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Operating Systems GNOME GNU is Not Unix Microsoft Open Source Programming

How (And Why) FreeDOS Keeps DOS Alive (computerworld.com.au) 211

FreeDOS was originally created in response to Microsoft's announcement that after Windows 95, DOS would no longer be developed as a standalone operating system, according to a new interview about how (and why) Jim Hall keeps FreeDOS alive. For its newest version, Hall originally imagined "what 'DOS' would be like in 2015 or 2016 if Microsoft hadn't stopped working on MS-DOS in favor of Windows" -- before he decided there's just no such thing as "modern DOS". An anonymous Slashdot reader writes: No major changes are planned in the next version. "The next version of FreeDOS won't be multitasking, it won't be 32-bit, it won't run on ARM," Hall said. "FreeDOS is still intended for Intel and Intel-compatible computers. You should still be able to run FreeDOS on your old 486 or old Pentium PC to play classic DOS games, run legacy business programs, and support embedded development."
By day, Hall is the CIO for a county in Minnesota, and he's also a member of the board of directors for GNOME (and contributes to other open source projects) -- but he still remembers using DOS's built-in BASIC system to write simple computer programs. "Many of us older computer nerds probably used DOS very early, on our first home computer..." he tells ComputerWorld. Even without John Romero's new Doom level, "The popularity of DOS games and DOS shareware applications probably contributes in a big way to FreeDOS's continued success." I'd be curious how many Slashdot readers have some fond memories about downloading DOS shareware applications.
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How (And Why) FreeDOS Keeps DOS Alive

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  • by perpenso ( 1613749 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @03:50AM (#52527281)

    ... before he decided there's just no such thing as "modern DOS" ...

    Well, there was a "modern MS DOS", it was MS OS/2 1.x.

  • by 93 Escort Wagon ( 326346 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @04:03AM (#52527297)

    I remember some of the really early DOS games that were written to basically run correctly and be playable on (IIRC) a 4.77MHz 8086/8088.

    Then I remember trying to play those same games on a (again, IIRC) 12MHz 80286 system. That lunar lander would just immediately plummet into the ground or crash into the side of a mountain, and try as I might - there was nothing I could do about it.

  • You're not that old (Score:4, Informative)

    by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @04:21AM (#52527333) Journal

    "Many of us older computer nerds probably used DOS very early, on our first home computer..."

    And here I think of DOS as a 'newer' system

    • by Nyder ( 754090 )

      "Many of us older computer nerds probably used DOS very early, on our first home computer..."

      And here I think of DOS as a 'newer' system

      Well, I was using TRS-80 DOS and L-DOS on TRS-80's in the very early 80's. But that was at school. My first home computer was a C64 with a cassette drive.

    • by mvdwege ( 243851 )

      Yeah, the problem is that the Internet is dominated by the voices of the PC generation, who somehow never learned that there actually was a long history of computing before the PC and MS-DOS.

      Heck, most of them would be surprised if you told them DOS was a bad rip-off of an existing system to start with.

      • by Dutch Gun ( 899105 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @05:56AM (#52527527)

        Yeah, the problem is that the Internet is dominated by the voices of the PC generation, who somehow never learned that there actually was a long history of computing before the PC and MS-DOS.

        CP/M and other precursor OSes are really only of interest to historians and nostalgic geeks, but DOS actually has some real relevance to many people and projects even today, thanks to FreeDOS and the fact that we're still running x86-compatible machines... which is sort of astounding, actually.

        Sure, there was a long history of computing before the PC and MS-DOS, but it was constrained to very few people for the most part - specialists, hobbyists, professionals, academics, and so on. But it was really the PC, running MS-DOS for the most part, when the vast majority of people were introduced to computers for the first time. So, it's not all that surprising that DOS is seen - rightly, I think - as the OS most used at the beginning of the personal computer revolution.

        Even so, I don't think that many people mistake that for the beginning of computing in general. If nothing else, they saw computers on TV, with walls of reel-to-reel tapes and flashing lights.

        • by swb ( 14022 )

          I think you're right, but I think you have to label DOS generically as loads of people were first exposed to other DOS systems, like Apple ][ DOS 3.3 and the various other DOS-alike command line interpreters for home computers like the Radio Shack Color Computer, C64, and so on.

          The IBM PC was expensive and many schools had Apple ][s and a lot of home users used ColorComputer and Commodore 64s versus more expensive IBM branded PCs.

          I think part of the reason DOS may rightly be seen as "old school" computing

        • by Jim Hall ( 2985 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @08:52AM (#52527851) Homepage

          Yeah, the problem is that the Internet is dominated by the voices of the PC generation, who somehow never learned that there actually was a long history of computing before the PC and MS-DOS.

