September 18, 2006

FreeDOS 1.0 born after 12-year gestation

Author: Lisa Hoover

Nearly two months to the day after rumors circulated that the open source MS-DOS operating system project FreeDOS was "dead," version 1.0 has been released by its creator, Jim Hall. The free to download operating system comprises a variety of programs that are licensed mostly under the GNU GPL, though a small number are protected under other licenses. It is also available for purchase at Linux CD Mall for $6.95.

FreeDOS is targeted at users of old DOS-based games, to run old software that only supports DOS, or as support for systems, such as cash registers, that feature an embedded DOS system. Hall says, "Honestly, I think most of the people out there will probably download FreeDOS to play old DOS games inside a PC emulator. Personally, I love DOOM and Dark Forces. Those were great games! But don't discount the embedded systems market. There are lots of embedded systems designers that still use DOS, and are very happy to see FreeDOS reach 1.0 status because it legitimizes their use of FreeDOS in the embedded systems they sell."

In fact, it's wise not to discount any market, since FreeDOS is even available on two commercially available computer systems: the Dell Dimension n Series E510 and Hewlett-Packard business desktop PCs.

FreeDOS was originally slated for release at the end of July, but Hall says he decided to take a few extra weeks to make sure everything was just right before making 1.0 available for download. "Nothing very unusual came up in the last weeks, except a tiny problem in our preliminary FreeDOS 1.0 distros where we could make your hard drive unbootable if you happened to have Win32 on it," said Hall. "We figured it would be bad to make a 1.0 release until we fixed that. Based on all the downloads we've gotten since the announcement, I'm really glad we decided to give it a few more weeks to get things right."

Twelve years in the making, FreeDOS got its start in 1994 when Microsoft announced its upcoming release of Windows 95 along with plans to stop supporting MS-DOS. Hall decided to spearhead a project that would create a public domain version of DOS, and soon other developers jumped in to help. Work continued steadily, albeit slowly, until one day in July 2006 when Hall decided to have a little fun. While changing FreeDOS.org's DNS entry to point to SourceForge.net's servers, Hall posted a message at the old site saying that "FreeDOS was dead" and, though it was merely a joke, rumors spread rapidly throughout the community that Hall had killed the project.

Ironically, though Hall says posting FreeDos' obituary was "a stupid thing to do," it ended up galvanizing the project, resulting in this month's long-awaited 1.0 release. "We've been extremely busy since the events in late July. It's interesting that response (both from FreeDOS developers and the outside community) was very supportive and wanted to help make FreeDOS reach our 1.0 goal.

"There was definitely a renewed interest in the project. A few new members joined the FreeDOS Project, and old members who hadn't been very active in a while suddenly were writing new code and making updates in preparation to 1.0."

Among Hall's favorite features in the new version is the help system. "I love that we have an HTML-based help system," he says. "It makes things a lot easier for people to write documentation for Help since HTML is a fairly simple documentation subsystem." He and the other project members have also made sure to include networking support. "While I tend to use my FreeDOS setup without networking (I don't need it) there are lots of users out there who use FreeDOS to connect to the Internet and local LANs. There's the Crynwr packet driver collection to get basic networking going. If you're a programmer, you can link with the Wat32 library to add TCP/IP."

Hall is already making plans for future FreeDOS releases. "I'd like to see us push the boundaries on what defines 'DOS.' At the user-space level, maybe that means resurrecting the GNUish project to add GNU utilities to FreeDOS. I actively avoided endorsing a GUI for 1.0, because I didn't want us to become distracted with a flamewar over which was the 'right' GUI. But now that we've achieved the 1.0 milestone, I want to look again at the GUI issue.

"At the system level, I'd love to see us start moving in the 64-bit computing direction and see what we can do there. The FreeDOS-32 folks created a fork some years ago, and they are working their way to adding 32-bit extensions to FreeDOS (multitasking, memory protection, etc.) and I think that's a great thing to look at. In general, now that we've reached 1.0 and have met (or exceeded) what MS-DOS could do, I think FreeDOS needs to shake things up a bit. We still need to be true to what makes FreeDOS a 'DOS,' but I want to encourage development that's relevant for today's computing."

Though FreeDOS can be run on virtually any computer, Hall recommends using a PC emulator to install and boot FreeDOS. Mac users will need to run FreeDOS inside an emulator "for the foreseeable future" due to the lack of support for the Extensible Firmware Interface, which Intel-based Macs use to boot, and which Hall says is not on the list of future features right now.

After 12 years in the making, Hall is understandably excited about the release of FreeDOS 1.0, right down to the project's new mascot, Blinky, created by Bas Snabilie.

"But mainly," he says, "I'm terribly thrilled that we finally reached the 1.0 milestone."

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