Nearly six years after its last release, FreeDOS 1.3 came out at the weekend… in case you’re feeling nostalgic for a 1980s enterprise-grade OS.
DOS ain’t dead. Although the long history of MS-DOS officially ended with version 6.22 in 1994, there have long been multiple other DOS-compatible OSes out there. And unlike all the others, FreeDOS is open source, legal, legitimate, and free to use.
IBM continued development on PC DOS until 2003. Big Blue still hosts downloads of the last version, PC DOS 7.1, complete with FAT32 and LBA support. Its lead developer, Vernon Brooks, has a comprehensive reference site with all you could ever need to know about DOS’s history.
Digital Research’s DR-DOS was bought by Novell, sold off to Caldera, and ended up an important exhibit in the Department of Justice’s monopoly case against Microsoft in the 1990s, as The Reg covered in a six-part report at the time.
Caldera released the source code to the DR DOS 7.01 kernel, but changed its mind and closed it again, so although it too is available, the legality of using it is questionable.
Which leaves FreeDOS – a totally free and unencumbered MS-DOS-compatible OS, written from scratch as open source.
This isn’t your father’s DOS. Your correspondent booted the CD image under VirtualBox and was startled to see it acquire an IP address (and still have 608kB of free base memory). It installs to a FAT32 partition, with optional support for long filenames. It comes with its own full-screen text editor, but also Emacs and Vim. It has an IPv4 stack and basic IP connectivity, and the shell even does Tab-completion. The bonus CD includes a choice of GUIs including Digital Research’s GEM desktop, web browsers, file managers, development tools, games and more. FreeDOS 1.3 not only runs Doom, it includes a copy.
You don’t need to install all that stuff if you don’t want it. The project offers full and lite installers, a VMware disk image, and floppy disk images if you want to install it on vintage hardware, from 8086-level upwards.
It’s still DOS. If you want to run it on bare metal, you need a PC with a BIOS. It’s not compatible with GPT disk partitioning or UEFI (unless the latter has CSM, a “Compatibility Support Module”). It’s a single-tasking OS, and although it comes with a memory manager that can support nearly 4GB of RAM, all the action happens in the first 640kB, same as it ever was.
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If you want to get a feel for how things were before graphical desktops, though, there is quite a lot of legal pro-grade software out there. Microsoft made Word 5.5 for DOS a free download as a Y2K fix.
If you remember the Cambridge Z88 or Amstrad NC100, both Pipedream and ProText are free, as is the GrandView outliner, and of course there’s still tonnes of DOS shareware out there, such as the classic AsEasyAs spreadsheet.
FreeDOS is a little bit different from the old MS and IBM variants, and if you were used to them – as I was – you will have to do a little relearning. So far I’m enjoying the experience.
Retro computing is a valid hobby in its own right, of course, and retro gaming is a huge one. DOS doesn’t usefully support PCI devices such as sound cards, so if gaming is your main interest, you might be better off with an emulator such as DOSbox, but learning your way around DOS is educational. And if all else fails, FreeDOS can be handy for BIOS updates. ®