          CP/M and other precursor OSes are really only of interest to historians and nostalgic geeks, but DOS actually has some real relevance to many people and projects even today, thanks to FreeDOS and the fact that we're still running x86-compatible machines... which is sort of astounding, actually.

          Sure, there was a long history of computing before the PC and MS-DOS, but it was constrained to very few people for the most part - specialists, hobbyists, professionals, academics, and so on. But it was really the PC, running MS-DOS for the most part, when the vast majority of people were introduced to computers for the first time. So, it's not all that surprising that DOS is seen - rightly, I think - as the OS most used at the beginning of the personal computer revolution.

          Even so, I don't think that many people mistake that for the beginning of computing in general. If nothing else, they saw computers on TV, with walls of reel-to-reel tapes and flashing lights.

          The interview was about DOS, so I didn't talk about the other stuff before DOS (and after).

          Our first "computer" was a mainframe acoustic coupler dial-up terminal my mom brought home for a week, so she could do some work at home. I wasn't very excited about it at the time; it was all business software and I was like eight years old.

          I seem to remember we had another computer in the house at one point. Not a TRS-80 but something along those lines.

          In 1982, my family bought an Apple clone (Franklin ACE 1000) and that was where my brother and I taught ourselves to write programs in AppleBASIC. I was fascinated by computer interfaces that we saw on TV and in the movies, so I wrote programs that emulated those, including the thermonuclear war simulator from the Wargames(1983) movie.

          Some time after that, we bought an IBM (I think the XT). And that's what got me started with MS-DOS.

          We used MS-DOS at home (upgrading to the '286 and '386 and '486) until I went to college with the family's old '386. During my university days, I had an account on the VAX and the Unix systems. I discovered Linux, and switched to that on my own computer (dual-boot with MS-DOS). I mostly avoided Windows at home, although I did run Windows 3.11 and Windows 95 for a short time - mostly for games. At work, I ran Apollo AEGIS/DomainOS, HP-UX, AIX, SunOS/Solaris, and Linux (RedHat 3.0.3 and later). Work also put me on a Windows NT4 desktop, which I ran for a while until they let me run Linux at work full-time. In the office, I've run either Windows (whatever was current) or Linux. At home, I just run Linux (I'm running Fedora Linux now) and use DOSemu or QEMU to run FreeDOS.

        • CP/M and other precursor OSes are really only of interest to historians and nostalgic geeks,

          You can say that about DOS too.

          it was really the PC, running MS-DOS for the most part, when the vast majority of people were introduced to computers for the first time.

          Some, but not "the vast majority". Many people were introduced by pre-DOS computers. Geeks were still buying non-DOS, non-Windows home (and work) computers through all the 1980's, for nearly 10 years after PC-DOS came out. At work as techies we had a mainframe terminal, a PDP-11, and a Commodore PET. We regarded the IBM PC and DOS as for admin people and would not have given a thank you for one. At home I had a CP/M machine and other techies owned BBCs and Ataris, not IBM

          • it was really the PC, running MS-DOS for the most part, when the vast majority of people were introduced to computers for the first time.

            Some, but not "the vast majority". Many people were introduced by pre-DOS computers. Geeks were still buying non-DOS, non-Windows home (and work) computers through all the 1980's, for nearly 10 years after PC-DOS came out.

            This is completely accurate. The "personal computer revolution" began ca. 1980, and it wasn't until sometime around 1989 or 1990 that DOS-compatible devices started to dominate the home PC market. For that first decade, DOS-based devices were often primarily for business. I still remember a friend whose dad (worked in some tech-savvy industry) got an IBM-compatible PC that ran DOS at home in 1986 or so... and it was seen by everyone else in the neighborhood as some weird novelty. Everybody else had chea

          • You can say that about DOS too.

            This is the only point I'll flat out disagree with you on. Even today, there's at least one commercial product I know of sold that make use of FreeDOS to boot into a clean PC environment for some of its operations. It's still a real thing for some people, although an admittedly small group.

            No, that's wrong. The personal computer revolution had begun before DOS and in the 1980s was in full swing with or without DOS. There was a wide range of types such as Sinclairs, Commodores, Amigas, Amstrads alongside the IBM/DOS PC in the 1980-95 period. It was standardised on the IBM PC clone only gradually.

            When you start getting into subjective territory like this, there will inevitably be disagreement about how you define the "beginning" of the personal computer revolution, I suppose. My guess is many geeks like us will

      • Yeah, the problem is that the Internet is dominated by the voices of the PC generation, who somehow never learned that there actually was a long history of computing before the PC and MS-DOS.

        Such as IBM offering VM functionality for almost 10 years prior to the PC's introduction. ;-)
    • Hear, hear!

