Tuesday, June 27, 2017

An evolution of the FreeDOS website

Formed in 1994, the FreeDOS Project has been around a long time. We actually predate much of the World Wide Web. Back in 1994, the whole "Web" thing was a pretty new idea. So it didn't occur to us to create a website until a few years later.

Our first website was created by M. "Hannibal" Toal, who stepped in as project coordinator when I was unavailable for a year or so. I'm not sure exactly when we set up our first website, but I think it was around November 6, 1996. The Internet Archive doesn't go back that far for www.freedos.org, but a snapshot from June 1998 still has the same look: white text on a black background, with the original "oval logo."


I returned to FreeDOS after a short absence, and Hannibal handed "webmaster" duties to me. Unfortunately, I didn't know much about how to edit a website. I pretty much left the site as-is until I had learned enough HTML to be dangerous.

Starting sometime late 1998, I began working on an update to the FreeDOS website. I wanted the new website to be easier to read. More websites were using a black-on-white color scheme, which I found easier on the eyes. After some months working on a new design, I put live the updated website on January 1, 1999. A snapshot from January 1999 shows the updated style: black text on a white background, with a FreeDOS banner ad, and the original "oval logo." This was a very simple web design, built using a single large table. The World Wide Web didn't have nifty formatting like stylesheets, so most websites created their design using a table layout like the one we used.


Later that year, I updated the design slightly, using a blue title bar and yellow navigation bar. Copying other technology websites like Slashdot, I added a "poll" feature to the sidebar, although this was meant more for fun than information gathering. I'm not sure exactly when this new design went live, but the Internet Archive grabbed a screenshot from October 1999. Many of the news items from that snapshot talk about cleanup on the website, in late September. Based on that, I'll assume this web design went live around mid- to late September 1999.


I worked in higher ed at this time, as part of a web development team. I managed the production team. Sometime in late 1999 or 2000, our web developers put live a new web portal. I quite liked the design they used, and I mimicked it on the FreeDOS website. This was a minor tweak in the FreeDOS website design, using a series of stripes behind the "FreeDOS Project" wordmark. Technically, I don't consider that a new FreeDOS logo, just a graphical decoration around the logo. I'm not sure when the "striped" web update went live, but you can see a snapshot of the design from May 2000.


I made a small adjustment again in May 2000, adding a mint-green background to the titles of each news item. I'm sure I felt inspired by other websites like Slashdot, which used a green color scheme, although I'm a bit confused when I look at this design now. Green didn't really fit with the dark blue banner.


In early 2001, I again decided to update the FreeDOS website. The green backgrounds needed to go. Instead, I chose a unified blue-and-gray color scheme, with black-on-white text. The Internet Archive captured a screenshot in March 2001, but I think I updated the website sometime in mid-February 2001.


Several months later, our original "oval logo" was starting to look dated. Several FreeDOS users attempted new logos for us, but we liked Ben Rouner's logo best. His logo was a sleek, modern spin that was better suited to the banner on a website. We adopted this "blue stamped logo" in August or September 2001, accompanied by a website redesign with blue highlight colors and a white background. The new logo first appears in an Internet Archive snapshot from September 2001.


That website design stuck around for a few years, with only a few minor color tweaks in the design. We didn't update the web design until we decided to change the FreeDOS logo.

On the FreeDOS email list, someone restarted a discussion about FreeDOS adopting a mascot. After all, the Free Software Foundation had the gnu, Linux had the penguin, and BSD Unix had the daemon-in-sneakers. Shouldn't we have a mascot, too?

And I admit, I'd kind of wanted a mascot for the FreeDOS Project for some time. Back in 1999, I thought a lemur would look neat. I always liked lemurs. But after a while, I thought FreeDOS should have a mascot that "paired well" with the Linux penguin. FreeDOS was a free operating system like Linux, so I thought it natural that someone might create a composite image that combined the Linux and FreeDOS mascots, maybe sitting next to each other. I thought a seal would be a great idea; imagine a seal and a penguin hanging out together. But we already had a SEAL graphical desktop package, and the name conflict seemed pretty obvious.

