So I was disappointed in 1994 when I read articles where Microsoft announced that the next version of Windows would do away with MS-DOS. "DOS was dead," so they said. But I didn't like Windows. If you remember what Microsoft Windows 3.1 looked like, you'll know it was clunky and awkward. If Windows 4.0 was going to be anything like that, I wanted nothing to do with it.
I started FreeDOS in 1994 with a small post to the comp.os.msdos.apps group on Usenet. Almost immediately, other developers contacted me, and we began work creating our own version of DOS that would be compatible with MS-DOS. I packaged my own extended DOS utilities, as did others, and we found other public domain or open source programs that replaced other DOS commands. A few months later, we released our first FreeDOS Alpha distribution. This interested new developers to join FreeDOS. From there, FreeDOS grew very quickly.
Our FreeDOS History page has a timeline of interesting events in FreeDOS history. Let me share just the major milestones:
Before FreeDOS 1.0, we released frequent Alpha and Beta versions. After FreeDOS 1.0, we went into a "stable" mode where FreeDOS doesn't need to change very quickly.
Earlier this week, we announced the FreeDOS 1.2 distribution. In many ways, FreeDOS has changed a lot since 1994. But under the covers, FreeDOS is still just DOS.
In our Alpha releases, FreeDOS (then "Free-DOS") was a collection of commands and a few extra utilities. Our DOS kernel was pretty bare-bones back then, and didn't support networking or CDROM drives. But FreeDOS could run a lot of popular programs and games, including compilers, and became quite popular. Over time, developers have added to FreeDOS and built it up to what it is today. FreeDOS 1.2 now includes a ton of useful utilities, graphical desktops, games, and other tools that help people to develop embedded systems, run legacy software, or just play classic DOS games.
While it's interesting to look back on how FreeDOS has changed since 1994, it's also important to mark how computing has changed in that time.
User londonpopstar on Imgur found an old Best Buy ad from October 23, 1994. That's the same year we started the FreeDOS Project. Check out what personal computing looked like at the time, via this sample:
Personal computers were based on the Intel '486 processor in 1994. The Pentium processor had been available since 1993, but the cost-to-performance wasn't really there until 1994 or 1995. It's safe to say that most users at home ran a '486. Notebooks were a thing, but were much bulkier than the ones you find today. And to make them cost-effective, most ran a '486 in 1994. From the Best Buy ad:
|Laptops||Compaq, 8.4" display||486DX2||40MHz||4MB||250MB||$2598|
|Compaq, 9.5" display||486DX2||40MHz||4MB||250MB||$3298|
Let's compare. The 1994 Acer is the "middle of the road" desktop, so let's use that as our point of reference.
|CPU||486DX2 (32-bit)||Core i3 (64-bit)|
|Speed||66MHz||3.7GHz = 3,700MHz|
|Memory||8MB||8GB = 8,000MB|
|Drive||540MB||1TB = 1,000GB = 1,000,000MB|
And that's if you even use a traditional "computer" anymore. Many people use the Cloud for most of their day-to-day computing: responding to email, writing documents, or planning events. For that, you can just as easily use something like a Google Chromebook (most are $300) which has very little on-board storage but provides a platform to do everything via the Cloud.
But when you think about it, much of your "computing" tasks can be done on a smartphone. The ever-present smartphone does pretty much everything your 1994 computer could do, and also includes a phone, GPS, and camera. Comparison to 1994 is pretty tough; back then, the most popular mobile phone was the Nokia, but it was just something you called people with.
And how you run FreeDOS has changed, too. In 1994, almost everyone ran FreeDOS directly on hardware. Typically, you installed FreeDOS in a separate hard drive partition on your computer, and used a boot-selector to let you boot FreeDOS when you wanted. But today, most people prefer to run FreeDOS inside a virtual machine or PC emulator; we also recommend that on our website. You can still run FreeDOS on a modern computer, but it's just easier to use a PC emulator instead.
I'm amazed at how far FreeDOS has changed. From 1994, when you ran FreeDOS directly on a '486 computer with 8MB memory and 500MB hard drive—to today, when most people run FreeDOS inside a virtual machine on a much more powerful computer. Computing has definitely changed. But it's nice to know that FreeDOS is still just DOS, and you can run your old DOS programs on it.