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?
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...
A good list with plenty of competent whiskies on it. Very few sherry casks, but that seems to be the way these days...
G7.4 - Buttery waffles on polished wood
28 years old, distilled 28th May 1984, 58.4% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Toffee, apple, banana and crumble on the nose. The body is light, with a smorgasbord of flavours - flowers, cardboard, cinnamon, cloves. The finish has golden syrup and cashews.
After water, nose becomes drier and has more cereal notes - bran? The palate moves towards walnut and fondant centres.
A superb expression, which will not last long in any discriminating glass...
4.175 - Suspicious skulkers on the catwalk
13 years old, distilled 15th October 1999, 55.9% abv, first-fill ex-bourbon barrel
Ozone and brine dominate the nose, with musty cellars and a hint of lemon in there too. The body reminds me of a freshly opened packet of Opal Fruits, plenty of citrus flavours with hints of other sweetness. The finish is lightly smokey and brings a return of the brine.
After water, the nose is more like sherbet dip and tobacco leaves, the body has a slightly meatier taste - honey roasted ham, perhaps. The finish is sweeter, the smoke giving way to burnt oak notes.
A fantastic session dram.
121.59 - Vanilla candles on a polished table
14 years old, distilled 7th September 1998, 55.8% abv, refill ex-bourbon barrel
The nose has midget gems, polished wood and honey. The body is warm, but not overly so, with raisins and fruit salad on a camphor wood. The finish is big and full of toffee...
With water, the nose gains demerara sugar, vanilla and raspberry. The body has more tannin notes - with a hint of summer fruits.
An excellent dram for a summer's evening.
64.43 - Full, complex and reassuring
23 years old, distilled 5th February 1990, 55.5% abv, refill ex-bourbon barrel
Caramel and brine on the nose, with a hint of unpolished wood - perhaps teak? The body has ginger, chocolate, tobacco and more caramel. The finish is pleasingly big and goes back to the caramel and brine from the nose, with a little tobacco.
After water, the whisky becomes much sweeter - big vanilla notes, and a slightly perfumed note, maybe geraniums? The body has vanilla, ginger, and the chocolate is more dominant, leaving the tobacco behind. The finish is now ginger and caramel.
An interesting whisky, but I'm not sure it needed water.
59.43 - Caramel swirl ice-cream
29 years old, distilled 8th November 1983, 56.4% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Tooty fruities, flowers and a soft hint of tobacco on the nose, which is a full yet subtle experience. The body has geraniums, honeysuckle, vanilla, green apples, and pine wood. The finish is long and sweet, with a little cinnamon over pine needles.
Water makes the nose sweeter, bringing the pine needles and geraniums more to the fore. The body is a little thicker and more viscous, with soft tobacco notes now infusing the sweet fruity flavours. The finish is sweeter, with more vanilla and green apples.
77.32 - Salivating sweetness; savoury whispers
25 years old, distilled 13th August 1987, 58.2% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Golden syrup and honeycomb on the nose. The body has pineapple, ginger, orange peel, coffee and glacê cherries. The finish has toffee and oranges.
After water the nose has sherbet dip and slowly becomes more meaty. The body is honey roasted ham and slightly reminiscent of cola. The finish is still sweet and doesn't deviate from the toffee and oranges of the neat dram.
A very pleasant dram for a spring day.
1.171 - Orchids in an old wardrobe
28 years old, distilled 16th May 1984, 55.1% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Oak and greenhouses on the nose. The body is rich - raisins, rum, fudge, toffee. The finish has toffee and satsumas.
After water, more fruit sweetness arrives. The nose has tomato vines and plums. The body gains shortbread, and the finish is more toffee than fruits.
A fine, elegant dram for a cooler evening.
85.26 - Fragrant perfumes and deeper resonances
28 years old, distilled 2nd May 1985, 44.5% abv, first-fill ex-bourbon barrel
Toffee, vanilla, peanut brittle and mangoes on the nose. The body is full and viscous if held on the tongue and has oak, cinnamon, vanilla, green apples and pineapple. The finish is an interesting combination of sweet floral notes (honeysuckle?) and tannins - slightly leathery.
With water, the floral notes break through into the nose - it's now got a pleasant mix of toffee and honeysuckle. The body moves more towards oak and cinnamon, losing some of the fruit. The finish is light and sweet, having lost the tannins.
A great dram for a day in the garden.
7.83 - Fresh, airy and sherbety
19 years old, distilled 20th May 1993, 52.1% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A very light nose which reminds me of lemon scented and "grass fresh" washing powder. The body is similarly light and clean, with lots of lemon and vanilla. The finish unsurprisingly full of vanilla.
