Happy Birthday FreeDOS

DOS stands for Disk Operating System.

In the old days it was how you ran your PC. You booted up the computer and you had a prompt much like today’s Linux command line in appearance. If you typed “wp” at the command line, a text-based non-GUI version of WordPerfect would run. If you typed “dir” you’d get a list of files in the current subdirectory. If you typed “nc” you’d get norton commaner. Maybe. Can’t remember exactly. And if you typed something like “term” …. well, you were on the internet, checking your mail in pine and maybe mining data with gopher.

Then, one day, it became true that if you typed “win” that Windows 3.0 would run. Windows 3.0 would take over the screen and produce a very clunky GUI that would slow down your computer and limit access to its functionality.

And ever since then your computer has been screwed.

In 1994, Microsoft announced that DOS would be discontinued shortly. They lied. They discontinued it much later than they said they would. But no matter, a guy named James Hall who was using DOS very productively decided to make a new operating system called, originally, “PD-DOS” and later “FreeDOS”

I’m privileged to actually know James. He is an occasional commenter on this blog and he often sends me interesting things to post regarding Linux. He also helps me with the Klingon translations that I need done now and then.

Well, today is the fifteenth anniversary of James Hall’s efforts to preserve DOS by creating FreeDOS!!!

Today, James runs his version of freeDOS inside an emulator on his Linux machine. Personally, I think it would be fun to play around with it. I wonder if I can run an old copy of WordPerfect on it. WordPerfect 4.2 was …. perfect. Version 5.1 did add some important functionality but they ruined it with pulldown menus. If any of you could see the keyboard I’m typing on now, you’d know what I’m talking about.

Oh what the heck, you can see it. I’ve just gotta point my web cam the right direction and ….


There, so you can see the keys on the left side. These were used by WordPerfect to format text and stuff. I use them today to do HTML.

Anyway, Kudos to James Hall for making FreeDOS happen. Visit the FreeDOS web site here.

Sadly, James is now stepping aside as Benevolent Dictator of freeDOS.

Long Live freeDOS!

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0 thoughts on “Happy Birthday FreeDOS

  1. Sad to hear that you’re handing the tiller to someone else, Jim. You’ve been a good captain these years. It must have to be a huge thrill to see your baby shipped OEM on “blank” Dells and the like.

  2. Way too cool, Stephanie. Got a major case of geek envy going on. Trying desperately not to go too fanboy!

    When I do the mirrored copy of Jodi’s proposal, I’ll be doing a director’s cut to include DanJ and sourceforge/jhall1 in the chain as it was originally intended. Having one of my OSS heroes in on the thing, like I said, makes the whole thing way more mind-blowing to me.

  3. BTW, I’ve always known him as Jim from how he signs his name on his page. Out of an abundance of respect, since you, his real-life friends, call him James, I apologize for calling you Jim in my first comment. I hope what little traffic and Google trending I can provide via my admittedly small site helps spread the word, sir. http://www.lousycanuck.ca/?p=1425

  4. If memory serves, I believe the menus were available via hot key in WP5.1, a version that also included the keyboard templates in two versions depending on arrangement of the function keys and if I’m not mistaken, the 4.2 keyboard shortcuts were mapped in 5.1 as before. Version 6 was a bit of a paradigm shift as the default user interface was graphic. You could actually see embedded graphics prior to a print preview. I never did cotton to Word in any flavor. Now I just bang text on whatever is available as needed but in fact seldom use a word processor anymore.

    In large regard the days of DOS were some of my most productive but perhaps that was just me and not the overall times. PC-DOS, DR-DOS, TRS-DOS, I used those up to and including MS-DOS 6.22. A few months ago I installed FreeDOS on an old machine destined as a replacement controller for an antique door access system. Plain DOS being the best fit, I did play enough to take FreeDOS out on the net. A nostalgia moment not that I ever went out on the net from the DOS CLI much. As you say, we used it as a terminal emulator to remote login a UNIX machine most likely. Usenet in my case. But not long after that ‘Nutscrape’ was out and the venerable Trumpet Winsock so we could access the net directly.

    With the advent of Windows95 came the beginning depreciation of DOS and most of the world followed suit. FreeDOS lived on but I’d discovered BSD and Linux by that time. Unix like derivatives for the masses and a CLI equivalent to multi-user DOS on steroids.

    I’m somewhat surprised that DOS continues to live and something else hasn’t filled the niche but then again, why reinvent the wheel. It’s an important niche and the developers of FreeDOS are well deserving their accolades.

  5. I can answer the James/Jim thing: this is something that developed (mostly) because I tended to get into trouble … back in 4th grade. We moved to the suburbs, and I transferred to a new school. Didn’t like the teacher much, especially because she insisted referring to me using “the common nickname for James”, which was NOT my name.

    But whenever I got a talking-to by the teacher, it was always “Jim” that got in trouble, not “James”. And that was ok by me.

    I used Jim when I attended university, I guess because it sounded “cooler” or “older” or “different”. It stuck from there. I prefer to be called James by family and close friends (IRL) and still go by Jim at work and online.

    Not to compare, but Stephen Colbert started using the “French” pronunciation when he entered university. So it’s not unusual. 🙂

  6. Jason, when you do the mirrored copy of Jodi’s proposal, email me beforehand (jhall at freedos…) and I’ll set the flags back on my “Hi Jason” post to include “freedos”. Then it will show up on http://www.freedos.org/jhall again, and you can mirror/archive that copy. That’s how it originally appeared yesterday, but I removed the flag so the post wouldn’t appear on the “jhall” page – and wouldn’t be confusing to slashdotters who were visiting my blog today.

