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How (and why) FreeDOS keeps DOS alive

Rohan Pearce | July 13, 2016
After surviving for 22 years, the open source replacement for MS-DOS shows no sign of going away, its creator says


Jim Hall's day job is chief information officer for Ramsey County in the US state of Minnesota. But outside of work, the CIO is also a contributor to a number of free software/open source projects, including FreeDOS: The project to create an open source, drop-in replacement for MS-DOS.

FreeDOS (it was originally dubbed 'PD-DOS' for 'Public Domain DOS', but the name was changed to reflect that it's actually released under the GNU General Public License) dates back to June 1994, meaning it is just over 22 years old - a formidable lifespan compared to many open source projects.

"And if you consider the DOS platform, MS-DOS 1.0 dates back to 1981, 'DOS' as an operating system has been around for 35 years! That's not too shabby," Hall said. (Version 1.0 of MS-DOS - then marketed by IBM as PC DOS - was released in August 1981.)

Hall has been involved in free software since the early '90s when he was an undergraduate physics student. He first installed Linux on his home computer in 1993. These days Hall is a member of the board of directors for the open source GNOME desktop environment. He's also the author of GNU Robots and as well as FreeDOS he has contributed to a number of open source projects.

The creation of FreeDOS was a reaction to Microsoft revealing that, from Windows 95 onwards, DOS would no longer be developed as a standalone operating system. Microsoft in 1993 released MS-DOS 6.0, which was the beginning of the end of MS-DOS as a standalone OS (the final version of Microsoft's 6.x branch, 6.22, was released in mid-1994).

Hall, at the time an undergrad at University of Wisconsin-River Falls, first announced 'PD-DOS' with a posting to comp.os.msdos.apps. It took until mid-2006 for FreeDOS 1.0 to be released.

Computerworld Australia first interviewed Hall in early 2013, a year after the release of FreeDOS 1.1, about the future of the project.

Computerworld Australia has caught with Hall again, this time ahead of version 1.2 of FreeDOS - an impending release, albeit one that has a release date of "when it's ready" Hall says.

In the lead-up to the 1.1 release, Hall raised the question of what MS-DOS would have looked like if Microsoft hadn't gone all-in with Windows - and what a 'FreeDOS 2.0' could potentially look like. However with FreeDOS 1.2 the project has decided to stick to its original vision of being a drop-in replacement for MS-DOS.

"To make a 'FreeDOS 2.0,' I originally wanted to change a bunch of things about FreeDOS," Hall told Computerworld. "I thought we should move FreeDOS ahead, think about what 'DOS' would be like in 2015 or 2016 if Microsoft hadn't stopped working on MS-DOS in favour of Windows. In this vision, I thought 'FreeDOS 2.0' would be more 'modern' and draw on other modern environments like Linux."


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