After water, the nose gains some slight cereal, perhaps oats. The body has hints of pineapple and vanilla, and the finish is a surprisingly full hit of vanilla and apple.
A superb dram for a summer's day whilst watching a game of cricket.
35.79 - Calming, warming and comforting
28 years old, distilled 22nd December 1983, 57.7% abv, refill ex-sherry butt
The nose betrays the cask immediately - sweet and full of citrus fruits, with a little bit of fudge and oak. The body is sumptuous, with nectarines and geraniums floating over stewed apples and slight oak spices. The finish is sweet, with a return to nectarines and wood spices.
With water the nose becomes woodier, camphor wood added to the sweet fruits. The body moves towards walnut but retains the previous flavours. The finish gains wood notes, but still holds together the sweet citrus notes with it.
An elegant and interesting dram that provokes lively conversation about its flavours. Drink it with friends.
3.198 - Smoker’s tooth powder and dentists’ chairs
14 years old, distilled 25th September 1997, 57.0% abv, refill ex-sherry butt
Tar, coal dust, lavender are on the nose. The body is as smoky as you’d expect, with hints of TCP and the sterilisation mouthwash from a dentists’ visit.
With water, the nose gains cola bottle sweets and the body gains oranges and honey roasted ham. The finish is much sweeter - gaining perhaps a touch liquorice.
A sweet dram to cheer you up on a miserable autumnal afternoon.
53.184 - Fairground on the beach
19 years old, distilled 12th July 1993, 60.4% abv, refill ex-sherry butt
The nose has cinder toffee and charcoal on the nose, along with a sweet note - lemon? The body has chocolate, cardamom, and of course smoke. The finish is, oddly enough, smoky.
After water the nose becomes fruitier, with green apples and pineapple. There is also some caramel. The body is smooth and sweet, with tobacco and ginger alongside lemon-scented clothing conditioner and buckets of smoke. The finish is smoke and hints of lemon.
A pleasing and unexpectedly sweet Islay, perhaps for a summer’s evening.
29.130 - A chimney sweep smoking a cigar
19 years old, distilled 4th May 1993, 52.1% abv, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A classic Islay nose - smoke and TCP. The body has vanilla, smoke, and germoline. The finish is a massive sweet smoke hit.
After water, the vanilla comes into the nose. The body has gains a little sweetie fizziness, like refreshers. The finish is a nice balance of smoke and vanilla.
A superb traditional Islay.
R3.5 - Marmite XO
11 years old, distilled 1st January 2002, 74.8% abv, refill ex-butt
A huge nose, full of coastal notes and burnt sugar. The body is much less aggressive than you’d expect at this strength - salted caramels. The finish is a hot jet of sweetness erupting through the esophagus.
After water, the nose gets a little duller - it reminds me of cardboard! The body is still caramel, but has lost the coastal notes. The finish remains rather like jet backwash that has somehow been sweetened...
I might not be the greatest rum drinker, but this one is far more approachable than I’d first suspected - very pleasant.
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...
A superb grain and some very decent young whiskies on this list...
G10.1 Thanksgiving dram
23 years old, distilled 31st August 1989, 59.6%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Toffee, demerara sugar, caramel, cinnamon and vanilla are in this surprisingly robust nose. The body is very light and slippery, with cigar boxes and vanilla ice cream. When held on the palate, caramel and cardamom become more dominant. The finish is long and sweet, full of demerara sugar and oak.
After water, the gets hints of milk chocolate added to it, and the body gains a very slight note of PVA glue. The finish explodes with wood spices.
Although thin, this grain packs in a lot of flavours and balances them brilliantly.
78.40 Tantalisingly sweet and savoury
16 years old, distilled 17th September 1996, 55.1%, sherry butt
Stewed apples and cherry sponge cake on the nose, then a rich body of rum & raisin and Battenburg cake. The finish is vaguely ginger - like.
After water, the nose has added raisins, which also appear in the body.
A very drinkable dram.
77.30 Attractively accessible and mouth-watering
9 years old, distilled 17th April 2003, 61.9%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
The nose has barley water, shortbread, and a hint of floral-scented washing detergent. The body is pineapple and vanilla, and the finish is tropical fruits. The mouth-feel is a little harsh - but a look at the strength explains that!
After water, it smoothes out into a very nice, slightly lemony dram. Very fruity on the body - mangoes? - and a nice clean zesty finish.
A session dram par excellence...
44.56 Sweet and sour creative tension
23 years old, distilled 9th October 1989, 51.8%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A nose of haribo and honey. The body is fudge and crunchy honeycomb, with hints of honeysuckle. The finish is smooth and lingers a little, with more honeycomb.
After water, the nose is fruitier - melon or pineapple? The body has more vanilla, which continues into the finish.
