Jim Hall

Hi there! I'm Jim Hall, founder and coordinator of the FreeDOS Project! This is my FreeDOS blog, where I'll write about various things happening in FreeDOS.

A few thoughts on simplifying the install process

2015-05-12
Years ago, I wrote the very first FreeDOS Install program. That was what really launched FreeDOS from its Alpha release to a Beta release in 1998, with the FreeDOS 0.1 "Orlando" distribution. Over time, I updated the FreeDOS Install program to make the install process more modular, to make things easier for a packager to assemble a FreeDOS distribution. The install process was quite simple back then: the FreeDOS Install program just scanned a list of packages and package "sets," and gave you the option of what sets to install, or what specific packages.

Later, another developer added a post-install process to update the system, to make it ready for first use. And that version is pretty much what you see today in the FreeDOS 1.1 distribution. The FreeDOS install process hasn't changed substantially, even from 1998.

I want to simplify the install proces. DOS is a very simple system; do we really need to have all these options of what packages and package sets to install? I don't think so. Let's just install the whole thing.

But I want to simplify things even more. When you take a step back, the FreeDOS Install program is just a wrapper to the Info-Unzip library. Once you set it in motion, it runs through all the packages and unzip them to the target drive and directory (usually C:\FDOS). We don't need a compiled program for that. We can simplify this to a smart batch script that calls Unzip for every package in the distribution.

My idea: Rather than create a single DOS application, create a set of small "batch utilities" that do the work of the install process, including the FreeDOS Install program. I imagine these batch utilities as "Visual" utility programs—utilities that are similar to their command-line counterparts, except they use a pretty full-screen interface. Let me define what I think is needed to simplify the install process using these Visual batch utilities. For each program, I'll use V ("Visual") to start the program name:
VCHOICE "prompt" "choice"…
Display some text, and allow the user to select an option from a list.
Can be used to display simple prompts:
VCHOICE "Hi there. This is the FreeDOS 1.2 distribution…" "OK" "Exit"

Or, select what to install:
VCHOICE "Do you want to install everything?" "Yes, everything" "Just BASE" "Exit"

Or, select to install source code:
VCHOICE "Do you want to install source code, too?" "Yes" "No" "Exit"
VECHO "text"…
Display some text. This might be used to display a message while the install process is busy working. For example, this could print a "Now installing FreeDOS…" message as the install process unzips all of the packages.

VCLS
Clear the screen, and draw a basic screen (background color, header) without any windows.
It's clear to me that VCLS is the "base" program here; just clear the display and draw a basic screen with background colors and "FreeDOS 1.2" header. From that, it's a small step to build the VECHO program. And from VECHO, you are another step to build the VCHOICE program.

And I think we need another simple program to help the install process along:
CHECKC
Checks if the C: drive exists, and is formatted. The errorlevel could indicate status:
0 C: exists and is formatted
1 C: exists but is not formatted
2 C: does not exist
With a modular approach to a simplified install process, we might add other simple programs that do specific things. One program might detect hardware and output lines that get appended to CONFIG.SYS or AUTOEXEC.BAT.

Unfortunately, I am really really overcommitted right now. I wanted to write these programs over the winter break in December and January, but I didn't have the free time I thought I would have. But maybe others can take these ideas and run with them. Feel free to write these utility programs and contribute them to FreeDOS. This will help everyone. In particular, I think it is an important step towards the FreeDOS 1.2 distribution!

I'm not absent, just overcommitted

2015-03-27
You might have noticed that I haven't been very active on the freedos-devel list lately. I'm not absent from the project, I haven't dropped out or anything. It's just that I volunteered for too many projects outside of FreeDOS, so I'm very overcommitted at the moment.

Aside from FreeDOS, I'm also mentoring for the GNOME Outreach Program for Women (now GNOME Outreachy) for usability testing. And at work, I am the Director of Information Technology and Campus CIO at a liberal arts university. That's a lot for me to balance between everything. And I do all the FreeDOS website stuff, and manage the archives at ibiblio, and update the FreeDOS social media at Twitter and Facebook. Somewhere in there, I try to have a personal life, too.

