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August 03, 2005


When I was in college, someone told me about an assignment they had been given in a history class. The professor had handed out 6 different descriptions of the same battle. The students had to come up with their best estimate of what really happened, balancing out the differences in terms of who could have been expected to know what, how feasible different accounts were, who would be expected to exaggerate or lie, and so on. For some reason I thought this kind of info-forensics sounded like just the coolest thing ever. Not just the process, but the notion of the unknowable fact. This was a historical event, so everything either happened or didn’t. But actually finding this truth was tricky and perhaps impossible. Yet the trust did exist! This problem is one of the reasons I liked Orson Scott Card's book Pastwatch, even though it's only peripheral to the story.

The color of dinosaurs is another one. Nobody knows what color dinosaurs were, because none of their skin has survived. People make guesses for the purposes of drawings, based on the current-day color of lizards and who knows what-all; but nobody really knows. But there's an answer! Dinosaurs were certain colors. The answer is out there, but it's unknowable.

So, on Monday I posted a story about a historical investigation. Upon reading it, Larry predicted that it would get Slashdotted. I was somewhat dubious but also curious, since I have felt the magic touch only a few times. Sure enough, it was picked up about 7 pm yesterday.

Bill James, the baseball historian, would occasionally investigate stories about old baseball players. Somebody would given an interview and recall how one day in 1937 against Chicago they struck out the side in two straight innings. James (or Rob Neyer or somebody) would actually go back and investigate this. And usually he would find the source of the story, except it would turn out it was in 1938, and it was against Cleveland, and the guy only struck out 5 in two innings. But there would be some germ of truth to the recollection.

When doing fact checking for my first book, I would sometimes be trying to nail down a fact. Say the year that Compaq shipped its first portable computer. I would find one reference stating with complete confidence that it was 1982, and another stating with complete confidence that it was 1983. Which was it? Now, of course, I was being lazy, trying to find it all with Google (or Altavista or whatever I used back then). If I had got in touch with Compaq, or read back issues of a Texas business magazine, or something, I could have found the definitive answer. Bill James would actually go read old issues of the "Spalding Guide" to figure out what had happened on the baseball diamond half a century before. So he got a definitive answer to his question by going back to original source material.

Another way to find out facts is to ask a bunch of people for their recollections, and then try to piece together the truth. This is like the college history assignment; with enough input, weighing everyone's bias, you may achieve reasonable confidence in the facts. What's missing is the original source material.

If you're looking for the facts about something that happened 20 years ago in the computer industry, a Slashdot posting is about as good as you're going to get. People are still around, the story has as good a chance as anything of reaching them, and people with first-hand information may post it.

It's different with more recent information. For example someone asked about the "Blue Ninja Clan", which referred to Lee Reiswig from IBM. No problem; those events happened in the early 1990s, so a simple web search will reveal all. But go back ten years and you've crossed the boundary of the "all information is online" era. Now you're dealing with people's memories, or maybe you are going to a library or a newspaper morgue and looking through old issues (I did this for my book also, going to the Seattle Library to look through its collection of PC Magazine; but the web search way is much easier).

So after 418 comments on Slashdot, and another 98 on this blog, what did the collective mind of the computer industry reveal about "DOS Ain't Done til Lotus Won't Run?"

There seem to be two potential breakage points: DOS 2.0 and DOS 3.31.

For DOS 2.0, we have the following statements:

  1. From the book Hard Drive, the following quote on p. 233: "According to one Microsoft programmer, the problems encountered by Lotus were not unexpected. A few of the key people working on DOS 2.0, he claimed, had a saying at the time that 'DOS isn't done until Lotus won't run.' They managed to code a few hidden bugs into DOS 2.0 that caused Lotus 1-2-3 to brea kdown when it was loaded. 'There were as few as three or four people who knew this was being done,' the employee said. He felt the highly competitive Gates was the ringleader."
  2. On Slashdot, Steve1952 says: "I am an old timer, and I do remember an issue when the first IBM-PC with a hard drive (the IBM PC-XT) launched (around 1983). The PC-XT required DOS 2.0. My college department had asked me to purchase a computer, and I had purchased a brand new PC-XT on about the first day it came out. I also purchased a copy of Lotus 1-2-3 (developed for DOS 1.1).
    I had a lot of colleagues watching me as I set things up.
    Much to my chagrin, I found that Lotus wouldn't run right. I called Lotus tech support. They informed me that they were aware of the issue, and that a patch would out come shortly.
    They did patch it quite quickly, so it wasn't a big issue for the company. But when you have just spent thousands of dollars of your department's money, and things aren't running right, you tend to remember!"
  3. In my blog comments, Daniel posts: "If my memory is not failing me, Lotus 123 1.0 copy protection failed when moving from DOS 1.1 to DOS 2.0. This was caused by a timing problem (DOS took more time to do some operation), so it was a problem in Lotus's code, not in Microsoft's."
  4. Andrew Schulman, author of the Undocumented DOS and Undocumented Windows, states in my blog comments: "I looked into this 'DOS ain't done 'til 1-2-3 won't run' story some years ago. (I was the main coauthor of the 'Undocumented' books from the early 1990s.) I don't think there's anything to the story.
    From what I could tell looking through old newsgroup postings, Lotus 1-2-3 used a form of copy protection (Softguard?), and this may have broken with the significant file-system change from MS-DOS 1.x to 2.x.
  5. Finally, you have the fact that none of the Lotus people I asked remembered any deliberate breaks, and the Microsoft people's assurance that no deliberate breaks were put in.

