FreeDOS, a complete, free, DOS-compatible operating system officially turns 23 today! The FreeDOS Project has been around since 1994, and was one of the first projects to move to SourceForge when it first started.
The FreeDOS Project allows users to play classic DOS games, run legacy business software, or develop embedded systems. Any program that works on MS-DOS should also run on FreeDOS.
It was previously chosen as “Staff Pick” Project of the Month in September of 2016, and is currently featured as one of our “Editor’s Choice” projects on the SourceForge homepage.
Achieving this many years is a great milestone for any project. And because it’s one of the most enduring and significant projects on SourceForge, we decided to catch up with project creator Jim Hall and ask him about his experiences with FreeDOS so far.
SourceForge (SF): FreeDOS is 23! What has it been like running this project?
Jim Hall (JH): Twenty three years is a long time! We’ve gone through a lot of changes over that time, a lot of growth.
When we started, I didn’t expect to do what I’m doing now in the project. Over the last twenty three years, I’ve worn a lot of hats: writing code, maintaining the website, managing the email lists, editing the wiki, and so on. But I love all of it! FreeDOS is a great little project that I enjoy working on, and it’s wonderful that so many other people like to use it too.
SF: Why do you think FreeDOS has lasted this long? What’s the secret to FreeDOS’ longevity and success?
JH: I think FreeDOS has lasted as long as it has because it is interesting to a lot of people. And FreeDOS is interesting to different people in different ways. We appeal to people who want to play classic DOS games. I think that’s probably our biggest (group of) users, these days. There were a lot of great games from the 1980s and 1990s, and just because they’re old doesn’t mean they’re not fun to play. I’ll sometimes bring up the original DOOM and play that. Someone else recently shared a screenshot of playing TIE Fighter under FreeDOS. DOS had a wide market for games, and you can still play them.
We also appeal to people who need to run older DOS software. You find that still happens. I’m often surprised when I find that in 2016 or 2017, someone is running a DOS application for business. A few years ago, I worked in higher education, and we had a faculty member who needed to retrieve some data off an old DOS system. I don’t remember the details, but I think they had some data in an old program, and no Windows applications could read the files. But they had the DOS program, so we installed FreeDOS on a spare PC, ran the program, and exported the data into a plain text file that the researcher could read somewhere else.
FreeDOS is also great for hobbyists. There seems to be an interest in older computers. People pick up an old ‘486 or even a PC-XT and want to install FreeDOS on it. And you can, because FreeDOS is still targeted at that classic hardware. We have to be, because DOS has this huge legacy of backwards compatibility, so FreeDOS has that too.
SF: What separates FreeDOS from other DOS? What makes it the better choice?
JH: I think the main differentiator is that FreeDOS is still being developed by an active community. DOS stopped being a moving target in 1994, but development is still important. FreeDOS has grown beyond what “MS-DOS” aspired to by 1994. Today, we include a bunch of new software that other DOS systems don’t have.
For example, other DOS systems didn’t provide much of a programming environment. Sure, you could use GW-BASIC or QBasic, and some would do neat things from the DEBUG program. But development was never an “out of the box” goal for the original DOS. Instead, you bought a compiler or assembler or other development tool from a vendor. But in FreeDOS, we provide compilers, assemblers, libraries, debuggers, and interpreters. You can install FreeDOS and immediately start working in C, Assembly, BASIC, Perl, Lua, Euphoria, Pascal, or a few other languages.
FreeDOS also includes networking, which is not something provided in other DOS. We include a few browsers (Dillo and Lynx, for example) and even an SSH client. And if you look at when “MS-DOS” stopped being a thing, that was 1994, before the “World Wide Web” became common. So of course you wouldn’t expect classic DOS to let you browse the Web.
SF: What’s been the biggest takeaway or lesson you’ve learned from establishing the FreeDOS project?
JH: I learned that if you are interested in something, go do it! In 1994, I wanted to have a free version of DOS that we could all use. So I started working on one. I wrote a bunch of code to get things rolling, and found other utilities and filled some of the gaps. After a while, others saw that this “free DOS” thing was a real thing, and they contributed.
The key is to be open to new contributors. I knew I couldn’t do it all myself, and I was happy when others wanted to join. I made it easy for new contributors. We posted “wanted” lists about the parts of FreeDOS that needed help. And people responded to that! When someone sent in a code patch, I accepted it!
SF: What is your response to those who say that DOS is no longer relevant?
JH: DOS is definitely relevant today. I have no aspirations that FreeDOS will displace Linux on the desktop. FreeDOS definitely has a niche. But people definitely use FreeDOS for real things.
Remember that author George R.R. Martin uses a DOS computer to write his Game of Thrones book series. (http://www.slate.com/blogs/future_tense/2014/05/14/george_r_r_martin_writes_on_dos_based_wordstar_4_0_software_from_the_1980s.html) And several businesses still run DOS applications in unexpected ways, including auto service (https://www.extremetech.com/extreme/227828-the-mclaren-f1-supercar-can-only-be-serviced-with-this-ancient-compaq-laptop). Just because something is old doesn’t mean it’s not useful. And FreeDOS puts a modern spin on an old operating system like DOS, which keeps FreeDOS relevant and more useful than just plain DOS.
SF: What would you like to say to those who have supported FreeDOS?
JH: I’d like to thank everyone who’s been part of FreeDOS, past and present. We’ve had so many people contribute to FreeDOS, so I can’t list them all. But they’ve all been great!
SF: What can we expect from FreeDOS in the future?
JH: Some of us have been thinking about what the next FreeDOS distribution would look like, but we haven’t really defined it yet. So things are still up in the air. It’s safe to say that FreeDOS will always be “DOS.” We can’t break DOS compatibility. And we need to stay true to DOS’s roots. So FreeDOS will always have a “C:” drive and it will always have the “Base” utilities (the set of utilities that replaces the functionality of MS-DOS).
But the next version of FreeDOS might rearrange some things. For example, do we really need all of the “Base” tools installed by default? The SUBST and JOIN commands were added to DOS long ago to provide “backwards compatibility” to very old DOS programs that didn’t know about sub-directories. Do we still need those installed by default today? Also consider the GRAPHICS utility, which lets you dump the graphics screen to a printer. Many people run FreeDOS inside a PC emulator, which has its own method to create a screenshot without calling DOS. Do we need that tool installed by default?
So we might move these and other “compatibility” tools to a “Compat” group, which wouldn’t be installed by default.
Recently, we’ve seen folks contribute Unix utilities to FreeDOS. I think this is a great idea. While I don’t view FreeDOS as a “cheap substitute” for Linux, I think it’s very interesting to have Unix-compatible commands on FreeDOS. Long ago, there used to be a “GNUish” project, which ported GNU utilities to DOS. I think we are on the way to a “2.0” version of “GNUish.” But we need more developers to help port utilities.
SF: Is there anything else you’d like us to know about FreeDOS?
JH: I think it’s wonderful to see FreeDOS still going strong after twenty-three years! When I look back, we’ve done a lot with FreeDOS. We’ve come a long way! In 1994, I hoped to replace MS-DOS when it went away. But we’ve actually surpassed MS-DOS. FreeDOS has more functionality and more tools than “old DOS” had. When people look at FreeDOS, I don’t want them to think we’re this little “hobby” project. We’re actually pretty cool and useful. Try us out! Install FreeDOS in a PC emulator or virtual machine, and see what FreeDOS can do!
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[Category: Open Source]