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Hi, and welcome to the FreeDOS 1.2 press kit! I’m Jim Hall, founder and coordinator of the FreeDOS Project. With this press kit, I wanted to provide some additional information and resources about the FreeDOS 1.2 release. If you are writing an article about FreeDOS, feel free to use this information to help you.

If you prefer an interview, you can reach me at jhall@freedos.org.

About FreeDOS

How did FreeDOS get started?

Let me answer this the long way. Feel free to use whatever you find interesting.

My background

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Our parents wanted to expose me and my brother to computers from an early age, so they bought an Apple II clone called the Franklin Ace 1000. I'm sure the first thing we used it for was to play games. But it didn't take long before my brother and I asked “How does it work?” So our parents bought us a book about how to program in AppleSoft BASIC, and we taught ourselves.

I remember my first programs were pretty standard stuff. Eventually, I developed a fondness for creating simulations and turn-based games. For example, my friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons in our spare time, and I wrote several “D&D”-style games. A favorite hobby of mine was re-creating the computer readouts from television shows and movies. Perhaps my largest effort was a program that let you “play” global thermonuclear war, based on the 1983 WarGames movie.

Later, we replaced the Apple with an IBM PC. The BASIC environment on DOS was different from AppleSoft BASIC, but I figured it out easily enough. I continued writing programs there throughout my junior high and high school years.

In 1990, I became an undergraduate physics student at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. Even though my major was physics, I continued to write programs for myself. I learned the C programming language and picked up a C compiler. I wrote lots of utilities to help me analyze lab data or add new features to the MS-DOS command line. Like many others at the time, I also created utilities that replaced and enhanced the MS-DOS command line.

The university had a computer lab, and I got an account there on the VAX and Unix systems. I really liked Unix. The command line was similar to MS-DOS, but it was more powerful. I learned to use Unix when I was in the computer labs, but I still used MS-DOS on my personal computer. By running MS-DOS, I could use my favorite programs to write papers and help me analyze lab data.

I discovered the concept of “shareware” programs, which let you try the program for free. If you found the program useful, you registered the program by sending a check to the program's author. I thought shareware was a pretty neat idea, and I found shareware programs that filled my need on MS-DOS. For example, I originally wrote papers in WordPerfect, but switched to the shareware GalaxyWrite word processor. I used AsEasyAs to do spreadsheet analysis, and Telix to dial into the university's computer lab when I needed to use a Unix system.

In 1993, I learned about a Unix system that I could run on my home computer for free. This “Linux” system seemed just as powerful as the university's Unix systems, but now I could run everything on my home computer. I installed Linux on my PC, dual-booted with MS-DOS. I thought Linux was neat, and I did use it a lot, but spent most of my time in MS-DOS. Because let's face it: in 1993, there were a lot more applications and games on MS-DOS than on Linux.

The origins of FreeDOS

MS-DOS was my favorite operating system. I used it all the time. I had built up this library of utilities I'd written myself to add new functionality to MS-DOS. I just thought DOS was a great operating system. I'd used Windows by this point—but if you remember the era, you know Windows 3.1 wasn't a great platform. I preferred doing my work at the command line, not with a mouse.

And in early 1994, I started seeing a lot of tech magazine articles, interviews with Microsoft, announcing that the next version of Windows would totally do away with MS-DOS. Essentially, Windows would kill MS-DOS. I looked at Windows 3.1 and said, “If Windows 3.2 or Windows 4.0 will be anything like Windows 3.1, I want nothing to do with it.“

Having some experience with Linux, I thought, “If developers can come together over the Internet to write a complete Unix operating system, surely we can do the same thing with DOS?&rdquo. After all, DOS was a fairly straightforward operating system compared to Unix. DOS ran one task at a time (called single-tasking) and had a simpler memory model. And I'd already written for myself a number of utilities that expanded the MS-DOS command line, so I had a head start.

I asked around the comp.os.msdos.apps discussion group on Usenet. While others were interested in a free DOS, no one wanted to start such a project. So I volunteered to do it.

