Wednesday, December 21, 2016

My background before FreeDOS

I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s. Our parents wanted to expose me and my brother to computers from an early age, so they bought an Apple II clone called the Franklin Ace 1000. I'm sure the first thing we used it for was to play games. But it didn't take long before my brother and I asked “How does it work?” So our parents bought us a book about how to program in AppleSoft BASIC, and we taught ourselves.

I remember my first programs were pretty standard stuff. Eventually, I developed a fondness for creating simulations and turn-based games. For example, my friends and I played Dungeons and Dragons in our spare time, and I wrote several “D&D”-style games on the computer. A favorite hobby of mine was re-creating the computer readouts from television shows and movies. Perhaps my largest effort was a program that let you “play” global thermonuclear war, based on the 1983 WarGames movie.

Later, we replaced the Apple with an IBM PC. The BASIC environment on DOS was different from AppleSoft BASIC, but I figured it out easily enough. I continued writing programs on the PC throughout my junior high and high school years.

In 1990, I became an undergraduate physics student at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls. Even though my major was physics, I continued to write programs for myself. I learned a few programming languages like C and FORTRAN, and picked up a C compiler. I wrote lots of utilities to help me analyze lab data or add new features to the MS-DOS command line. Like many others at the time, I also created utilities that replaced and enhanced the MS-DOS commands.

The university had a computer lab, and I got an account there on the VAX and Unix systems. I really liked Unix. The command line was similar to MS-DOS, but it was more powerful. I learned to use Unix when I was in the computer labs, but I still used MS-DOS on my personal computer. By running MS-DOS, I could use my favorite programs to write papers and help me analyze lab data.

I discovered the concept of “shareware” programs, which let you try the program for free. If you found the program useful, you registered the program by sending a check to the program's author. I thought shareware was a pretty neat idea, and I found shareware programs that filled my need on MS-DOS. For example, I originally wrote papers in WordPerfect, but switched to the shareware GalaxyWrite word processor. I used AsEasyAs to do spreadsheet analysis, and Telix to dial into the university's computer lab when I needed to use a Unix system.

In 1993, I learned about a Unix system that I could run on my home computer for free. This “Linux” system seemed just as powerful as the university's Unix systems, but now I could run everything on my home computer. I installed Linux on my PC, dual-booted with MS-DOS. I thought Linux was neat, and I did use it a lot, but spent most of my time in MS-DOS. Because let's face it: in 1993, there were a lot more applications and games on MS-DOS than on Linux.

MS-DOS was my favorite operating system. I used it all the time. I had built up this library of utilities I'd written myself to add new functionality to MS-DOS. I just thought DOS was a great operating system. I'd used Windows by this point—but if you remember the era, you know Windows 3.1 wasn't a great platform. I preferred doing my work at the command line, not with a mouse.

And with that, my story leads into the origins of FreeDOS, which I'll continue tomorrow…

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