Some of my fonder memories of computing days of yore are those where I was working with utilities under DOS.
And boy, were we spoiled for choice.
Norton Utilities was the father of them all - the venerable and venerated, almost to the point of holiness. But there was also PC Tools, XTree Gold and many more - each trying to fix a perceived gap or gaps in the (admittedly slim) repertoire of MS-DOS.
They each had their strengths and weaknesses. Norton Utilities were more useful for fixing disks, recovering files and doing disk optimisation. PC Tools did all of that and also had some pretty decent file management. XTree Gold was mostly just file management - but to be fair it was the best file manager that there ever has been!
But here was the thing....
These utilities were widely regarded as ESSENTIAL.
Nobody could contemplate serious computing without them. And I’m not kidding here - on software sales charts, they had their own category. New releases were headline news for the industry press. On CompuServe and CIX, debates raged over which was more efficacious.
(An aside: I just got to legitimately use the word Efficacious. How's your day compare with that?)
Yet by the mid-90's, they were already becoming irrelevant. Today, the utilities market exists mostly as a vestigial stump of the larger Security market.
So what went wrong? Why do we no have Norton Disk Doctor, Mirror, Undelete, Filefind, PC Shell, XTree and their like?
I didn't understand it at the time, but hindsight is crystal clear.
Computing was getting better.
That was all. Nothing special. Just that these utilities existed at a point in time where computers were becoming widespread, but weren't yet mature. The hardware was unreliable, the software spartan and buggy.
Utilities fixed that, but also sowed the seeds of their own doom.
Hardware has become ever-more reliable, which didn't help. Floppy disks were prone to failure, but a USB flash drive is very durable.
But the real problem has been improvements in software.
It would be tempting to say it started with Windows 95, which brought a double-whammy of a Recycle Bin and massive architectural changes that made us all live without utilities for the many months that passed until compatible versions were available. When the utilities did finally ship for Windows 95, we all realised that we were doing just fine without them...
But it started before that.
MS-DOS 5 brought with it an undelete command. Oh, and an unformat command, and... Mirror?
Yes, well spotted. They were all licensed from Central Point Software, who made PC Tools.
Symantec did no better, as the disk defragmenter in MS-DOS 6 was a cut-down version of their very own Speed Disk (speedisk.exe - a marvelously efficient filename!).
No doubt these licensing deals were profitable in their own right. But they also meant that by MS-DOS 6, the basics were covered for most users. And what Microsoft hadn’t licensed, they built themselves - chkdsk.exe remained, but scandisk.exe was the newer, prettier and more reliable way to fix your disk problems.
Then there was no MS-DOS 7. Not as a standalone product, anyway, as it became a bootloader for Windows 95.
And although Windows 95 was primitive by today’s standards, it was enough. In hardware, floppy disks were giving way to CD-R/CD-RW, which was then to give way to USB flash. Hard disks were ever more reliable. And whilst Windows Explorer is no XTree Gold, it’s almost infinitely better than the File Manager that preceded it in Windows 3.x.
The death of utilities should be a cause of celebration. It should be a way in which we gauge the industry’s progress.
Personally, I can’t help feel a little melancholy about it.
Whilst things are technically better, these utilities are a large part of how I learnt about the IBM PC - optimising and fixing, and sometimes just cleaning up after a failed experiment.
(OK, OK. Very frequently cleaning up after a failed experiment!)
Utilities, we thank you. You shamed operating systems into improving themselves. In that regard, you may be the most important neurons that the industry has ever wasted...