On June 29, 1994, I posted this first announcement to comp.os.msdos.apps:

ANNOUNCEMENT OF PD-DOS PROJECT:

A few months ago, I posted articles relating to starting a public
domain version of DOS. The general support for this at the time was
strong, and many people agreed with the statement, "start writing!"
So, I have...

Announcing the first effort to produce a PD-DOS. I have written up a
"manifest" describing the goals of such a project and an outline of
the work, as well as a "task list" that shows exactly what needs to be
written. I'll post those here, and let discussion follow.

If you are thinking about developing, or have ideas or suggestions for
PD-DOS, I would appreciate direct email to me. If you just want to
discuss the merits or morals of writing a PD-DOS, I'll leave that to
the net. I'll check in from time to time to see how the discussion is
going, and maybe contribute a little to what promises to be a very
polarized debate!

I am excited about PD-DOS, and I am hoping I can get a group started!

--James Hall

PS -- of course, if this already exists, please point me to the group
leader so I can at least contribute!

Developers contacted me almost immediately! We had all written our own MS-DOS extensions, power tools that expanded what you could do on the MS-DOS command line. We pooled our utilities, and looked on public FTP sites for public domain source code to other programs that replicated the features of MS-DOS.

A note about the name: When I started the project, I didn't fully understand the nuances between “Free software” and “Public domain.” I assumed they were the same. And certainly many of the free tools we found on FTP sites were released into the public domain. So I used the name “PD-DOS” for Public Domain DOS. It only took a few weeks before I realized we wanted the protection of the GNU General Public License, which would make our DOS project a “Free software” project. By mid- to late-July, we changed the name to Free-DOS. Later, we dropped the hyphen to become FreeDOS.

We released our first Alpha distribution in September 1994. We continued to make new Alpha releases until March 1998, when I made our first Beta distribution. You can read the rest of the details on our FreeDOS History page.

Why FreeDOS in 2016/2017? Who uses FreeDOS?

People still use FreeDOS in 2016, and I expect people will continue to use it in 2017. Since around January 2015, we've averaged about 30,000 downloads of FreeDOS every month. (Obviously, I can only see what people download directly from the website.)

A few years ago, we ran a survey to see how people use FreeDOS. We found that people use FreeDOS in three different ways:

  1. To play classic DOS games: Commander Keen 1You can play your favorite DOS games on FreeDOS. And there are a lot of great classic games to play: Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Commander Keen, Rise of the Triad, Jill of the Jungle, Duke Nukem, and many others!
  2. To run legacy software: Need to recover data from an old business program? Or maybe you need to run a report from your old finance system? Just install your legacy software under FreeDOS, and you’ll be good to go!
  3. To develop embedded systems: Many embedded systems run on DOS, although modern systems may instead run on Linux. If you support an older embedded system, you might be running DOS. And FreeDOS can fit in very well.

These days, I think that still represents most of the usage of FreeDOS. Although I'll admit fewer people probably develop embedded systems on FreeDOS. Much of the embedded systems market has shifted to Linux, where there's more developer interest. I think the Raspberry Pi and other low-cost and low-power devices have made Linux in embedded devices very attractive, so you don't see as much DOS in embedded systems today—but you do see some DOS sometimes.

Over the years, some developers have shared with me how they use FreeDOS to run an embedded system. My all-time favorite example is a developer who used FreeDOS to power a pinball machine. FreeDOS ran some application that controlled the board, tallied the score, and updated the back display. I don't know exactly how it was built. One way I can think to design such a system is to have every bumper register a “key” on a keyboard bus, and the application simply read from that input. I thought it was cool!

People sometimes forget about legacy software, but this pops up in unexpected places. I used to be campus CIO of a small university, and we once had a faculty member bring in some floppy disks with old research data on them. The data wasn't stored in plain text files, but as DOS application data. None of our modern systems would read the old data files, so we booted a spare PC with FreeDOS, downloaded a shareware DOS program that could read the application data, and exported the data to plain text.

There are other examples of legacy software running on DOS. My favorite is the McLaren F1 supercar can only be serviced with an ancient DOS laptop. And Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martin uses DOS to write his books. Those examples probably use MS-DOS, but there are likely a bunch of other legacy systems running from FreeDOS.

