities.
A partial list of these reserved names is: AUX, COM, COM0, COM1, COM2, COM3, ..., COM8, COM9, CON, LPT1, LPT2, NUL, and PRN.
Drive naming scheme
Under Microsoft's DOS operating system and its derivatives drives are referred to by identifying letters. Standard practice is to give the first floppy drive the letter "A" and begin listing other storage drives, such as hard disks and CD-ROMs, with "C." Other operating systems refer to the same hardware with alternative naming schemes. Linux for instance is usually configured to refer to the floppy drives as "/dev/fd[n]". The equivalent to the "B" drive under Linux is thus "/dev/fd1" (the "A" drive being "/dev/fd0").
DOS for other computers
Prior to (and to some extent concurrently with) the development of the IBM PC compatible family of microcomputers, several other operating systems for other architectures were already known as DOS, notably:
- The DOS initial/simple operating system for the IBM System/360 family of mainframe computers (it later became DOS/VSE, and was eventually just called VSE).
- The DOS operating system for DEC PDP-11 minicomputers (this OS and the computers it ran on were nearly obsolete by the time PCs became common, with various descendents and other replacements).
- The DOS operating system for the Apple Computer's Apple II family of computers. This was the primary operating system for this family from 1979 with the introduction of the floppy disk drive until 1983 with the introduction of ProDOS; many people continued using it long after that date. Usually it was called Apple DOS to distinguish it from MS-DOS.
- Commodore DOS, which was used by 8-bit Commodore computers. Unlike most other DOS systems, it was integrated into the disk drives, not loaded into the computer's own memory.
- Atari DOS, which was used by the Atari 8-bit family of computers. The Atari OS only offered low-level disk-access, so an extra layer called DOS was booted off of a floppy that offered higher level functions such as filesystems.
- Richard Bonner's DOS website
- Batfiles: The DOS batch file programming handbook and tutorial
- MS-DOS Reference — Not just for MS-DOS but also for other DOSses on the PC platform.
- A Brief Timeline of DOS
- Ralf Brown's Interrupt List
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