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Say goodbye to the MS-DOS command prompt

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols | Dec. 7, 2016
It had a good 36-year run, but its day is done

My very first technology article, back in 1987, was about MS-DOS 3.30. Almost 30 years later, I’m still writing, but the last bit of MS-DOS, cmd.exe — the command prompt — is on its way out the door.

It’s quite possible that you have been using Microsoft Windows for years — decades, even — without realizing that there’s a direct line to Microsoft’s earliest operating system or that an MS-DOS underpinning has carried over from one Windows version to another — less extensive with every revision, but still there nonetheless. Now we’re about to say goodbye to all of that.

Interestingly, though, there was not always an MS-DOS from Microsoft, and it wasn’t even dubbed that at birth. The history is worth reviewing now that the end is nigh.

Back in 1980, the ruling PC operating system was Digital Research’s CP/M for the z80 processor. At the same time, Tim Patterson created Quick and Dirty Operating System (QDOS). This was a CP/M clone with a better file system for the hot new processor of the day, the 8086. At the time, no one much cared.

Until, that is, IBM decided to build an 8086-based PC. For this new gadget, IBM needed to settle on programming languages and an operating system. It could get the languages from a small independent software vendor called Microsoft, but where could it get an operating system?

The obvious answer, which a 25-year-old Bill Gates seconded, was to go straight to the source: CP/M’s creator and Digital Research founder, Gary Kildall. What happened next depends on whom you believe. But whether Kildall was really out flying for fun when IBM came by to strike a deal for CP/M for the x86 or not, he didn’t meet with IBM, and they didn’t strike a deal.

So IBM went back to Microsoft and asked it for help in finding an operating system. It just so happened that Paul Allen, Microsoft’s other co-founder, knew about QDOS. Microsoft subsequently bought QDOS for approximately $50,000 in 1981. Then, in short order, IBM made it one of the PC’s operating systems, Microsoft renamed QDOS to MS-DOS, and, crucially, it got IBM to agree that Microsoft could sell MS-DOS to other PC makers. That concession was the foundation on which Microsoft would build its empire.

Late last month, in Windows 10 Preview Build 14791, the command prompt was put out to pasture. Dona Sarkar, head of the Windows Insider Program, wrote, “PowerShell is now the defacto command shell from File Explorer. It replaces Command Prompt (aka, cmd.exe).”

That “defacto” suggests that it’s not all over for the command prompt. And it’s true that you can still opt out of the default by opening Settings > Personalization > Taskbar, and turning “Replace Command Prompt with Windows PowerShell in the menu when I right-click the Start button or press Windows key+X” to “Off.”


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