Right now, as I sit here typing these words, it is February of the year 2017.
The words of which I speak? They are entirely about DOS. Yes—that DOS. The one that powered so many computers throughout the 1980s and a chunk of the 1990s. The one with a big, low-resolution “C:>”. The one you installed with floppy disks often onto a hard drive measured in megabytes.
You see, back on December 25, something miraculous happened. Something that changed the world forever: FreeDOS 1.2 was released.
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FreeDOS, for those who have (perhaps rightly so) put all memories of MS-DOS (and other similar DOS-ish systems of days gone by) behind them, is a completely free software (GPL licensed) MS-DOS compatible operating system.
And it is still being actively developed. By a team. With new releases. In 2017.
For comparison, the last stand-alone release of MS-DOS (version 6.22) was released in 1994—nearly a quarter of a century ago. (Hot-damn, that makes me feel old.)
Since then, we have seen the rise of Windows 95, 98, ME, 2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8 and 10 and the rise of Linux as a server, mobile and (to a somewhat lesser extent) desktop powerhouse. We’ve seen the creation (and death) of BeOS, as well as the near-death and resurrection of Apple. The computing world has changed a lot in that time. And yet here we are. The year two-thousand seventeen. With a brand-new version of DOS—freaking DOS.
Interestingly, the founder of the FreeDOS project, Jim Hall, has been working on his open-source DOS system for longer than Microsoft was actively developing MS-DOS. If you think about it, that means Jim is the king of DOS. To my knowledge, there is no man, woman, child or orangutan who has dedicated more of their life to developing and building DOS than Jim.
If that doesn’t earn the man a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, nothing will.
What does DOS in 2017 look like?
But what does a new release of an MS-DOS-compatible system look like in 2017? Does it add new features, new technologies? It turns out it looks a lot like the DOS you remember—with a few niceties added here and there, such as improved installers and simple package manager-style tools.
One of the core features of FreeDOS is that it can run any software made for MS-DOS. Adding new features that might break existing legacy applications—often from the 1980s—would defeat the purpose of the system entirely.
All of this begs the question: If the latest and greatest version of FreeDOS runs software designed for computers of the 1980s and 1990s, what’s the point? Why would I care?
It’s a fair question. Most computer users nowadays, quite simply, won’t care—not in the slightest.
That’s especially true for those who grew up in the post-DOS era with graphical user interfaces (Windows, GNOME, KDE, MacOS, etc.) already loaded on their first computers. Most of you who fit that description likely didn’t spend much time running software designed specifically for DOS. You don’t have the old files that need opening in them. And, perhaps most important, you don’t have the nostalgia for the old games and software from that era.
But for people like me—kids who grew up watching Matthew Broderick change his school grades on an old TRS-80 in War Games, kids who played the original Civilization and the first graphical adventure games Space Quest and Kings Quest, kids who wrote their first lines of code in QuickBasic and GWBasic—FreeDOS is an absolute dream.
How I use FreeDOS
Let me lay out for you how I use FreeDOS. And, make no mistake, I use it almost every single day.
I tend to run FreeDOS in an emulator (VirtualBox, etc.). Luckily there are x86/PC emulators available for just about every platform, so this isn’t much of a problem. I can even run it on Android tablets when I’m on the go.
The system is incredibly lightweight (because it’s DOS). That means if I sync my DOS files (using something like NextCloud, DropBox, etc.) between my computers and devices, my FreeDOS system is with me and up to date everywhere I go—on every computing device I own.
But what do I actually, you know, do within FreeDOS?
Mostly I play games—classic games, great games, some of the greatest video games ever created. The likes of Master of Orion 2, Star Control 2, Civilization, Simcity, Ultima and so many others.
It’s not just about classic gaming, though. FreeDOS also allows me to get some real work done in a no-distractions, no-nonsense sort of way. Much of my writing (not all, but a significant portion) has been done within FreeDOS, using some of the classic DOS word processors (WordPerfect, Microsoft Word, WordStar and others). These older writing tools lack just about every bell and whistle we come to expect from a modern office application, to be sure. And that’s what I love about them. I can sit down to write and just immerse myself in the words on the screen.
(Side note: While FreeDOS is GPL licensed, much of the software I run within it is neither free software nor open source. These are, in large part, relics of computing's past—closed-source applications that have long since been abandoned by their original authors. Normally I keep closed-source software away from my computers. But in the case of 25-plus-year-old bits of long-lost code, I make an exception.)
Heck, I even run a telnet-accessible DOS-based BBS for the sole purpose of enjoying old-school, text-based, multiplayer games. I wouldn’t be able to do that quite so easily without FreeDOS.
Highly portable, distraction-free working. A completely future-proof environment. (As long as the ability to emulate an x86 processor exists, I’ll be able to keep and run the same software with the same data files.) And when I don’t feel like working, I can enjoy some of the best games mankind has ever created.
For that, I’d like to take this moment to thank Jim and the rest of the FreeDOS team. Because of your work, over so many years, the world is that much more fun for people like me.
And last I checked, FreeDOS 1.2 was downloaded more than 100,000 times in the first month alone. So, apparently there are a lot of people like me.