  7. Greg, this was an awesome post, thanks!

    Here’s an interesting tidbit for you: FreeDOS would never have happened were it not for Linux. Really. I discovered Linux in 1993, and was really impressed in running a complete, free UNIX-like system for my ‘386 PC. What made it possible, I learned, was that everyone contributed to the source code. I thought it was a great way to create great software.

    While I often ran Linux on the computer in my dorm room, I mostly booted into MS-DOS to run my spreadsheet (to do lab analysis) and my word processor (to write term papers.) I loved DOS, you could do so much with the command line. So when Microsoft hinted in 1994 that “DOS was dead” and MS-DOS would completely go away after the next version of Windows [Win95], you can understand why I was pretty upset.

    But I figured “if these guys could create a free UNIX, certainly we should be able to create a free DOS.” After all, a DOS kernel is much simpler than a UNIX kernel. And that’s where FreeDOS started – sort of borrowing the method that Linux used. I understand Linus Torvalds uses the term “benevolent dictator” to describe his role as Linux maintainer, so I guess it’s fitting to see it applied to me. 🙂

    It didn’t take long before others joined the project. Tim Norman started work on a FreeDOS COMMAND.COM (then, called “FreeDOS Shell”) and Pat Villani offered the DOS-compatible kernel he’d written to support his embedded systems development. Skip ahead to now, and just look where FreeDOS is today!

    And oh yeah, it’s very cool to see FreeDOS shipped with Dell, HP, and other systems. Someone once sent me a picture of the Dell “FreeDOS” install CDROM, and that was my desktop wallpaper for a long time.

  8. Thanks James! I couldn’t update the BIOS on my embedded Linux computers without FreeDOS. Well, I probably could, but I’d have a very hard time finding a copy of previous versions of DOS. But thanks to FreeDOS I can boot from the compact flash, make a copy of the system’s BIOS, then flash the new one on. 🙂

  9. Meaning no disrespect to James, I wonder how anybody could ever look back fondly on DOS. Doesn’t anybody remember “Abort, Retry, Ignore?” The only thing to say in its favor was that it was a little better than CP/M, which would just hang, instead, if you left the floppy disk door open, and any work you hadn’t saved was gone, gone, gone.

  10. “In the old days it was how you ran your PC.”

    You youngsters may think so, but actually DOS is far older than that. Before IBM PC there were numerous other DOSes. One of them was called Unix. Also PC didn’t mean Politically Correct, it meant Program Counter.

    IBM’s marketing department was notorious for coining its own terminology that conflicted with everyone else.

  11. MadScientist, you’re welcome! 🙂

    Nathan, you can look back fondly if you were able to put better error handling into the FreeDOS kernel so it could work around little problems to avoid most A/R/I errors. Unlike MS-DOS.

  12. Nathan, seriously, try it out. Emulating MS-DOS for compatibility with apps, doesn’t mean also emulating all MS-DOS’ aggravating features. Go dig out your old X-COM or Dune 2 and fire ‘er up. Or WordPerfect, for you stodgy old folks.

  13. “You youngsters may think so, but actually DOS is far older than that. Before IBM PC there were numerous other DOSes.”

    That’s right–in the 70s there was a proliferation of pc systems, and some were CP/M, but many had their own proprietary DOSes, frequently attached to a Microsoft-written BASIC interpreter. Like Nathan says, I don’t quite understand why anyone would consider these things worth preserving other than as museum pieces (though once in a while I make mumbly noises to the wife about setting up a VAX/VMS system in the basement). Today, if you want command-line you can use some Unix variant; even a Mac will let you have the Terminal window.

    Though I do remember trying Windows 3.0–for about two days. To this day, I am amazed that Windows didn’t die right then and there.

  14. Actually, the thing I would most likely run freeDOS for is qbasic. I know that’s demented, but I have a lot of code.

    Although I mentioned wp, it is true that I now use a word processor for my own material very little. I write everything in text with a markdown or html. I am still wavering between emacs and enhanced gedit in that regard.

  15. To those asking “why DOS in the modern world?”

    Answer, from my standpoint anyway, is it’s the easiest way to do simple hardware control. No hardware abstraction layers to fight with, no weird security things to fight with, and really simple programming.

    Plus you can play the original X-Wing when not running a machine with it….

    (Again, Thanks Jim, your efforts have been a great service on many levels).

  16. Though I do remember trying Windows 3.0–for about two days.

    I don’t understand this at all. I loved windows 3.1 (never ran 3.0, went straight from DOS to 3.1). Never had any problems, for sure. Of course, at the time I wasn’t using it for more than Word, Mine Sweeper, Solitaire and some really old games.

    I’ve been using free dos for some time now, and I love it! Being able to pull out some of those sweet old PC games (hyperspeed!!!). I like it better than DOSBox, which is a more of an emulator than an actual OS.

    Thanks Jim for keeping DOS alive – Ignore those who don’t see why this is a really great thing you’ve done.

    Oh, and if anyone wants to find some old DOS games, I’d suggests googling “abandonware” there’s tons of old games that you may remember and are essentially free.

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