      I came to work with MS-DOS after CP/M, which followed VAX-VMS at uni. :-)

      #greybeard

  • Use it via DOSEMU (Score:5, Informative)

    by RuffMasterD ( 3398975 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @05:42AM (#52527505)

    I still use FreeDOS regularly to run 20 year old research software. I use DOSEMU, which lets me edit files and move data around in Linux, and then read them into the DOS program without stopping and starting a virtual machine. So I have a DOSEMU terminal open, and my favorite text editor next to it, and maybe tail the log file in another terminal, all at the same time.

    That old DOS software is still superior to any new point-and-click software. The config files leave a precise record of what parameters I set, and the logs leave a precise record of the result. It's fully auditable and reproducible, which is what science should be. And it will still run just as well as the day it was bought in another 20 years from now. The director tried to get us to buy some 'modern' software to do the same task. It 'only' cost $5000 and ran in MS Access. He was surprised when I refused the offer. Does it leave a written record of what I did? No. Are the results reproducible? No. Will it still run in 20 years time? Fuck no. Some things aren't broken yet, leave them alone.

    • by nnull ( 1148259 )
      I second this. I have plenty of old DOS engineering programs from my father that still work great. I use them from time to time because similar software no longer exist or costs a ridiculous amount of money that doesn't even do what I want. A lot of this software came from engineering enthusiasts which made them great, something that doesn't happen much anymore.
    • ... the logs leave a precise record of the result.

      Not only that, the logs are in clean 7-bit ASCII instead of some undocumented binary format so that you don't need some special program to read them.
  • Freedos rocks! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @08:10AM (#52527763) Homepage

    The number of older CNC machines I have kept running because of Freedos is huge. I have made a shto-ton of cash on smaller machine shops where "professional" IT companies have told them that they cannot fix the control system for their CNC machines.

    I come in at $95 an hour and make it work again, custom is elated and trash talks the "professional" company that said it was impossible, I get more calls to fix more from other companies they spread the world on... Rinse and Repeat.

    This was 10 years ago when I was almost doing 2-3 CNC repair jobs a week. Now it's maybe one every 2 months, and I don't even do IT professionally anymore.

    • by Jim Hall ( 2985 )

      I'm commenting elsewhere on this article, so I don't have mod points. But if I did, I would mod you up. Thanks.

    • Re:Freedos rocks! (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sumdumass ( 711423 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @10:22AM (#52528111) Journal

      I've seen similar experiences. It is often cheaper to fix the older CNC equipment than to replace them by hundreds of thousands of dollars. - Even if it happens several times.

      Of course once the machine itself starts breaking and costing money , replacing it might be more attractive. But if it is software or computer hardware related, it is a no brain'r to keep it chugging along instead of replacing them.

  • by Casandro ( 751346 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @08:46AM (#52527833)

    After all, Microsoft and the DOS community messed up to many points badly. For example the "driver" concept was basically unused. Few people ran ansi.sys because it meant sacrificing a ridiculous amount of RAM. That's why most software had to access the hardware directly, even for primitive things like coloured text.
    Also there was the problem of not having a compiler coming with the operating system which meant that there was no free software movement. People actually sent out binary files. So every software was restricted to a narrow band of hardware.

    Essentially there is now the need for a "new DOS". It would run on hardware like STM32-class microcontrollers which have (much) less than a megabyte of RAM and no memory management.You'd start off with decent lightweight hardware abstraction, then add a file system as well as simple version of the usual UNIX tools. Once you have an editor and a shell you'll have a decently working system which can be used for all kinds of things.

    • I recall plenty of code being printed in magazines - either computing magazines in "learning to program" articles, or in other publications like Dragon Magazine (a few character generators, a map generator, etc). But was it Free ? Probably not, at least by the current definitions. But you had access to the source....

      • Yes, but only a fraction of people could use those on their PCs, as MS-DOS didn't come with an actual development system. Most people had to get Turbo Pascal or something separately.

        • It came with debug.

          Yes, I'm half kidding, but magazines used to come with code to use with debug to produce small com utilities.

        • by narcc ( 412956 )

          You had either basica or gw-basic and debug. What more did you want?

          Turbo Pascal was like $400 bucks. I know a few people that had it, but no one that actually paid for it.

        • Yes, but only a fraction of people could use those on their PCs, as MS-DOS didn't come with an actual development system. Most people had to get Turbo Pascal or something separately.

          Don't forget debug.exe :-)

          As a student a completed a fairly lengthy (6-month fulltime) programming assignment using only DOS debug.exe on a 386. As I remember it, by the time I was done I had much of a proper OS completed within the program: rudimentary scheduler, index for files (floppies were very very slow), primitives for text-based widgets (writing directly to the frame-buffer) and even a working mouse cursor and left button.