This is an elegant and drinkable dram, superb for a warm spring day.
1.168 Delightfully dulcet deliciosity
28 years old, distilled 16th May 1984, 53.3%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
A nose full of tropical fruits - melon, pineapple, banana, oranges. There's also a hint of toffee. The body is reminiscent of crumble from a dessert, with plenty of vanilla and some light fruits - more melon. The finish is oaky and sweet.
After water - not much! - the fruits become stronger and there are touches of gelatin sweets. The body has a little tannin, more leather than wood, and the finish is longer.
26.92 Hard glazed pretzel sticks
28 years old, distilled 13th December 1984, 58.2%, refill ex-sherry butt
A quiet, elegant nose - nothing definite, just hints of wax and lemon. The body is light, with wood and ash notes. The finish is dry and sweet, with crystallised oranges.
After water - and after standing this whisky really starts to open up. The nose gains straw, pepper and brine, the body has toffee and coconut, with much more of this distillery's characteristic wax. The finish is an ashen, salty and smokey lingering that there was no hint of before water.
This dram is an odd stalking horse - it seems at first to be a quiet, sweet summer's day dram, and slowly expands into an elegant and interesting tasting that is a delightful surprise. It's only problem is that it takes so long to open up into true excellence.
31.26 BBQ smoke by a rolling sea
24 years old, distilled 27th September 1988, 53.6%, refill ex-bourbon hogshead
Brine, smoke, and aniseed on the nose. The body has smokey bacon and barbecue sauce, and the finish is sweet smoke - like scented candles.
After water, the smoke from the nose begins to billow into the body. It has less fruit from the sauce, but a bit more vanilla sweetness. The finish is now smoke and oak spices.
A superb light Islay substitute, which is the kind of description that I fear masks this whisky's charms or even undervalues it. This should be drunk for what it is - an excellent example of well matured and heavily peated Jura.
These days, all Windows programs are .EXE files. But back in the days of DOS, there were also .COM files.
Why no .COM files anymore?
The answer lies with the precursor of MS-DOS - CP/M.
MS-DOS was not actually written by Microsoft - IBM had tried to get CP/M for their new PC, but couldn't agree on the royalty rates. As a hedge bet, they asked Microsoft for an operating system - so Microsoft first licensed, then bought outright someone else's CP/M clone and resold it to IBM!
86-DOS was designed to be source compatible with CP/M, albeit loosely. That meant that most programs could be recompiled for 86-DOS without any difficulties.
So IBM's PC-DOS - IBM always called their MS-DOS version "PC-DOS" - was basically a CP/M clone. And CP/M used .COM files for external commands (programs)...
However, .COM files were pretty basic. Just a memory image, really - they were always loaded at the same address - 0100h, just after the Program Segment Prefix. A .COM file is often thought to be limited to under 64Kb in size, but in can be larger - however, you have to write the memory management yourself!
That's the big difference between a .COM file and a .EXE file - the .EXE file can be loaded anywhere rather than at a fixed point, and MS-DOS can also load different parts into different memory segments.
If that last part made no sense to you, be thankful. Segmented memory models are evil, and we should never repeat those mistakes!
So that's why we have .COM and .EXE files - the .COM files are there for CP/M compatibility, and the .EXE files are the newer, shinier MS-DOS format.
Then why were so many MS-DOS programs in the old .COM format, rather than the shiny new native .EXE?
Well, basically, most of them were small and didn't need to be a .EXE. But a few did grow larger than 64Kb - COMMAND.COM and FORMAT.COM spring to mind - so should have become .EXE files.
Except that MS-DOS didn't actually care whether the application was a .EXE or a .COM filename, because COMMAND.COM checked the first two bytes of the file when loading it - if they were "MZ" or "ZM", it treated it as a .EXE. If those two characters weren't there, it was loaded as a .COM file.
So it didn't actually matter what the file extension was!
More importantly, the filenames had to stay the same for compatibility - it would have been chaos if you'd renamed COMMAND.COM, as many other applications called it for various reasons!
And it gets worse.
Of course, there is one final thing to note about .COM/.EXE files that might be useful to know...
.COM takes precedence.
So if you have "PROGRAM.COM" and "PROGRAM.EXE" in the same directory, and you type "PROGRAM" at the command prompt to run it, you're going to load "PROGRAM.COM". Every time.
There were actually some viruses that used that to spread. Very stupid, very dumb viruses that were incredibly easy to spot and remove. But it happened!
There were also applications that would use this trick to load an initial "wrapper" application that would do any checking that they needed - hardware, licensing, whatever - before unloading and loading the .EXE file.
Of course, you're very unlikely to have that to run a true .COM file today. These days pretty much everything is a .EXE. So all of this is just wasted neurons...