Old school: I work in DOS for an entire day

Sean Gallagher

Replace, July 5, 2021: It is the July 4 vacation weekend within the US, which suggests Ars employees will get a well-deserved vacation to atone for this summer season’s Steam sale (or perhaps simply to relaxation). As such, we’re resurfacing a number of classics from the Ars archives, together with this considerably masochistic experiment. Again in 2014, Ars’ Editor Emeritus Sean Gallagher determined to have fun the twentieth anniversary of MS-DOS’s end-of-life by working in the working system inside a contemporary context. It… went about as easily as you’d count on.

Now 27 years after Microsoft introduced that it will finish help for the MS-DOS, we’re resurfacing this train (and really a lot appreciating our current day choices as all of us do business from home a bit extra). This story initially ran on July 3, 2014, and it seems unchanged under.

Twenty years in the past this week, as Microsoft introduced that it will finish help for the MS-DOS working system, James Corridor introduced to the world that he supposed to create a public area model of the OS with the intention to maintain the universe of character-based DOS software program alive. Corridor’s “PD-DOS” mission ultimately turned FreeDOS, which immediately helps an ecosystem of builders, retro avid gamers, and diehards who will quit their WordStar while you pry the floppies from their chilly, useless fingers.

In tribute to the mission’s twenty years (and to these courageous souls who maintain the DOS fires burning), I made a decision to spend a day this week working in FreeDOS. I arrange a machine working the newest distribution of the OS together with software program from the FreeDOS Package deal Supervisor repositories. I then added no matter different software program I may scrape collectively—open supply software program, freeware, and “abandonware” discovered on the Net, plus some software program graciously despatched by Lee Hutchinson from his personal private reserve of DOSware. I needed to know if it was potential to do trendy Net-based work in DOS—and simply how painful it’d show to be.

I was quickly rocking my pc prefer it was 1994. That’s, I had no Twitter, Google, or anything that used SSL, however I did have some command line TCP/IP instruments, an in any other case purposeful Net browser, and… Gopher. Plus, I had WordPerfect 5, Microsoft Phrase 5, WordStar, Lotus 123, and dBase III—every part I may ever need, proper?

Why FreeDOS?

Linux is free, too, and I’d quite spend any day engaged on an getting older laptop computer working Debian or Ubuntu than working from the DOS command immediate. However there is a sure insane magnificence to the austerity of FreeDOS—plus, it’s an working system that may boot from a floppy disk and run in 640KB of reminiscence with no sweat (although it could possibly transcend that restrict with one in all a number of open supply “high-memory” extenders).

FreeDOS has dressed up the previous DOS setting a bit; for example, with the addition of FAT32 help, FreeDOS can immediately help drives as much as 8TB in measurement. An add-in module referred to as LFNDOS provides help for the lengthy filenames launched in Home windows 95. And because of a small military of open supply builders and to the mental property items of twenty years of economic and tutorial DOS growth, FreeDOS has compilers for dozens of programming languages (although, so far as I can inform, Java shouldn’t be one in all them).

At one level, FreeDOS turned the one DOS that shipped with main PC manufacturers, however you needed to ask for it. Dell and Hewlett-Packard shipped FreeDOS with their “no working system” machines as a substitute for Home windows preconfigurations, and it turned a preferred possibility on low cost PCs, notably in Asia, late within the final decade. The OS continues to be listed on the Dell and HP web sites, however it appears that evidently the choice to have it shipped with new PCs is now not accessible by these corporations’ Net shops.

Regardless of its decline, FreeDOS continues to have an energetic consumer group. It’s nonetheless used as a light-weight OS for “boot floppies” wanted to do community startups, to put in or restore different working methods, or to carry out firmware updates. Due to its low reminiscence and storage footprint, FreeDOS has additionally discovered a house within the digital machine world, with ready-made pictures accessible for a wide range of desktop and server VM environments.

However as was at all times the case with DOS, some meeting is required to get issues working good.

A DOS-based Web browser.
Enlarge / A DOS-based Net browser.

Constructing an Web-friendly DOS

The official present model (FreeDOS model 1.1, launched in 2011) is obtainable as a reside CD picture, however the default set up lacks lots of the items you’ll want to hook up with the Twenty first-century Web—together with community drivers. Thankfully, one other CD picture is obtainable that comprises all of the repository packages, together with a few community driver choices that may be put in with the FreeDOS Package deal Supervisor (FDNPKG).

I opted to put in a lot of the packages, beginning with the Crynwr packet driver—a freeware networking driver set that works with most traditional community playing cards from the DOS period. Many DOS functions that use TCP/IP use a TCP library quite than a system driver, and FreeDOS has two which are appropriate with the Crynwr packet driver: mTCP, nonetheless supported and accompanied by a handful of utilities (together with an IRC consumer), and the venerable Waterloo TCP (WATTCP) developed within the early Nineteen Nineties. The mTCP library has even been used to construct a Net server—its dwelling web page is served up from an IBM PCjr.

You too can discover “terminate-stay-resident” drivers for TCP/IP and different networks, which you’ll want for community file sharing. However to make them work, you’ll need to play hunter-gatherer with all of the part components, as most of those have been industrial and are actually unsupported. Somebody on the VirtualBox boards has finished a variety of that work already, fortuitously. I took an alternate route: I ran FTP on my Mac OS X host and used the mTCP FTP consumer to shuttle recordsdata over to the DOS consumer. That allowed me to quite shortly add to my toolkit for a day of DOS productiveness.

The land of “abandonware”

Subsequent, I wanted some content material creation software program. If I used to be so inclined, I may have foregone the posh of a phrase processor and simply used the FreeDOS EDIT.EXE device or one of many many ported open supply textual content instruments. However in the event you’re in search of one thing just a little nearer to the “trendy Workplace” expertise, Microsoft Phrase 5.5 for DOS is obtainable totally free.