You can probably add a fourth category here: updating BIOS. I get a lot of email or other comments from people who still boot FreeDOS to update the BIOS in a computer system. DOS is still a safe way to do that.

What's new in FreeDOS 1.2?

In planning what came next after FreeDOS 1.1, we discussed if the next version should be FreeDOS 1.2 or FreeDOS 2.0. It really came down to what a modern DOS should look like.

For a while, I argued that FreeDOS should become a modern DOS, that we should try to imagine what MS-DOS would have looked like if Microsoft hadn't killed off the MS-DOS product when they released Windows95. That is an interesting thought exercise:

A modern DOS would have to update its memory model. DOS uses a segmented memory model, which made sense when the PC was a simple computing device. With the Intel 80386 processor, you could have multitasking. That's why Linux was originally written for the ‘386. So a modern DOS would also support multitasking. At some point, though, this modern DOS will break backwards compatibility with legacy DOS applications. To preserve some method of compatibility, we reasoned, a modern DOS would likely include a “sandbox” to run these legacy applications.

But when you look at it, we already have that modern DOS. That's Linux. Because Linux supports multitasking, it has a flat memory model, it does all these other things. And if you want to run legacy DOS applications, you boot FreeDOS in a PC emulator like DOSEmu.

That's not DOS. FreeDOS is still DOS, and needs to remain DOS. So we agreed the next version after FreeDOS 1.1 would be an update to FreeDOS. That's why this version is FreeDOS 1.2.

FreeDOS 1.2 is still DOS, but it's more than a mere update of FreeDOS 1.1. We've made some significant improvements.

The first thing you'll notice in FreeDOS 1.2 is the brand-new installer. Jerome Shidel wrote a new installer for us, and it looks really good! The new installer is very simple—for both new and experienced FreeDOS users. If you've used FreeDOS before, the installer will feel very familiar. At the same time, if you're completely new to FreeDOS, you'll have an easy time.

We've also included new programs and utilities in FreeDOS 1.2. In this release, we finally include some games. Since so many people use FreeDOS to play classic DOS games, it seemed a good idea to include some open source DOS games for people to try.

And we include a bunch of new utilities that we hope people will find useful. More developer utilities, more user utilities. For example, we now include some programs to help you play sounds and update graphic files. We also provide other tools that help you connect to a network, including a DOS web browser.

The additional programs also make the new FreeDOS 1.2 distribution a lot bigger. The FreeDOS 1.1 distribution was about 40MB. The new FreeDOS 1.2 comes in several “flavors.” The “Lite” installer is about 30MB, and the “Full” installer is 415MB. Both are USB-based installers; you can write them to a USB fob drive and boot your computer with that to install FreeDOS. We also provide a CDROM installer that's 419MB, and an alternate CDROM installer that's the same size. (The difference between the two CDROM installers is that one is intended for certain older computers that need to boot from CDROM in a particular way.)

Do you use FreeDOS?

I don’t run FreeDOS as my primary system. That would really be impressive!

I run Linux at home. My laptop is a Lenovo X1 Carbon (first gen) running Fedora 25 with GNOME 3.

The tools I use every day include: Google Chrome, Firefox, and GNOME Web to browse the web; Gedit to edit text or simple code (such as Bash); GNU Emacs to edit program code (I prefer C); GNOME Terminal to ssh to my personal server and to the FreeDOS website; RhythmBox to listen to music.

I run FreeDOS in a virtual machine. I use DOSEmu if I’m writing FreeDOS code, so I can use GNU Emacs on Linux to write code and immediately compile it in FreeDOS via DOSEmu. That’s really convenient because DOSEmu maps a folder in your home directory as the C: drive.

If I need to run FreeDOS as though it’s running on hardware, such as testing the upcoming FreeDOS 1.2 release, I use GNOME Boxes (which is really QEMU).

More information

You can find more information on our website. Here are a few places:

In addition, there’s a history of the FreeDOS Alpha and Beta releases on the Talk page of our Road Map wiki. This also contains some trivia about the historical FreeDOS logos, and the “Free-DOS” and “FreeDOS” names.

Images

This press kit also includes a number of images and screenshots that you can use.