Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 154 / JULY 1993 / PAGE 54

Grasping power. (DOS is an acceptable operating system for many applications) (Column)
by Tony Roberts

Overcoming fear of the DOS prompt just takes a little understanding.

Windows may get all the attention these days, but DOS-based computing is still alive and well. Just because a computer doesn't have the horsepower to run Windows applications doesn't mean it's a candidate for the landfill. Jay Atlas, a reader who is a professor of philosophy at Pomona College in Claremont, California, made this point to me recently during an exchange we had over Internet.

Atlas contends the most homeowners, small businesses, and students in particular can get by just fine without getting all wrapped up in Windows. I have to agree. Although the point-and-click environment makes a computer a little easier to use, there's a great deal of overhead (fast processor, fast hard disk, lots of RAM) involved in attaining that ease of use.

If you're into desktop publishing, multimedia, CAD, or graphics design, then you probably need Windows and Windows software. But if your computing needs are less lofty and you're willing to eschew the glitz and glamour that the latest machines offer, you'll discover that even an 80286 with 1MB of memory can be a powerful workhorse.

Let's look at what a DOS machine can do.

Word processing. Most people I know use their computers for writing, and as far as I'm concerned, no graphical application compares with DOS when it comes to word processing. I'm not talking about type styles and headlines; I'm talking about content. A student writing a term paper should be more concerned with what words say than how they look. The same can be said for a businessperson preparing a business plan. Parents will appreciate a plain and simple letter just as much as one gussied up with fancy fonts and dingbats.

Telecommunications. Even if you have the fastest computer on earth, your telecommunications progress is measured by the speed of your modem--1200, 2400, or 9600 bps. A modem and telecommunications software provide a gateway to vast quantities of information. Sign up for GEnie or CompuServe and tap into whatever field of data interest you there. For example, owners of small businesses can learn to avoid numerous stumbling blocks and pitfalls with information found on GEnie's Home Office/Small Business RoundTable. DOS computers telecommunicate so well that several Windows users I know have set up their older, slower computers as telecommunications stations.

Database applications. Today's newest database software has gone graphical, allowing you to include a digitized photo with each employee record, but most of us have database needs that are far less demanding. Mainly, we want to manage an address and phone list for a few friends, associates, and customers. There are numerous DOS application that do this well--and fast.

So there's still plenty that can be done at the DOS prompt, but therein lies the problem: the DOS prompt, the C:/ with the bad reputation.

I won't deny that DOS can be cumbersome and difficult to use, but the same can be said for a sewing machine or a power saw. Using any tool properly requires an understanding of the process and the expected outcome. For example, a seamstress understands how to use a sweing machine to assemble a garment. The sewing machine is a great tool, but it can't be put on autopilot. The operator is required to use judgment, make decisions, and decide what steps will be completed in what order.

Computer users get in trouble with the DOS prompt when they try to engage the autopilot--they try to memorize commands rather than to understand processes. For example, I'm continually amazed at how troublesome the DOS subdirectory structure is for most computer users. Let's look at a simple example. On our disk, we have the root directory, C:/, and two subdirectories, DIR-1 and DIR-2.

Assume you're working in DIR-1 and you want to get to DIR-2. If you enter cd dir-2, all you'll get is the message Invalid Directory because there's no subdirectory named DIR-2 that branches off the current subdirectory (DIR-1). To avoid this frustration, you've learned that when changing directories, you must first go back to the root directory and then change to the target directory. So you type cd / to get to the root directory and then cd dir-2 to change to DIR-2.

Mission accomplished, but without full understanding of what's happening. What you really need to know is that the full name for DIR-2 is C:/DIR-2. The backslash is important; it represents your disk's root directory. When you know that DIR-2 is a branch of the root directory, you can easily switch to it from any subdirectory by typing cd/dir-2. In this case, the CD command uses the root directory (/) instead of the current directory as the starting point in looking for the DIR-2 subdirectory.

If you're computing at the DOS prompt and feeling blue, it's time to snap out of it. Commit yourself to understanding the processes, and you'll discover you have a most helpful tool at hand.