Like your uncle's 1972 Buick, the DOS operating system is rusty and gets lousy mileage. But as long as it gets you where you're going, who needs a CD player and fuel injection?
Millions of personal computer users are taking such a view of graphical user interfaces like Windows. Having finally mastered DOS enough to maneuver around a hard disk, type and print out a letter, and maybe calculate a spreadsheet, many users say they can find no good reason to disrupt everything because Microsoft Corp. says the future is calling.
Also, for millions of people, Windows would require adding more memory, possibly better video and maybe a larger hard disk. And then, of course, there's the business of the mouse.
"The graphical user interface requires more firepower," said Kendall Callas, a PC consultant and DOS user, and recent past president of the San Francisco PC Users Group. "And [with DOS] I don't have to take my fingers from the home row." In addition, he said, "I don't think people are finding any better solutions under Windows, and there are many more programs under DOS."
But just as owners of old cars depend on the availability of parts and the know-how of reliable mechanics, DOS users are left wondering: How much longer can the old workhorse stick around?
According to Microsoft's estimates, half of all new systems sold today have the Windows graphical environment installed on top of DOS, and sales of Windows application programs have reached $2 billion. While the vast majority of personal computer users -- at least 50 million -- are still using DOS alone, Windows is gaining more converts every day. Microsoft says it has shipped 12 million copies of Windows since releasing Version 3.0 in May 1990.
It's no wonder that Windows is selling faster to new computer customers than to DOS users who are seeking to upgrade. With computer companies and dealers bundling Windows with new personal computers, buying a Windows machine today costs jTC little more than buying a machine with only DOS. Most machines are equipped with enough memory and high-performance video. Upgrading, however, can cost $500 or more, depending on the configuration.
But most PC software developers have turned their attention and their research investment to creating Windows software instead of new programs for DOS. With a few exceptions, DOS development today is focused on producing upgrades to existing DOS programs and supporting the installed base.
But while Microsoft would like this conversion process to progress even faster, the Redmond, Wash., software giant has recently adopted a softer approach to marketing Windows to DOS users. And the company is promising that the current DOS and Windows will be fully compatible with more powerful versions of Windows coming in the future.
"People will, in a natural way, migrate to Windows," said Paul Maritz, senior vice president in Microsoft's systems division. Once people see what they're missing by not using a Windows word processor, data base or spreadsheet, for example, they will decide to switch, despite their current commitment to DOS. "People think that way until they see an application in the Windows environment," he said. "People buy applications, not operating systems."
But it's no wonder why DOS enthusiasts are concerned. While today the Windows graphical environment is a shell that runs on top of DOS, the backbone of Microsoft's strategy for a more powerful version of Windows, called Windows NT, is DOS-less. When the program arrives, most likely early next year, DOS users will still be able to run their favorite DOS applications under Windows NT. But without new sales of DOS, the market for applications will eventually dry up.
"Five years from now, Windows NT will be the mainstream operating system," Microsoft Chairman and CEO Bill Gates said, speaking to a recent conference of Windows NT developers in San Francisco. Mr. Gates added, however, that the company has no intentions of pulling DOS away from its avid fans and that it plans to upgrade the program at least two more times, presumably with DOS 6 and 7.
But Windows NT is not geared toward the average user -- at least not today's average user, who owns a 286 or 386SX machine, with two or four megabytes of memory and just one or two applications. Instead, Windows NT is intended for work groups of users, where users need to share documents with other PC users and communicate between PCs and other systems. It will require eight megabytes of memory.
Such a system today, particularly one using a high-speed 486 chip, still costs several thousand dollars. But in a few years, Mr. Maritz contends, such a configuration will be standard issue. In two or three years, a 486 machine with 16 megabytes of memory will probably be under $1,000, he said. By that point, with a new performance point to target, Microsoft will be hard at work adding even more advanced features to Windows NT. "Forever in the future, we'll have a mainline version of Windows and a version targeted at the high end," Mr. Maritz said.
The likely outcome of this dual-version development is that some features from Windows NT will be included in a mainstream version of Windows, while a more sophisticated version will continue to add features for the business market.
The most obvious benefit to the most people will be Windows NT's support for multitasking; that is, the ability to run several operations at once without sacrificing the performance of the program you're working in. Today, in Windows 3.1, as in the Macintosh operating system, users can have several documents open at once, but the ability to run more than one program at a time is limited.
Another benefit of Windows NT will be its raw performance, running applications several times the speed of Windows currently. Business users will be getting the additional benefit of being able to run code written under Windows NT for one type of machine on other machines as well, simplifying data communications within large organizations.
The challenge for Microsoft will be to lure resistant DOS users to the Windows environment without losing them to one of many current and future competitors, such as IBM's OS-2. Microsoft is even offering something for the mouse-averse: Under Windows NT, users will be able to run DOS programs from the familiar command line, even though DOS isn't running. This will surely appease those DOS users who want Windows NT's performance without using its graphical user interface.
Many DOS users concede that their reasons for resisting Windows are bound to dissolve eventually, if they haven't already. Hardware prices continue to come down, making color monitors, mice add-ons and additional memory affordable. And new Windows applications are hitting the market every day. "Much of the problem is due to the relative infancy of the Windows market," said Mr. Callas, the computer consultant. "In five years, many of these problems will have gone away."