FreeDOS: What It Is, Where It Came From, and Why It's Still in Use

Everything you need to know about this free operating system.

A screenshot of the code you se when you install FreeDOS.
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In this article, we'll explain what FreeDOS is and why some computers come installed with it instead of Windows. When buying a PC, you may have noticed that you can choose between models with Windows or with FreeDOS.  This has a practical reason that affects the price of the product.

To help you understand, we'll first briefly explain what FreeDOS is, then run down a bit of its history so you can know where it came from. Finally, you'll learn why some manufacturers still sell computers with this operating system instead of Windows or other GNU/Linux variations.

What Is FreeDOS

FreeDOS is a free operating system based on free software that's fully compatible with MS-DOS applications and drivers. It was born when Microsoft decided to end MS-DOS in 1994, and its development is still so active that at the end of 2016, the tech company released its latest version.

If you don’t remember MS-DOS, it was a non-graphical operating system that worked through commands. Ever used the Windows command prompt? Well, MS-DOS was just that, a black screen where you could type commands to launch applications and games.

FreeDOS does the same thing and only requires a computer with 640 kbytes of free memory to operate. It can run virtually any MS-DOS-compatible application written at the time. But it also has differences from the system it's based on, such as support for FLAT32 partitions and LBA disks of up to 128 GB and even 2 TB, depending on whether the BIOS supports it.

Nowadays, this may seem obsolete, but if Microsoft and practically all GNU/Linux systems maintain these command consoles, it's because sometimes it's much faster to solve tasks in these environments than by clicking and searching in a graphical environment.

Where FreeDOS Came From

At the end of 1993 and the beginning of 1994, Microsoft wanted to completely take over the graphical environment and leave MS-DOS aside. In June of the same year, the company announced the birth of PD-DOS, an ancestor of the current project. A month later, under the GNU license, its developers would name this project FreeDOS.

Jim Hall, an MS-DOS user curious about GNU/Linux and the world of free software, oversaw the development of FreeDOS. In an article published on FOSSForce, Hall said:

In late 1993 and early 1994, Microsoft began to talk seriously about the next version of Windows. Through interviews with countless trade magazines, Microsoft announced that the next version of Windows would do away with MS-DOS. In effect, DOS was dead.
At the time I thought, “If Windows 4.0 is anything like Windows 3.1, I want nothing to do with it.” I preferred working in DOS. Like Unix and Linux, you could combine multiple tools via the command line to quickly process data. DOS made it easy to get my work done.
I looked to Linux for inspiration. If programmers could work together via the Internet to create a free software implementation of Unix, surely we could do the same for DOS?

Basically, FreeDOS is a collaboration between MS-DOS enthusiasts worldwide. And apparently, they did it by reverse engineering MS-DOS features, building replicas of essential files since Microsoft would not release the MS-DOS code until 2014.

Developers launched FreeDOS 1.0 in 2006. While alpha versions had been circulating since 1996, version 1.1 would not appear until 2011, and 1.2 at the end of 2016.

Why Do People Still Use FreeDOS?

FreeDOS official website

FreeDOS receives updates and is available to everyone on its official website: There, you can see that the website focuses on three specific areas: being able to play old MS-DOS games, running software that doesn't operate well on current versions of Windows, and being used to develop embedded operating systems on small devices without much hardware.

However, some manufacturers currently sell FreeDOS computers, mostly laptops. On Amazon, for example, you can still find many models for sale. If you buy a computer “without an operating system,” it will most likely have FreeDOS as its base system.

By using a computer with FreeDOS, you'll have some basic functionality when you turn on the laptop. This way, you'll have no problems later when you want to use a USB to install Windows, GNU/Linux, or the operating system of your choice.

In many cases, computers with FreeDOS are cheaper than those pre-installed with Windows. This is because the manufacturer saves on licenses by selling it to you without Windows. As such, if you already have your own purchased license, it can be an option to save some money.

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