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Design your own DOS menu system, part 1; a simple menu system can mitigate DOS-phobia.

Design Your Own DOS Menu System, Part I

The truth of the matter is that you can't avoid DOS altogether. Whether you like it or not, and may people don't, the predominant operating system used on desktop computers today is MS-DOS, or PC-DOS if you obtained your system from IBM.

Regardless of all the talk about OS/2 or Unix being the operating system of the future, DOS is here today and showing every sign of being around for some time to come. How much time? That depends on how well Microsoft supports this product and DOS environments like Windows 3.0 as hardware technology continues to evolve.

As professionals whose work increasingly involves manipulating and storing electronic data, library personnel have a curious relationship with personal computers. On the one hand, these professionals have training and experience from using computers to access data banks like OCLC, Dialog, or RLIN.

However, these PC-based online terminals are often dedicated to a specific environment or function, and rarely bring the user into contact with the basic operating system of their computer. Thus, even a professional staff utilizing computers on a daily basis may have only a rudimentary knowledge of how that system operates.

Workstation Flexibility

Librarians today are moving away from dedicated terminals connected to a particular service toward greater the flexibility offered by individual workstations. These workstations can access multiple services via a modem while also making available a wide range of applications such as spreadsheets, database software, word processors, etc.

However, as a consquence of this increased flexibility, many library staff who had previously avoided working at the system level of their computers now find, to their chagrin, that efficiency does not always follow technology.

Flexibility involves decision making, which in turn requires a working knowledge of the tools in use. All too often, personal computer users (meaning, in this case, library staff and patrons) are left standing at the frontier of operational vagueness when computerized catalogs, CD-ROM readers, and microcomputer clusters are the tools of our trade.


With Microsoft's recent release of Windows 3.0, one hears much talk about the virtues of the graphical user interface and how "DOS" people will finally be able to work within a "friendly" Mac-like environment.

While Apple and Microsoft struggle for the collective conscience of PC users, other software developers are starting to incorporate graphical features into their own systems. Hardware companies like Sun Microsystems and DEC, which specialize in workstations, are increasingly touting the advantages of multitasking with a graphical interface. As newer and faster PCs are introduced into the market, users may be more eager than ever to leave the DOS prompt behind.

In the meantime, many librarians are wondering what the fuss is all about. Essentially, the argument boils down to this: the less time and effort it takes to learn to operate a new program, the sooner you will be able to make productive use of the software. Moreover, if the program is simple to use and uderstand, it will encourage further use by beginning and experienced users alike. On the job, there simply isn't time for much experimentation with new techniques.

Hence, everyone -- from system managers to the most humble end-user -- is looking for programs that will perform with a minimum of fuss, and which don't require constant reference to the operating manual.


What is DOS? It is the operating system software developed by Microsoft Corporation which controls how your computer operates, manages files, and allocates memory for various tasks. The first version of DOS (PC-DOS 1.0) was released in 1981 with the original IBM PC. Thereafter, as new hardware evolved, modifications to DOS were introduced in later versions, e.g., PC-DOS 2.0, MS-DOS 3.0, and finally, PC-DOS 4.0 in 1988.

Unfortunately, MS-DOS was never written with the convenience of the end-user in mind. It remains, at best, a functional platform for runing applications while giving the user a semblance of control over systems operations.

Regardless of the particular version of DOS in use, one thing they all have in comon is a lack of concern for the uninitiated user. This means that until you master the DOS command syntax, there isn't very much you can do with DOS. Unless you are prepared to invest some time in reading DOS manuals, however, you probably won't enjoy the experience of interpreting DOS commands.

For better or for worse, most PC users, librarians included, are reluctant to read computer documentation, so graphical interface programs offer a partial road map through DOS's frontier of operational vagueness.

Shells and Menus

The development of DOS "shells" or "menu" programs has provided a welcome alternative to using the DOS command line. Shell programs insulate the user from the DOS command prompt while making available those functions that are needed in file operations. They enable users to run their applications without first learning DOS commands directly.

Although DOS shells and menu programs allow one to avoid DOS, they differ in the kind of options they make available. Without leaving the shell program, they make it possible to perform such DOS operations as listing files, charging directories, formatting a disk, or copying a file.

A typical menu program offers a list of applications from which you may select. for example, Figure 1 shows a menu of applications available under Power Menu, a popular shareware menu program.

With some menu software, the screen is divided into different areas which display a list of files next to a list of commands, with other information such as disk space or date and time shown in a nearby box.

In addition to offering a menu of choices, programs like PC-Tools combine a variety of file and disk utilities. Some of the many features available are file compression, back-up, print utilities, text editors, tree directories, and file viewing capability. Essentially, what you have is a package of programs operating under one common environment.

There are a multitude of DOS shell programs on the market. Most of the good ones offer extensive file management capability as well as menu organization. In some cases, major software packages like WordPerfect include a shell that allows the user to perform DOS functions without leaving the program.

Having the ability to avoid using DOS directly seems to be a component of more and more programs these days. Even DOS, in version 4.0, has an optional shell that renders its own operations transparent to the user. Thus, DOS, coming full circle, has finally provided the means by which users can ignore its own presence.


Before investing in a shell or menu program, it would be prudent to weight the advantages and disadvantages of leaving DOS behind. You might wonder what disadvantages there could be in avoiding such commands as "xcopy a:*.* b: /E//S/ v" or "copy*.txt prn."

The fact is, no shell program will do everything that DOS can. Try loading a special graphics table with your favorite shell program. Also, for the experienced used, choosing items from a menu can be irritatingly slow, even assuming that the command you need is available in a pull-down menu.

Less obvious is the fact that new users aren't likely to learn much about their computer if al their choices are dictated by clicking a mouse or selecting from a short menu of options. Finally, you must consider that whereas DOS usually comes with the computer, menu programs constitute an additional expense to accomplish essentially the same tasks that DOS performs "for free."

That said, the advantages of using a shell program still outweigh the negative. Icons and pull-down menus are easier to use and sometimes quicker at getting results. Thus, for employers, less time is devoted to training new users. More importantly, programs like PC-Tools or Precursr include many features for managing your files. In short, shell programs can be a worthwhile investment if productivity and ease of use is a consideration.

It is important to remember that a good menu system does not avoid DOS; it enhances its usefulness. Our experience has shown that moving back and forth between applications from the DOS prompt can be both time consuming and annoying. HAving a procedure that puts DOS in the background relieves one of having to remember complicated path commands and executable file names. For us, the end result is less frustration and fewer keystrokes, translating into higher productivity. In the final analysis, everyone who uses computers needs to feel comfortable with the tools at their disposal.

For anyone confused and intimidated by DOS, a simple meny system like the one we will describe in Part II of this article may be just the cure for their distress.

Serafim Halkias and Stephen Jackson are with the serials department of the Vanderbilt Law Library, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee.
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Author:Halkias, Serafim; Jackson, Stephen
Publication:Computers in Libraries
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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