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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

Hall had thought a good place to start was with Gnuish, an effort dating back to 1989 to make a range of the GNU utilities available to people running MS-DOS or OS/2.

"The idea was interesting to me: Making FreeDOS more modern by incorporating all these Unix utilities," Hall says. "And I thought maybe that kind of crossover would attract some free software/open source software developers to FreeDOS, who would otherwise have contributed only to Linux."

Hall said that as the idea of a 2.0 branch was discussed by the community, "it became clear to me that this 'modern DOS' concept wasn't really DOS any more."

"DOS is and was always meant to be a simple operating system. DOS isn't that complicated. That's what makes DOS so appealing; the overhead is small, it's easy to figure out, and it's quick to set up and get running."

"DOS hasn't changed in any major way in years, and that's good," he added. "Because the definition of DOS has essentially remained the same since the mid to late 1990s, you can run any classic DOS program on FreeDOS."

As a result, the 'modern DOS' idea was dropped. "The next FreeDOS needed to be simple, and it needed to remain 'DOS,'" Hall said. "That's where 'FreeDOS 1.2' came from," he added.

As a result, the changes in FreeDOS 1.2 won't be dramatic: "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."

One of the most changes that will be noticeable to end users will be the FreeDOS installer, however.

"I wrote the original FreeDOS install program back in 1997 and 1998, to create the FreeDOS Beta 1 distribution (called '0.1' on Wikipedia, but really this is more properly called the FreeDOS Beta 1 'Orlando" distribution)," Hall said.

"The original FreeDOS installer was pretty straightforward; a way to select packages - like CHOICE, PAUSE, etc. - and package 'sets' (like BASE for just the packages that provide the same functionality as MS-DOS, EDIT for the extra editors, DEVEL for the development kits, and so on). Over time, we've updated the FreeDOS installer to provide different options or to make it more flexible. But the core of the installer hasn't changed that much."

"When we started work on FreeDOS 1.2, I was very insistent that we update the installer," he added. "I realised the old installer had become too complicated. But DOS isn't that complicated; the installer should be very straightforward.


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