Thursday, December 22, 2016

The origins of FreeDOS

Going into college, 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 in early 1994, I started seeing a lot of tech magazine articles, interviews with Microsoft, announcing that the next version of Windows would totally do away with MS-DOS. Essentially, Windows would kill MS-DOS. I looked at Windows 3.1 and said, “If Windows 3.2 or Windows 4.0 will be anything like Windows 3.1, I want nothing to do with it.“

Having some experience with Linux, I thought, “If developers can come together over the Internet to write a complete Unix operating system, surely we can do the same thing with DOS?”. After all, DOS was a fairly straightforward operating system compared to Unix. DOS ran one task at a time (called single-tasking) and had a simpler memory model. And I'd already written for myself a number of utilities that expanded the MS-DOS command line, so I had a head start.

I asked around the discussion groups on Usenet. While others were interested in a free DOS, no one wanted to start such a project. So I volunteered to do it.

On June 29, 1994, I posted this first announcement to comp.os.msdos.apps:

A few months ago, I posted articles relating to starting a public
domain version of DOS. The general support for this at the time was
strong, and many people agreed with the statement, "start writing!"
So, I have...

Announcing the first effort to produce a PD-DOS. I have written up a
"manifest" describing the goals of such a project and an outline of
the work, as well as a "task list" that shows exactly what needs to be
written. I'll post those here, and let discussion follow.

If you are thinking about developing, or have ideas or suggestions for
PD-DOS, I would appreciate direct email to me. If you just want to
discuss the merits or morals of writing a PD-DOS, I'll leave that to
the net. I'll check in from time to time to see how the discussion is
going, and maybe contribute a little to what promises to be a very
polarized debate!

I am excited about PD-DOS, and I am hoping I can get a group started!

--James Hall

PS -- of course, if this already exists, please point me to the group
leader so I can at least contribute!
Developers contacted me almost immediately! We had all written our own MS-DOS extensions, power tools that expanded what you could do on the MS-DOS command line. We pooled our utilities, and looked on public FTP sites for public domain source code to other programs that replicated the features of MS-DOS.

A note about the name: When I started the project, I didn't fully understand the nuances between “Free software” and “Public domain.” I assumed they were the same. And certainly many of the free tools we found on FTP sites were released into the public domain. So I used the name “PD-DOS” for Public Domain DOS. It only took a few weeks before I realized we wanted the protection of the GNU General Public License, which would make our DOS project a “Free software” project. By mid- to late-July, we changed the name to Free-DOS. Later, we dropped the hyphen to become FreeDOS.

We released our first Alpha distribution in September 1994. We continued to make new Alpha releases until March 1998, when I made our first Beta distribution. You can read the rest of the details on our FreeDOS History page.

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