Saturday, December 31, 2016

FreeDOS then and now

In the 1980s and 1990s, I used MS-DOS for everything. I had used MS-DOS systems for a long time, and regularly used MS-DOS and DOS applications for my work. I had taught myself C programming, and wrote DOS utilities to improve MS-DOS and expand its functionality. While I also used Linux since 1993, I thought DOS was the best system for me, with its rich catalog of useful applications that helped me as an undergraduate physics student—mostly analyzing lab data and writing papers for class.

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:
  • Free-DOS Alpha 1 (16 September 1994)
  • Free-DOS Alpha 2 (December 1994)
  • Free-DOS Alpha 3 (January 1995)
  • Free-DOS Alpha 4 (June 1995)
  • FreeDOS Alpha 5 (10 August 1996)
  • FreeDOS Alpha 6 (November 1997)
  • FreeDOS Beta 1 "Orlando" (25 March 1998)
  • FreeDOS Beta 2 "Marvin" (28 October 1998)
  • FreeDOS Beta 3 "Ventura" (21 April 1999)
  • FreeDOS Beta 4 "Lemur" (9 April 2000)
  • FreeDOS Beta 5 "Lara" (10 August 2000)
  • FreeDOS Beta 6 "Midnite" (18 March 2001)
  • FreeDOS Beta 7 "Spears" (7 September 2001)
  • FreeDOS Beta 8 "Methusalem" (7 April 2002)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 RC1 (July 2003)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 RC2 (23 August 2003)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 RC3 (27 September 2003)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 RC4 (5 February 2004)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 RC5 (20 March 2004)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 (28 September 2004)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 SR1 (30 November 2004)
  • FreeDOS Beta 9 SR2 (30 November 2005)
  • FreeDOS 1.0 (3 September 2006)
  • FreeDOS 1.1 (2 January 2012)
  • FreeDOS 1.2 RC1 (31 October 2016)
  • FreeDOS 1.2 RC2 (24 November 2016)
  • FreeDOS 1.2 (25 December 2016)
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:
Packard Bell486DX266MHz8MB720MB$1798
LaptopsCompaq, 8.4" display486DX240MHz4MB250MB$2598
Compaq, 9.5" display486DX240MHz4MB250MB$3298
Today's computers are much more powerful. Using today's Best Buy as a comparison, the most-recommended Intel desktop is a Dell Inspiron desktop with 6th Gen Intel Core i3-6100 (3.7GHz) processor, 8GB memory, and 1TB hard drive for $379.99. The top-recommended Intel laptop is a Dell Inspiron laptop with 13.3" display, 7th Gen Intel Core i5-7200U (2.5GHz) mobile processor, 8GB memory, and 256GB solid state drive for $599.99.

Let's compare. The 1994 Acer is the "middle of the road" desktop, so let's use that as our point of reference.
CPU486DX2 (32-bit)Core i3 (64-bit)
Speed66MHz3.7GHz = 3,700MHz
Memory8MB8GB = 8,000MB
Drive540MB1TB = 1,000GB = 1,000,000MB
So desktop computers have gone from 32-bit to dual-core 64-bit, now 56× faster, 1000× the memory, and over 1800× the storage. All that for a quarter the price (not adjusted dollars). Today's laptops are one-fifth the price but over 62× faster, 2000× the memory, and 1000× the storage. Computers have gotten faster and cheaper.

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.

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