I'm also looking for a new place to work. I'm not out of work, but I would like to move on. Much of my free time is currently engaged with the job search.

So I'm currently having trouble meeting my FreeDOS commitments—but I'm still here! I am following things on the freedos-devel list, as best I can. And I am responding to email, but it may take a while before I can reply to your message.

Website updates

2014-11-10
I'm going to start working on some updates to the website very soon. My plan is to make the site easier for new users to navigate, and make the content easier to read. I do not indent to change the web style, although you may see some very minor tweaks.

So, what's on my to-do list? A few things:
  • Migrating Press releases, News items, and Tech items into the Wiki. This is also a good opportunity to remove stale content (advice that is no longer correct or relevant.)
  • Updating the Wiki front page to make it easier to find what you are looking for.
  • Cleaning up the Software list.
  • Trimming the Links page.
Interested in helping out? I really could use some help in moving content into the Wiki. If you had an account on the Wiki before, you may need to contact me to re-activate it for you; accounts were re-set when SourceForge retired the Wiki service, and we had to run our own. If you don't have a Wiki account, let me know and I can set one up for you.

I am also looking to standardize and re-categorize the FreeDOS software list. My goal is to eliminate any non-free software from the FreeDOS software list. For example: Ndn does not provide source code; does this belong in FreeDOS? We included these programs long ago because they were technically "free" but not "Free"—they allowed people to redistribute the programs, but did not provide source code. At the time, we didn't have other Free programs to cover the functionality, or the program was likely a popular one. But times have changed; it's time to clean up the software list and make sure that FreeDOS is truly Free.

The next version of FreeDOS (when we get there) should include all software sets, so everything needs to be free, no matter if it is in Base or another set. This cleanup will be a process, and I will be sure to talk about it on the email list so others can help replace these programs with free versions. My priority is to look at the list and remove anything that is "closed source," then see where that leaves us. I'll decide next steps from there.

Contributing to free software

2014-09-14
As you probably know, I am the IT Director and Campus CIO at the University of Minnesota Morris. Over the weekend, Morris hosted a special event to help students learn about free and open source software. In partnership with OpenHatch, the event was titled "Open Source Comes to Campus" and provided an introduction to open source software, including a career panel, and hands-on opportunities to contribute to open source software projects.

During the afternoon workshop, I led several small groups in contributing to their first open source software projects. In my case, we helped out with FreeDOS. During the afternoon, we contributed in two major ways:

With help from Emily, Josh, and Alek, we migrated old web pages into the FreeDOS Wiki. The overall project to convert old content will take weeks or months, and this workshop provided a great kick-off for our documentation clean-up efforts.

Daniel refactored the web code for the FreeDOS News page, which also feeds the news items on the FreeDOS website. Daniel made an immediate and lasting improvement to the FreeDOS website. Behind the scenes, the news code needed to be cleaned up. Daniel's fixes also allow visitors to link directly to a news item, necessary for sharing on Facebook and Twitter.

Other groups provided improvements to a free Senet board game and to a drone control system.

I am proud to have been a mentor for this event. What a great way to help students and to serve the campus! I look forward to next year's event!

Special thanks to Elena Machkasova and others in the Computer Science Club who planned this wonderful event.

FreeDOS at 20 years and counting

2014-06-30
I'd like to share a celebration with you. As of today, The FreeDOS Project is now 20 years old. Happy birthday, FreeDOS!

FreeDOS dates back to 1994, when I was still a physics undergraduate student. 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.

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. 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. And on June 29, 1994, I announced my intention to write a free version of DOS. I called that first version "PD-DOS" but we renamed our project "FreeDOS" not long after that.

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!

As always, thanks to everyone who has worked on FreeDOS. We wouldn't be here without you!

Usability Themes in Open Source Software

2014-05-01
For about the last two years, I've been working hard on my Master's degree. This was an interesting program, M.S. in Scientific & Technical Communication. I had a lot of great classes, including a directed study in Usability, in which I explored Open Source Software & Usability. I expanded this into my Master's capstone project, "Usability Themes in Open Source Software."

PDF (original). Also available as EPUB & MOBI.

