Developer interview: DOS is (long) dead, long live FreeDOS

MS-DOS may be dead, but FreeDOS, an open source MS-DOS replacement, is still under active development

"In 1994 we were using MS-DOS and Windows 3.1, and while Windows 3.1 did some nice things, it wasn't all that great. I liked doing my work in MS-DOS, and didn't like the idea of being forced to Windows.

"So I took to the Usenet message boards to see what could be done. I knew about Linux — Linus Torvalds first released that in 1991, and by 1993 I was running an early version of Linux with the GNU utilities on my computer and liked running a free version of Unix.

"I still booted into MS-DOS quite a bit though. But I realised that if a group of developers could replicate something as complex as Unix, just by working together over the Internet, surely we could do something similar for a much simpler operating system like MS-DOS?"

After studying the operating system's user's guide Hall wrote a handful of utilities to replicate some of MS-DOS's basic command line functionality. Other developers were interested in the project and came on board.

"I was the project's founder, and I defaulted to the project's co-ordinator to make sure everyone was working together and had the same ideas about what we were doing," Hall says.

Although his original intention was a public domain version of MS-DOS — PD-DOS — Hall and the other members of the project wanted to make sure that their system would remain free and shifted to using the GNU GPL to license code.

"We renamed our effort 'Free-DOS' after that," Hall says. "The name got changed again to 'FreeDOS', dropping the hyphen, when Pat Villani wrote his book [ FreeDOS Kernel - An MS-DOS Emulator for Platform Independence & Embedded System Development - Master OS Development, published in 1996]. Rumour had it that his editor didn't like the hyphen, so didn't use it."

From the start, the project's goal was an operating system that was effectively a drop-in replacement for MS-DOS. "I think we've done a great job and have certainly met that goal!" Hall says.

"You can pretty much drop in FreeDOS in place of MS-DOS and things should "just work" like they did under MS-DOS. That's a big part of DOS," Hall says.

"Since DOS hasn't changed since MS-DOS 6, it's pretty easy to hit that target. For example, you can run DOS programs from the 1980s or 1990s on FreeDOS, and they work just fine. It's great to install a classic DOS game in FreeDOS and have a fun afternoon."

A milestone for the project, from Hall's perspective, was when he was finally able to boot into FreeDOS and play id Software's revolutionary FPS Doom. "I knew we'd done something really awesome!" Hall says

FreeDOS has been used for everything from running old DOS programs and games to running embedded systems such as cash registers or display units, and being used to install firmware updates on PC hardware.

Many people might find it surprising that more than a decade and a half after Microsoft killed MS-DOS, FreeDOS continues to be actively developed.

"Admittedly, we don't have as many developers today that we had 10 years ago," Hall says, "but we do have an engaging community of developers who continue to add new functionality to FreeDOS."

The system hit version 1 in 2006, some 12 years after Hall's initial Usenet post. FreeDOS 1.1 was released in January last year.

"I'm hopeful of a future FreeDOS 1.2 or FreeDOS 2.0, but we will probably see 1.2 before we get to 2.0," Hall says.

"Making an incremental release like 1.2 is basically updating any programs from 1.1 that have changed, and making a new distribution. But when we start work on 2.0, I'd prefer to take another look at FreeDOS and think about what DOS needs to do to take a step forward."

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