Someone else submitted a new FreeDOS logo that used a fish icon, claiming that the fish represented freedom. For some reason, the fish caught on. And soon, Bas Snabilie contributed a cartoony FreeDOS fish mascot and matching logo. Bas's fish mascot was cute, for a fish, so we adopted him as our mascot. We later named him Blinky because of his googly eye.

In February or March 2004, I created a new web design that used the new FreeDOS "boxed wordmark logo" with the FreeDOS fish. The Internet Archive first captured the new design in March 2004.


Overall, people liked the new design. We made a few tweaks here and there, such as moving the "blue swirls" decorative banner from the top of the page to just under the logo, but the new design stayed up for a long time. More significantly, we rebuilt the FreeDOS website using "divs" and stylesheets, following a growing trend. This date is easier to pin down: it happened on Sunday, February 6, 2005. The Internet Archive picked up the change the next day, on February 7, 2005.

In late July or early August 2006, we again modified the FreeDOS website. The new design used a "flattened" appearance that had become popular on other websites at the time. The snapshot from August 2006 also shows the first blue background for the FreeDOS logo.

We finally released the FreeDOS 1.0 distribution on September 3, 2006. At the same time, we also incorporated a "What is FreeDOS" section on the front page of the website, including a brief description of the three ways most people use FreeDOS: to run classic DOS games, to run legacy software, to do embedded development. You can see the snapshot captured by the Internet Archive on September 5, 2006.

Sometime in April 2007, I changed the website yet again, to put a blue "gradient background" behind the FreeDOS logo, with a dark blue gradient as a sort of page title bar. You can see the updated design from May 2007.


I'm not able to track changes to the website very well after this. I didn't keep a web history of my own, and the Internet Archive didn't capture the stylesheets we used after 2008. However, I can see that sometime in November 2008 or very early December 2008, we updated the website again. The snapshot from December 2008 shows a new design, but without the stylesheet, I don't know what changes we made.

I do know that in late 2009, I decided to ask for help in the FreeDOS website design. I posted a plea around October 2009, and several months later I found myself in contact with a web designer named "nodethirtythree." This person volunteered to contribute a design from their website catalog, and on January 1, 2010, we refreshed the FreeDOS website with the new look. This update included a new "white wordmark logo," with the same FreeDOS fish from our boxed wordmark logo, and wordmark in white with a black drop-shadow. You can see the screenshot grabbed in January 2010.


As you can see, this website was really meant for wide screens. If you have a low display resolution, the link "tabs" or "buttons" partially cover the FreeDOS logo.

We've used variations on this design ever since. While the HTML code may have changed "under the hood," the outward appearance has remained mostly intact. The link "buttons" from the banner changed, but the blue striped background remained as part of our new web "brand."

In Spring 2012, I entered a program to earn a Master's degree. My very first class was Information Design, and I realized the FreeDOS website made an excellent case study of how to arrange information on a website to attract a particular audience. The semester ran from January 2012 until around May 2012, and in the final months of class, we each worked on a final project. Mine was an examination of the FreeDOS website, including a new arrangement of information to better suit FreeDOS users.

On June 3, 2012, I put live the new website. You can see it in the Internet Archive snapshot from June 14, 2012. The new design included a FreeDOS screenshot, updated sub-pages with improved cross-linking to information, and "quick answer" links to help new visitors learn about FreeDOS.

Those "quick answer" links seemed like a clever idea at the time, but not everyone liked them. They used javascript to only show one answer at a time. This was a little weird to some folks, so we eventually removed this in favor of more straightforward navigation.

On December 25, 2016, we released the FreeDOS 1.2 distribution. To mark the occasion, we updated the website, providing a cleaner look and new fonts. The Internet Archive first captured the new design on December 26, 2016. This new design also added separate descriptions with brief descriptions of how people use FreeDOS, which hadn't really changed since 2006: "Classic games," "Legacy software," and "Embedded systems."


This new website design is the same one we use today. This version is based around HTML5, and uses a clean presentation that incorporates more screenshots on the front page. A major change in the new website is the shift towards SVG for the images, such as the FreeDOS logo and the icons. While we've used a responsive web design for years, using SVG allows for cleaner scaling of images on different displays.

I'm not planning further changes to the website. But then again, I think I've said that after every major website update. Based on past experience, we'll likely make tweaks and small iterations to the website design, but no major changes for a few years. Enjoy!

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