When I generated the EPUB ebook, I fixed a few minor formatting errors from the PDF. The MOBI ebook is a conversion from EPUB.

I'm going to graduate in May!

2014-03-25
Just wanted to share a quick status that my graduation plan has been approved. That's "academic-speak" for "I'm going to graduate in May!" I've been in the M.S. program for about two years now, and it's been a lot of work but also a lot of fun. I really enjoy learning. And I've had some great classes, and a few that have inspired me to do new things, such as my interest in Open Source Software & Usability. I'm looking forward to commencement in May, then seeing what comes next!

An update from Jim

2013-04-24
As many of you know, I am in graduate school, working towards a M.S. degree in Scientific & Technical Communication at the University of Minnesota. On top of that, I'm the IT Director at a small university, so I'm already pretty busy. I've been checking into my FreeDOS email, trying to keep up, but it's getting really hard to stay up-to-date. I'm about half-way through my M.S. program now, and I'm only going to get busier in the next year as I get closer to presenting my thesis.

So I'm going to "go dark" for a while. I'm still around, but I don't expect to be very reachable. If I don't respond to you right away (or at all) please don't take it personally. I'm just crazy busy, and trying to stay focused on my M.S. program work.

In my absence, I'm hoping others in the FreeDOS Project will be able to pitch in. Rugxulo and Eric have already been doing a great job responding to questions, doing email list maintainance, posting news to the website, updating the software list, and mirroring new software versions to our ibiblio archive. Please look to them while I'm away.

Are you looking for my blog?

2013-04-24
I used to write a FreeDOS blog, but I haven't updated it in a long time. An archive is available at Jim Hall's FreeDOS blog.

You may also follow my other blog about Leadership and Vision in IT and Higher Education at Jim Hall's blog, but this will move to my new Coaching Buttons blog sometime over the summer so people can post comments again (looks like an update to Wordpress broke comments).

Or, you may be interested in my blog about open source software and usability. I started this blog based on work I am doing in my M.S. program.

Archive »

Progress on web site redesign

I wanted to share an update on our FreeDOS web site redesign. Again, thank you to everyone who sent us comments on the test design, at either stage of the design process. Your feedback was very useful in improving the usability of the web site, and I think directly contributed to the improved design.

I already provided the background for the redesign project in my other post, but I'll briefly summarize by saying our web site is a good source of FreeDOS information if you were already a FreeDOS user, but is not very approachable by new users. Our new redesign should address that.

Last weekend, I posted the second test web design to our test site, and asked for your comments via a usability feedback form. Here are some highlights of what you told us:

What's working

  • The updated descriptions about FreeDOS in the "Q&A" information is much easier to read. You had very positive remarks here, so I think that's a winner!
  • You really liked the new screenshots of programs running in FreeDOS. We'll keep these updated, and add more as we make this new design "live."
  • The improved link text in the "nav bar" makes it easier for people to see where to go. Several liked that the links use plain language so it was easier to find their way around, even though not all pages are on the test site yet.
  • The new colors look better, as do the new fonts.
  • The new design displays well even on smaller screens (netbooks, iPads, etc.)

What needs work

  • Should mention Dosbox and a few other emulators in the "What do I need to run FreeDOS?" section.
  • Need to add notes in the wiki about how to create a bootable USB flash drive using FreeDOS.
  • Should add some whitespace around the main text so it is easier to read on larger displays. We could do the same for the mobile version, so the text doesn't run up to the edges of the screen.
  • The news feed ("What's new?") may not be helpful for new users.
  • Make the screenshots "rotate" while you are on the front page, rather than displaying a new screenshot each time you load the page.

Most of your suggestions for improvement focused on specific content, rather than design elements, so we're taking that as a very good sign that we got things "right" in organizing things.

Scenarios

We also asked you to put yourself in the place of 3 new users, and to tell us how these users might use the new web site:

  1. A casual user who wants to use FreeDOS to play old DOS games.
  2. A person who wants to use FreeDOS to run an embedded DOS application.
  3. A user who wants to replace MS-DOS with FreeDOS to run legacy software.

Your response to these scenarios was also very helpful. The consensus was that these new users would be able to easily find the information they need to get started with FreeDOS.