So when you put all this together, I am pretty confident that DOS 2.0, which introduced hard-drive support, broke Lotus 1-2-3's floppy-disk-based copy protection scheme. I am also reasonably confident that it was not intentional on the part of Microsoft. Although the one person who purports to have inside knowledge (the anonymous source in Hard Drive) says it was intentional. And certainly it would be possible to disguise an intentional break as an unintentional one. But it's also quite possible that an unintentional break got morphed in the retelling into an intentional break and this is the legend that the anonymous programmer heard.

For DOS 3.31, meanwhile, we have the following:

  1. Slashdot poster Degrees writes: "The purposeful breaking was between DOS versions 3.30 and 3.31. The part that was changed to break Lotus 1-2-3 was the Extended Memory Manager.
    Microsoft's EMM grew out the LIM extended memory manager specification. LIM = Lotus, Intel, Microsoft.
    Yes, Lotus and Microsoft partnered together to let DOS load a driver to access RAM greater than 640 KB. Prior to LIM, each memory card came with its own driver.
    DOS 3.31 included a new EMM which aligned memory access on word boundaries, not byte boundaries.
    Microsoft's claim was that this would be speedier; the trade off of speed for bloat was worth it to them - they saw the future, and it included more RAM.
    And heck - it broke MS Excel's biggest competitor too: double win!
    Infoworld did an in depth piece on the controversy, and got a quote from a product manager at Microsoft who stated that yes, they 'knew there were problems.' (When asked if they tested against Lotus 1-2-3 - the biggest app in the world at that time).
    Note that Microsoft did not tell Lotus of the change to shipping code, prior to release. Well, not enough prior to let Lotus present a compatible version."
  2. On my blog, David G (who I strongly suspect is the same person as Degrees on Slashdot) tells that same story, and adds: "It should also be noted that at the time DOS 3.31 was shipped, Microsoft took out full page advertisements saying 'If you want a crash-proof system, you should get your applications from the same vendor as your operating system'. The advertisements had photos of a jet plane test pilot helment."
  3. On my blog, Andrew Schulman responds: "I would be VERY interesting in seeing copies of such an ad, or learning an exact date it appeared.
    MS-DOS 3.31 came out in 1988. A Google Groups search for all messages before 1989 with 'applications same operating system', 'want applications same vendor operating system', etc. doesn't turn up anything similar to this quotation. I would have thought someone would have found such a statement worth quoting."
  4. To which js answers with: "I remember the LIM/EMM breakage, and the helmet ad."

So what is going on here? Well, I am more doubtful of this one. And it's really because of the point Schulman raises: between 1983 (DOS 2.0) and 1988 (DOS 3.31) we are entering the era of continuous information (although we are not quite fully there). So why are there no traces of this online? Schulman implies he investigated "DOS Ain't Done" in the early 1990s, so surely something that happened in 1988 would have hit his radar?

All the same it could be true. But if it is, I would expect that somebody would be able to find the Infoworld investigation with the quote from the Microsoft product manager, and a copy of the ad with the test pilot helmet. Wouldn't you think?

There is followup someone could do, if motivated. We could track down Wallace or Erickson and try to get more information on the source of the quote from Hard Drive, although I doubt the person would talk (or necessarily be considered authoritative). Someone could go through back issues of Infoworld looking for the article, or computer magazines from that era looking for the advertisement. We could even try what Schulman suggested, get actual copies of Lotus 1-2-3 and DOS 2.0 and 3.3.1, and do the experiment. Heck, I could probably figure out who was doing marketing for DOS 3.31 and ask about the ad.

We may never know what color dinosaurs were, but we can probably get closer to the truth here.

Posted by AdamBa at August 3, 2005 09:23 PM

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Wow, good detective work. But original source material is not always the magic bullet, as it can come with its own masters, bias' and twists. And people's recollections can change with time, the original source itself, can end up saying two differing things at two differing points in time. Both can only be viewed in the systematic whole; it comes down to more hard-knock detective work over pure historical rendering.

Keep digging, but looks like glitches and bugs, that got morphed into urban legend status, by imposing later political and competitive considerations that didn’t really exist at the time. Actually quite a common historical riverbed, ie “640K ought to be enough for anybody”. And that quote, if even said, (which I doubt as no real sources) could be viewed in the context of “enough” meaning it would run all available applications at the time; memory was extremely expensive then. When you back-end impose a political view, that wasn’t there at the time, you end up with the stuff of quasi-conspiratorial myth.

Apt quote from Jefferson (letter to William Wirt, from Monticello, August 14, 1814)....

“It is truly unfortunate that those engaged in public affairs so rarely make notes of transactions passing within their knowledge. Hence history becomes fable instead of fact. The great outlines may be true, but the incidents and coloring are according to the faith or fancy of the writer.”

Posted by: Christopher Coulter at August 6, 2005 10:36 AM