July 3, 2006

Rumored death of FreeDOS greatly exaggerated

Author: Lisa Hoover

Jim Hall, creator of the open source MS-DOS operating system project FreeDOS, says that while work on the project may have slowed recently, he isn't ready to throw in the towel just yet. In fact, Hall says he hopes to see version 1.0 released as soon as the end of the month.

The FreeDOS project was originally conceived in 1994 when Microsoft announced its upcoming release of Windows 95 along with plans to stop supporting MS-DOS. A discussion in a DOS user group prompted Hall to write some basic utility code, and the FreeDOS project was born. Hall announced his intention to create a public domain version of DOS, and soon other coders jumped in to help. The FreeDOS project moved steadily toward a 1.0 release over the next 12 years, but has stalled in recent months, leaving Hall frustrated and disappointed. He says personality differences and flame wars have led to burnout among the project's developers. "Any open source project can get hit by flame wars," acknowledges Hall, "but it affects FreeDOS more because we're so small."

Two weeks ago, Hall changed the DNS entry for FreeDOS.org to point to SourceForge's server. "After a week, traffic on the old www.freedos.org had pretty much stopped ... or so I thought," says Hall. "Deciding to have a little 'fun' (word used with tongue firmly in cheek) I posted a 'FreeDOS is dead' message on the old site for the one or two people that were still accessing it." Hall soon began receiving concerned email messages from people wondering why he had killed the project, so he immediately replaced the old page, but word continued to spread that "FreeDOS was dead."

Hall says nothing could be further from the truth.

"Right now, I want to get a '1.0' out there by the end of July," says Hall. He says that though progress has slowed and there hasn't been a new news item to report since May, he is encouraged by the renewed interest from developers who thought he was pulling the plug on the FreeDOS project. Hall admits he was feeling discouraged by the lack of recent progress on the project, which turned 12 years old on June 28.

"I sat down on June 28 and was about to write up a 'Happy Birthday to FreeDOS' news item, talking about how far we've come, and how great it will be when FreeDOS '1.0' is released," says Hall "I sort of 'snapped' when I realized I couldn't write the 'Happy Birthday' thing. Inside, it felt like I'd given up waiting on '1.0.' So I wrote the 'FreeDOS is dead' joke thing instead." Though he claims it was a "stupid" thing to do, it spurred renewed interest in the project's developers which, in turn, has re-energized Hall.

"Since [then], I've been very pleased by the reaction from the FreeDOS community," says Hall. "I did a dumb thing, we accepted it, we moved on, and now the FreeDOS developers have become galvanized to crank out our '1.0' release. So if there's a good thing to come out of this, that's it. And watching people pull together on '1.0' seems to be what I needed to get enthused about FreeDOS development again. It reminds me that people care enough to want to see FreeDOS succeed. It pumps me up. We're getting back in the game!"

With the release of version 1.0 on the horizon, Hall continues to look toward the future. "I really want to break out of the mold of MS-DOS, and start to extend what DOS means," he says. "FreeDOS-32 is along that direction." Hall says that software will include features like multitasking and flat memory. "I'd also like to see more utilities to make it possible to replicate some of the advanced features we take for granted in modern operating systems, such as Linux." Hall says he hopes Linux users will feel right at home with FreeDOS. He also wants to bring Mac users into the fold, but understands their need for a strong GUI.

However, those improvements will come later, says Hall. "Let's get the '1.0' out the door, and we can start to work on some of the 'blue sky' stuff." In the meantime, he says, "The future is still bright for FreeDOS."

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