I have a couple of DOS computers that I might consider to be out of sight, out of mind. When one of them failed, however, its function was quick to remind me of its presence and importance. Here’s my tale. And perhaps you’ll take the poll — Do you still support any DOS machines?


It’s locked up in an obscure closet, but this particular 200 MHz Pentium serves a vital function for our company. It runs the software and houses the hardware that provides the voicemail and automatic routing for our telephone system. I know what you’re probably thinking — it must be a pretty antiquated phone system to have a computer that old serving as the brains behind it. But considering the extremely high cost of new phone systems, along with the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” it might be easy to understand why that old computer is still humming away in the closet.

It’s been a long time since we made the DOS to Windows 95 leap, so I don’t remember the exact circumstances, but I seem to recall that the software running on that DOS computer wasn’t compatible with Windows, and in order to update the software, we would have had to update much more of the overall phone system, so we just let it be. That would make sense, I suppose, because I remember a lot of applications back then came with both the DOS version and a Windows version, and one couldn’t be installed on the other’s system. In this case, all we have is a DOS version. Moreover, the phone card is inserted into an ISA slot, something that’s not normally seen anymore.

I said that this computer was pretty much out of sight, out of mind, but one person does access that closet on a somewhat regular basis. It serves as a storage room for our office manager, and she also accesses that DOS computer twice a year to set the computer’s time to be consistent with daylight savings changes. As such, the time display on our phones doesn’t change until she manually changes the time on the computer. On a couple of occasions she’s told me of noises coming from the box, and a quick replacement of the processor fan quieted it back down. Otherwise, it’s been serving its purpose just fine.

Not too long ago, however, the entire voicemail and auto-routing features of our phone system were suddenly unavailable. The phones worked, but that was all. After a quick visit to the telephone closet, I discovered that the computer was off and it wouldn’t turn back on. It was as dead as a doornail (see note below). That told me it was, most likely, either a bad power supply or a bad motherboard. It ended up being a failed motherboard — an Asus SP97-V. (Those things are going for $135 – $200 on eBay!)

I knew there was a reason I kept some of those old computers under my counter — other than functioning as an additional shelf or a footrest, that is. I actually had (and still have) several old Pentium computers, extra motherboards, some extra 1.6 GB hard drives (Maxtor 71626A), some 64, 128, and 256 MB SIMMS, some AT power supplies, and other miscellaneous parts and pieces. Anyway, a quick replacement of the motherboard was all it needed to be back up and running — about a 30-minute task.

It made me remember the days of Windows 95, and how a computer would have had an absolute hissy fit after a motherboard replacement — detecting one device after another and requiring a reboot after each and every one, only to be unstable for the rest of its computing life (or until Windows 95 was reinstalled from scratch). But not with DOS. It didn’t care. It booted up correctly the first time without a problem, and everything was back to normal.

That particular DOS computer has to be at least 12 years old by now, maybe older, and it’s running 24/7. I wonder how long it will last?

Anyway, how about you? Take the poll. Do you support any old DOS machines? If so, please tell us your tale in the following discussion.

Note: Do you know where the expression “dead as a doornail” came from? According to World Wide Words:

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins quote a correspondent who points out that it could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can’t be removed (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can’t use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they’d been clinched. It sounds plausible, but whether it’s right or not we will probably never know.