Wasted Neurons Wednesday - 4DOS

Whilst writing about Utilities last week, the fondest memory wasn't one of the best known.
Well, kind of.
4DOS was a replacement for COMMAND.COM. Distributed as shareware, an older version was also licensed to Symantec as NDOS, which might be more familiar for some people.

The reason I'm so fond of it is that it made MS-DOS usable on a daily basis.
Remember, this was before Windows. No GUI here. So COMMAND.COM was your interface with DOS, making 4DOS the equivalent of replacing Program Manager or Explorer in Windows.

So what did 4DOS do that was better?

  • It had a decent command history, better command line editing, and even context-sensitive help if you hit F1.
  • It had a huge range of internal commands, including many borrowed from Unix shells such as pushd/popd.
  • It ran batch files faster, and had plenty of built-in variables and functions to make scripting easier.
  • It could do better wildcard handling, and allowed commands like select - which would show a file list and allow you to pick specific files that you might never get a reasonable wildcard for, and it would then pass those as the arguments to a command.
  • It gave MS-DOS psuedo-long-file-names years before Windows 95 arrived.
  • It could load itself into higher memory areas - or even swap itself to disk - to allow more memory for programs than COMMAND.COM could allow.
  • It had a decent text viewer built in, and could colourise directories.
  • It could push keystrokes into programs when you run them to help automation.
  • It allowed aliases (UNIX style). And you could also associate files to programs, so you could “run” data files from the command prompt.
  • And there’s probably loads I’ve forgotten to mention...

All in all, 4DOS was one heck of a piece of software.

I remember the psuedo-long-file-names best of all, because I wrote a small program to interact with that.
Did you ever see a file called DESCRIPT.ION? Possibly not, as it was usually hidden. But if you did and you opened it, you'd see that it was just a list of filenames followed by descriptions.
WordPerfect allowed you to store long names within a document, which you could see in their own file manager. But you couldn't see them from the command prompt - just the good old 8.3 filename.
But I was using 4DOS, so if I could just synchronise the contents of the WordPerfect files with the DESCRIPT.ION file... So I did a bit of reverse engineering on my documents, and fired up my compiler and started writing BASIC code.
Soon wpname.exe existed, and I had long filenames. Kind of.
Why wait for Microsoft to deliver a feature, eh?

That was the thing about 4DOS - it was very open about how it did things, with all its configuration and data in text files. So people swapped aliases and tips and tricks through BBSes, and it had a real cult following behind it.
In many ways, 4DOS was one of the greatest utilities that you could get for MS-DOS.

I did eventually move on to 4NT, which was the Windows NT (and later) equivalent. But now I’m using Linux, and at work we have PowerShell on all our Windows servers.
4DOS actually holds up quite well compared with those technologies.

But I’m not running DOS anymore, so 4DOS is basically just so many wasted neurons...