Microsoft's Disc Operating System (DOS) has had a long and checkered history. The original MS-DOS code was bought from Seattle Computer, a financially struggling firm that had apparently just botched a potential sale to IBM. Microsoft released version 1.0 of MS-DOS in 1981, and version 2.0 when IBM brought to market their XT PC, two years later.
The first couple of versions of DOS were not well received. Experienced computer users often found its commands to be limited and its behavior to be quirky, especially in comparison to superior operating systems, such as DEC's VAX/VMS. Inexperienced computer users often found its commands to be baffling and the command line (a textual window where the commands were typed) to be intimidating.
Microsoft tried to remedy the difficulties encountered by inexperienced users by developing and releasing a graphical user interface (GUI) called Windows. Initially, and for the longest time after, Windows was simply a visual shell that ran on top of DOS, effectively shielding most PC users from DOS and the command line. Users comfortable with DOS commands were always able to access the command line if desired — particularly if they were fed up with Windows crashing and requiring a reboot.
By 1994, Windows had already been around for almost a decade, having been launched in 1985. But it wasn't until 1992, when version 3.1 came out, that Windows really took off as the favorite operating system of most computer users in America. Well, not everyone's favorite operating system…
The FreeDOS Project
In 1994, at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, student Jim Hall was studying physics and doing the bulk of his work on PCs. Like most of his colleagues, he was a big fan of using the command line, and enjoyed the simplicity and capabilities made possible by DOS. He was unpleasantly shocked to hear that Microsoft was planning to stop supporting DOS and create a new version of Windows that no longer supported the command line. (Microsoft did eventually keep DOS as part of Windows 95, but the seeds of fear had been sown.)
Consequently, in that same year, Jim began creating some DOS file utilities. He was partly inspired by an online discussion in which some fellow DOS enthusiasts suggested that they write their own free version of the operating system. It was also partly inspired by the success of Linux, which is a free version of the Unix operating system, and whose mascot — a friendly penguin named "Tux" — is being seen more frequently nowadays.
Thus FreeDOS was born, though originally it was known as "PD-DOS". Another developer, Pat Villani, had already written a DOS kernel (an operating system's core) called "DOS/NT", and he made it available for the use of the FreeDOS project, by releasing it under the GNU General Public License (GPL). A third programmer, Tim Norman, created a FreeDOS command.com, which is the central component of the DOS command line interface. Like other open-source projects, FreeDOS benefits from the contributions of a large and enthusiastic group of developers.
Full of Features
Despite having the ultimately low price tag, FreeDOS is rich in capabilities. It is 100 percent MS-DOS compatible, supports large disks and the FAT32 file system, has a memory manager, supports mice with scroll wheels, has LBA disc caching, and can share a multiboot PC with Windows 2000 and XP.
FreeDOS requires little computer resources, and as a result will run well on devices that don't have a lot of system memory, such as older PCs that cannot support Windows. It will even run off of a CD-ROM, a diskette, or a small micro-drive. As a result, it can serve as an ideal basis for creating embedded operating systems.
Perhaps the only significant downside to FreeDOS is that it does not run Windows programs. On the other hand, isn't that the point? After all, FreeDOS is intended for computer users who prefer the power and simple elegance of performing their tasks on the command line, and not with Windows applications, which only let you do what their creators have decided you should be able to do with their programs.
Plenty of Resources
The best place to learn more about FreeDOS is the project's main website, which has a link for downloading the latest version (Beta 9 Service Release #1). The installation package is also available as an ISO image (so it can be burned to CD), a diskette distribution (fitting inside 1.44 MB), and as a BitTorrent download.
The project site has pages for contacting the developers and for reporting bugs. There are links to 57 software archives, power tools, Internet applications, graphical user interfaces (GUIs), programming tools, emulator packages, and other information, as well as links to mailing lists, Internet newsgroups, and IRC channels. There is a section on gaming details, and even information on how to install and use FreeDOS on 20 different manufacturers' laptops.
Other related sites include: the FreeDOS Documentation Project, FreeDOS-32, a 32-bit operating system; and FreeDOS@SourceForge, which offers the FreeDOS source code. To find even more sites, check the FreeDOS WebRing.
While Windows may have the greatest market share at this time (though watch out for energetic penguins!), it is heartening to see open source developers freely creating and distributing alternatives — especially those which allow people with older PCs to join in the computer age.