Earlier than Microsoft received the desktop wars, phrase processors had religious followings. George R.R. Martin reportedly nonetheless makes use of WordStar, which I used briefly within the mid-Eighties—it got here bundled with my Kaypro PC. However to me, there was no different selection than the reassuring default deep blue of WordPerfect 5; I nonetheless have the operate key template burned into my retinas. Thankfully, Lee Hutchinson occurred to nonetheless have a duplicate.

Subsequent got here the selection of a spreadsheet. Lotus 1-2-3 or VisiCalc? Each are freely accessible off the Net. The executable model of VisiCalc that its developer, Dan Bricklin, has posted on-line is the unique model for the IBM PC, created in 1981. Its consumer interface is just a little primitive, however contemplating that it’s solely a 27.5KB file—smaller than the Phrase doc that I created to put in writing this story—it’s a examine in class.I don’t print issues a lot anymore, so I didn’t need to dive into the world of printer drivers.

Sadly, you would possibly as nicely ship somebody the Useless Sea scrolls as something saved within the native file codecs of those historic spreadsheets—except your recipients occur to have Apache OpenOffice, through which case you possibly can ship them a 1-2-3 .WK1 file, by all means.

Lastly, to spherical out my software program set, I discovered a .ZIP file of Ashton Tate’s dBase III and constructed a fast contact database. My interior Clipper programmer was blissful once more.

WordStar, George R.R. Martin's favorite word processor, also runs happily in FreeDos. But the default screen colors make my eyes bleed.
Enlarge / WordStar, George R.R. Martin’s favourite phrase processor, additionally runs fortunately in FreeDos. However the default display screen colours make my eyes bleed.

The Web of 1994

However the factor is—I work for a web site. And there was the small matter of really utilizing the Net from DOS.

Sure, Virginia, there is a DOS-based Net browser that is nonetheless in growth, and it’s open supply. Arachne, which was most not too long ago up to date a 12 months in the past and is licensed underneath the GPL, is a full display screen graphical browser that has its personal built-in TCP/IP stack together with SLIP/PPP help (for these nonetheless on the planet of dial-up). It even has a built-in POP/SMTP mail consumer, albeit a reasonably primitive one.

Arachne is secure, but it surely’s hardly in tune with the necessities of the trendy Net. For one factor, there’s no help for HTTPS, so Google, Twitter, Yahoo, and all these websites which have moved to SSL encryption within the post-Snowden period are unreachable. (Thank Invoice there’s nonetheless Bing, proper?) Additionally, it helps solely essentially the most primary of CSS type sheets, so trendy web sites look rather less trendy. And whereas the mail consumer works, attaching recordsdata requires a little bit of finesse.

I additionally tried Dillo, one other open supply browser based mostly on FLTK, a cross-platform GUI library, which behaves like Mozilla 4.0. FLTK supplies a Home windows 2.0-like GUI expertise. I managed to get it to work with Google (after turning off picture downloads), however the mouse help was iffy, and it crashed and burned a number of occasions whereas loading pages.

After some ache and struggling with Arachne, I discovered what gave the impression to be a extra sturdy mail consumer, referred to as FlMail, based mostly on the identical FLTK library as Dillo. FlMail seems to help SSL, and it really works with Gmail and different webmail companies that help POP and SMTP. However making the error of clicking on an HTML-formatted message in my mailbox despatched FlMail right into a “preformating [sic] web page” loop that gave me motive to go brew one other pot of espresso. Sending a message with the primary draft of this text hooked up? The identical factor occurred, earlier than discovering that the ship failed. So I fled again to Arachne.

Killing issues, coding issues

I attempted to share my ache by way of Twitter. Sadly, there is not any DOS Twitter consumer. After I tried to command-line tweet utilizing WGET, Twitter.com wouldn’t resolve—I couldn’t determine which community stack it was supposed to make use of, so I simply wrote myself a reminder on a Publish-It be aware.

Quickly, I used to be going by copy/paste withdrawal, and it was time for a break. So I began looking by the video games I had downloaded. One of many sights for avid gamers supplied by FreeDOS is its assortment of emulators. There are a dozen or so DOS variations of basic consoles, together with the NES, Gameboy, and Atari 800.

I had additionally put in a free mod of Doom, referred to as (imaginatively) FREEDOOM, and I spent a while working round pixelated hell, blasting monsters. There have been additionally two variations of Tetris, and a Mario-like side-scroller referred to as HappyLand that I… actually didn’t know what to make of. A DOS House Invaders clone blew up the system each time I attempted to load it.

After leaving a path of VGA blood, I took a take a look at the developer instruments. The GNU Compiler Assortment was ported to FreeDOS as DJGPP. It permits for the creation of 32-bit applications that execute from DOS, and it was up to date in March 2012 to incorporate the Go programming language along with C, C++, and Fortran. It additionally contains the RHIDE built-in growth setting. There are a number of dozen different free and open supply compilers and runtime environments as nicely, together with one launched earlier this 12 months for the FORTH language.

In fact, there’s a variety of abandonware accessible for builders as nicely. Only for the sake of nostalgia, I downloaded Turbo Pascal and Harbour, an open-source Clipper compiler. As quickly as I get my DOS contact supervisor app debugged, I’ll publish a hyperlink to it.

On the finish of the day, I used to be very able to return to the consolation of a contemporary working system—any trendy working system, thanks. However I did see why there’s nonetheless curiosity in DOS in any case these years. Regardless of its archaic limitations, FreeDOS can flip even the oldest PC {hardware} right into a functioning member of the Web world, and it retains a long time of software program up and working.

Simply don’t ask me to make use of it daily. Please.

Itemizing picture by Sean Gallagher

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