Monday, June 30, 2014

Celebrating 20 years in free software

I'd like to share a celebration with you. As of today, The FreeDOS Project is now 20 years old. Happy birthday, FreeDOS!

FreeDOS is a free version of DOS, a replacement for Microsoft's MS-DOS. FreeDOS dates back to 1994, when I was still a physics undergraduate student at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. While my major field of study was physics, I long held a strong interest in computers and programming.

As a physics student in the early 1990s, I used MS-DOS to analyze data and write papers for classes. I found DOS to be exactly what I needed to do all of my work. I mostly used a shareware spreadsheet program called "AsEasyAs" (a clone of Lotus 1-2-3) to do my data analysis, and a popular commercial word processor "WordPerfect" to write my papers. For the more technically-minded of you: I sometimes used a DOS version of LaTeX, called emTeX, to write lab reports that required equations and other fancy formatting that was beyond the reach of WordPerfect.

So it was with great disappointment in Spring 1994 that I learned Microsoft would soon stop supporting MS-DOS, in favor of a new version of Windows. As Microsoft claimed at the time, DOS was dead, and long live Windows. While the newer Windows became the hugely successful Windows95, you may remember that Windows 3.11 (current at that time) was not so great. In fact, Windows 3.11 was pretty bad. I didn't like using it; I preferred to do all my word in MS-DOS.

I decided to do something about it. I had used Linux, and was already dual-booting my computer with an early Linux distribution (SLS 1.03). I figured if others could write a free version of Unix, surely we could create our own version of DOS.

And on June 29, 1994, I announced my intention to write a free version of DOS. I called that first version "PD-DOS" for a few reasons. I decided that a free version of DOS should be open for anyone to use, so it was essentially in the "public domain." Also, I liked the two-letter name; there was already MS-DOS, PC-DOS, DR-DOS … and ours would be PD-DOS. But it didn't take long before we realized that it would be better to use a "Free Software" license such as the GNU GPL for our programs, so we quickly renamed our project "FreeDOS."

(Actually, we first renamed it "Free-DOS" until late 1995 or early 1996, when Pat Villani's published his book FreeDOS Kernel; An MS-DOS Emulator for Platform Independence and Embedded Systems Development. By that time, enough people on our mailing list had been calling it "FreeDOS" that we just kept the new spelling.)

Since then, we have advanced what DOS could do, adding new functionality and making DOS easier to use. For example, FreeDOS lets you access FAT32 file systems and use large disk support (LBA), a feature not available in MS-DOS at the time, and only included in Windows95 and newer. And today in 2014, people continue to use FreeDOS to support embedded systems, to run business software, and to play classic DOS games!

FreeDOS is still under active development. Programmers from around the world continue to add new features to FreeDOS that make it even better. However, FreeDOS doesn't change very quickly. It simply doesn't need to. FreeDOS runs all sorts of original DOS programs, and the definition of "DOS" hasn't changed since MS-DOS 6.22. So not much changes "under the hood" these days, but developers create new utilities and expand existing functionality.

If people want to try FreeDOS today, I usually recommend a PC emulator, such as VMWare or VirtualPC. It's really easy to run FreeDOS in a virtual machine like this. You can also run FreeDOS in your browser, using a browser-based PC emulator called JPC. On my Linux laptop, I run FreeDOS from DOSemu. Download a copy of FreeDOS 1.1 and give it a try!

As always, thanks to everyone who has worked on FreeDOS. We wouldn't be here without you!
image: Official FreeDOS fish (web) by Bas Snabilie, SVG adapted by Mateusz Viste

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