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By Greg Shultz
The Shell in DOS 4.01 was designed as a menu system to enable you to more easily run application programs as well as use common DOS commands.
The Shell consisted of two distinct interfaces called Start Programs and File System. You can think of the Start Programs interface as the precursor of the Start menu and File System as the precursor of Windows Explorer.
As you can see, the Main Group contained four items: Command Prompt, File System, Change Colors, and DOS Utilities. The fourth item, DOS Utilities, is actually a sub group.
To navigate the Shell in DOS 4.01 from the keyboard, you used a combination of the [F10], [Tab], and arrow keys. Even better, you could install a driver and use a mouse to navigate.
After selecting Command Prompt item from the Main Group, you could access and work from the command line yet easily return to the Shell by typing Exit.
If you didn’t like the default color scheme, you could select the Change Colors item from the Main Group and then select from one of four color schemes. Unfortunately, you couldn’t create a custom color scheme.
Selecting the DOS Utilities item from the Main Group, opened the DOS Utilities sub group and you could easily run any one of the available DOS utilities. As you can see, selecting the Backup Fixed Disk command, opened up a dialog box where you could enter the appropriate command line parameters. Pressing Enter will then pass the command line over to the command prompt and begin the operation.
Just like today’s Start menu, you could add custom sub groups to the Main Group in the Start Programs interface. Once you selected the Add command from the Group menu, you could then use the Add Group dialog box to create your custom sub group.
Once you created a custom sub group, you could add programs to the group via the Add Program dialog box.
When you needed assistance in the DOS 4.01 Shell, you just had to press F1. When you did, you had access to a primitive, yet very comprehensive Help system that explained each and every available option in detail. And best of all, the Help system was context sensitive.
When you take a look at the File System, you can see the origins of the Windows Explorer file management tool that we use today. At the very top you have the menu bar with the basic menus followed by the drive bar. The main part of the interface consists of the Directory Tree, on the left, and the file list, on the right.
One of the nice file management features of File System tool in the DOS 4.01 Shell was that you could display two different file lists thus allowing you to see the contents of two disk drives or two directories on the same disk drive at the same time.
The biggest advantage of being able to display two different file lists was that it made it easy to copy files from one location to another.
While drag and drop in today’s Windows Explorer essentially does away with the need for such a dual display, there are times when it would be nice to have this old feature in Windows Explorer.
Once you select a file in the file list, the commands on the File menu become active. You could use the Open command, to open a data file in its native application. You could even use the Associate command to tie a document type to an application.
To help you organize your files, you could select the Display Options command from the Options menu and filter and sort the files in the file list.
If you selected several files, you could then select the Show Information command from the Options menu and see the total size of the selected files.
When you were finished with the File System tool, you just accessed the Exit menu and selected the Exit File System command of just pressed the [F3] shortcut key. When you did either, you would return to the Start Programs interface.
When you were completely finished with the Shell, you accessed the Exit menu and selected the Exit Shell command of just pressed the [F3] shortcut key. When you did either, you would see a command prompt and could then turn off the computer.