          I will seriously consider suicide if I'm ever again forced to use a crippled

    • The reason a compiler did not come with the OS was that Microsoft's main business at that time was SELLING compilers.
      • Actually it did come with Microsoft BASIC... which back at that time was the only development environment Microsoft had made.

  • He wrote a modem program on his dad's computer as a teenager and it was very successful as shareware. The shareware system worked for more than one certain crazy antivirus guy.

  • Jim Hall (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday July 17, 2016 @09:07AM (#52527901)

    I have had the pleasure of corresponding with, and occasionally collaborating with, Jim Hall a few times over the years. He's not just active in the open source community, he's a really nice guy. Easy to work with, friendly and helpful. We've exchanged notes about package management, he's sent some patches to a project I was working on to make it more user-friendly (and DOS compatible). Jim manages to make a technically focused OS while being pleasant to work with. More open source project leaders could learn by his example.

    • by Jim Hall ( 2985 )

      I have had the pleasure of corresponding with, and occasionally collaborating with, Jim Hall a few times over the years. He's not just active in the open source community, he's a really nice guy. Easy to work with, friendly and helpful. We've exchanged notes about package management, he's sent some patches to a project I was working on to make it more user-friendly (and DOS compatible). Jim manages to make a technically focused OS while being pleasant to work with. More open source project leaders could learn by his example.

      This made my day. Thanks, whoever you are!

  • Sure, the game angle is there, but what I was wondering about is how many people use FreeDOS to keep 20 year old DOS programs running for business and/or government.

  • Memories (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tbuskey ( 135499 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @09:21AM (#52527945) Journal

    I got my engineering degree with DOS. Everyone was issued a Z100 (non msdos!) with an 8088, Fortran and Basic. Some other programs such as CAD, PC-TeX were available. Russ Nelson worked at my college and created Freemacs, the word processor and the spelling checker and many other utilties in use at Clarkson

    Some classes gave you a VMS or Unix account. When it was in heavy use at the end of the semester , it was faster to edit in DOS and upload than to scroll down the file in VMS. The DOS FORTRAN didn't have the extensions or libraries. Sometimes its math wasn't as accurate.

    After I got a 286 and had gotten a Unix account (w/ Usenet access), I started trying to learn Unix things. Turbo C, GNUish utilities, Freemacs, Elvis and shell clones helped me. Minix was almost as helpful.

    A 486 w/ 8mb lead to Linux replacing DOS and work as a Unix sysadmin. The DOS intro to C, awk, vi, lex, yacc (via "The Unix Programming Environment" was extremely helpful. Linux at home helped me continue learning. It could single task better than my Sparcstation 1+ running SunOS.

    The 8088, 80286 and 486 systems probably cost ~ $5k each back in the day where a Unix workstation was ~ $20k if you could get one.

  • by Gumbercules!! ( 1158841 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @11:06AM (#52528253)
    but last time I booted it up, it upgraded itself to Windows 10
  • by Brane2 ( 608748 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @01:22PM (#52528773)

    ...just for historical reasons.

    It is absolutely awesome to have when you simply need to run some old program, which is in my case usually bound to some piece of old, but still useful HW, like chip programmer, some old measurement or CNC equipment etc. Or perhaps for analysis of program behaviour in order to do modern reimplementation. Or to enjoy nostalgia trip with some old DOS game...

    WRT to FreeDOs development, I don't think it's needed outside integration into modern OS & HW, like having modern drivers for mouse and optical unit, USB useage for printing, nice, antialiased fonts, good high, EMS etc memory manager etc. I/O virtualisation of some sort would be great, so I can, for example have virtual LPT port that would be seen on desired I/O port address and connected to some real LPT port somewhere entirely else or even to USB driver or some userland program through pipe etc.

    I don't think susbtantial, grand scale reworks like 32-bit and 64-bit implementation, multicore and multitasking are neccessary. We have plenty other solutions for that.

  • by FudRucker ( 866063 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @01:44PM (#52528863)
    but it is quite limited in its capabilities, it would be cool if someone ported some basic linux apps to it like iceWM and some basic browser like dillo and a text editor, maybe something for audio/video and grphics editing like mtpaint or xpaint, make it simple and basic like Windows95 was, not too complicated and just enough to make it usable as a bare bones desktop, if i was forced to use commandline only i would just use Linux without Xorg which is more robust and feature right and even has some ncurses apps that are decent
  • by dbreeze ( 228599 ) on Sunday July 17, 2016 @05:58PM (#52529643)

    I just used FreeDOS to update this old Optiplex a month ago. Much thanks to the developers for keeping a still valuable tool available.

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