DOS is the world's most popular software. It helped spawn the personal-computer revolution. It sits in more PCs than any other software program in the world. But the reign of the venerable operating system is coming to an end.
Eager to embrace graphical interfaces, software companies are quietly putting DOS out to pasture. Consider:
* Microsoft Corporation, the Redmond, Wash., company that makes DOS, is still working on a new version of the operating system. But first, it plans to release a new version of its popular graphical Windows system. For the first time, the program will run without DOS, the underlying operating system that allows other software programs to work.
* WordPerfect Corporation, the Orem, Utah, company that made its name with a DOS-based word-processing program, says it has no plans to release a major new DOS upgrade. ``The majority of development effort is going to Windows'' and other graphical-user-interface systems, says company spokesman Jeff Larsen. WordPerfect's Windows programs are outselling its DOS software 3-to-1.
* Other software companies are also concentrating new development on Windows and graphical operating systems such as OS/2 and the Macintosh and PowerPC. But they are skittish about ending DOS development until they are sure their huge base of DOS customers has switched to other operating systems.
``There are no plans to discontinue DOS products at all,'' says a spokeswoman for Lotus Development Corporation in Cambridge, Mass. In May, the company is expected to release a long-overdue upgrade of its DOS 1-2-3 spreadsheet program.
But the handwriting is on the wall. Sales of Lotus's desktop DOS applications fell more than $210 million last year, while its Windows applications grew 74 percent. The company's Windows business accounted for 70 percent of fourth-quarter revenue.
``We are certainly continuing to do DOS releases on some of our more needed applications,'' adds Sandra Hawker, a spokeswoman with Borland International Inc. in Scotts Valley, Calif. For example, the company last year released two versions of its dBase database program, which so far only comes in DOS.
But Borland is not saying whether it will develop DOS upgrades for its other popular database and spreadsheet products. ``We are evaluating DOS versions on a product-by-product basis,'' Ms. Hawker says.
Graphical-user interfaces are eclipsing DOS because they are easier to use. Users can point and click on graphics and pictures instead of typing in DOS commands. The Macintosh operating system has used this for years. In the latter half of the 1980s, Microsoft Windows and IBM's OS/2 brought that ease of operation to the PC.
``IBM and Microsoft have been trying to kill DOS since 1986,'' says Novell marketing manager Toby Corey. But he says he doubts the next version of Windows, which will not require DOS, will mark the operating system's demise. The graphical systems are too ``resource-hungry'' for many of the older 386-class PCs commonly in use, he says. ``I personally think [DOS's life will be] more in the five- to seven-year time frame.''
In January, Novell released its own new version of DOS, Novell DOS 7. But another branch of the company is working on a DOS alternative, which would turn its UNIX operating system into a more mainstream platform.
Microsoft's next version of DOS will not come out until the much awaited next version of Windows, which will be late this year or 1995. But at least one feature of the current version - Double-Space data compression - may not be included. A United States District Court ruled last month that the feature violated patent rights of software company Stac Electronics Inc.
Mr. Corey of Novell says the Stac decision ``will obviously play to our advantage'' since users often upgrade their DOS in order to add data compression.
``We're still evaluating our options,'' responds Russell Stockdale, product manager in Microsoft's personal systems group. But ``that is not going to change the fundamental dynamic.''
This means one more major upgrade of DOS and many more of Windows.