Next steps

If you haven't had an opportunity yet to tell us what you think, please visit the test site and leave us your comments via the online form. Over the next week or so, I may "tweak" some elements of the design based on your feedback. But most of the edits will focus on updating the other pages ("Join the email list", "Links", "Technotes", etc.) and fixing the mobile browser detection so iPads are recognized as a full-size browser. I'll expect to completely rewrite most pages so they are easier to read.

Thanks for your feedback so far! You have played a direct part in updating a very central part of FreeDOS, which just shows you don't have to be a developer to contribute to open source software.

Update on FreeDOS web redesign

Thank you to everyone who responded to the "call for feedback" on the FreeDOS web redesign! Your comments were very helpful, and I am using them to improve the next "test version" of the web site.

A new test design should be out this weekend, and I'm hoping you will take another look and share more comments with me.

I'd like to share some of what I've learned from you in the web redesign process. But first, let me take a step back and talk about my goals for the redesign:

M. "Hannibal" Toal (project coordinator, 1995-1996) assembled the first FreeDOS web site (www.freedos.org) in 1995, providing basic information about FreeDOS. Over the years, various webmasters contributed to the site: rewriting old text, growing new content areas, adding new information. However, the web design evolved without a style guide, leading to pages filled with dense paragraphs of highly technical information. Finally, in late 2009, Node Thirty Three Design donated a new web design that updated the look of the web site, but did not address content.

While the design has stabilized, the content remains difficult to use - information is hard to find. These problems were highlighted by an informal survey posted to the freedos-user email list in February. You told me you appreciated the "latest updates" on the front page of the web site, but found the site navigation confusing, and the text on the "About" page too dense to read easily, outdated, or both.

Clearly, we need to improve the web experience for our visitors. This is especially important since we released the FreeDOS 1.1 distribution in early January, which renewed general interest in FreeDOS, and increased traffic to our web site. New users who discover FreeDOS should be able to quickly and easily locate helpful information about the project via our web site.

So, I want to improve the FreeDOS web site, make the site easier to use. But I want to do this the "right" way, not some partial attempt at a redesign. And I don't want to just make the graphics prettier - we definitely need to readjust and rewrite our site content. And I'm willing to do that.

Last weekend, I posted a prototype web design to a new test site, test.freedos.org, and asked you to send your comments via a feedback form. Here are some highlights of what you've said:

What's working

  • Many of you liked that we moved the "About" content to the front page, and the "more info" clickable links (although we need to improve that bit.)
  • Screenshots of FreeDOS on the front page. We'll definitely keep this, and would plan to add screenshots of more FreeDOS applications, not just the command line. For example, we'll include screens from Dillo, OpenGEM, Mpxplay, word processors, spreadsheets, games, etc.
  • The "Download" button on the front page (but we need to find a better on-screen location for it.)

What needs to change

  • Most of you said we need to improve the content in the wiki. And we should have more links from the front page that go into the wiki - for example, the "About" content should link to the wiki tutorial on how to install FreeDOS.
  • The new design doesn't display well on smaller screens. We knew this going in, and I plan to address this for the next test version.
  • The links in the "nav" bar should be restructured to be more helpful. For example, "Links" should not be the first one in the list. These links might also be reworded to give better clues.
  • Some broken links (most notably, on our "Links" page) and other site content stuff. We'll get this updated.
  • Colors, fonts, buttons and other specific design issues.

You gave some great feedback to the scenarios, so I'm glad I thought to include that in the survey. I'll do that again for the next test version. The scenario feedback helped provide clues to where people would look to find certain information. Again, it seems clear that we need to add more links to the wiki, tutorials, and other helpful content from the "About" text. Your feedback suggests that would have the greatest positive impact in the new design, so I'll be sure to include these in the next test design.

Thank you for your comments! If you haven't posted your feedback yet, I encourage you to do so, make sure your voice is heard.

In a few days, I'll start work on a new test design, and get that posted on Friday or Saturday. We'll leave that version up for week. Depending on how that design is received, we may do another round of "usability" testing before we're ready to apply this design to the "live" site.

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