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!

Monday, June 26, 2017

Alternative images

In reviewing some interesting history of the FreeDOS Project, I've highlighted our FreeDOS logo and mascot, contributed banner ads, contributed web buttons, and some web award "sticker" images. I also discovered a small stash of alternative images contributed by our community. I don't know the dates for these, but I'll do my best to put them into some kind of order:

Alternative FreeDOS logos

We had our "oval logo" from the beginning, then our "blue stamped logo" starting around 2001, and variations on our "FreeDOS fish logo" since about 2004. Sometimes, people contributed images as a suggestion for a new FreeDOS logo, or just as a fun alternative logo that they used on their own website.

First is this interesting image that a user emailed me, called "Windows95 Waste." This must have been around 1996 or 1997, as I know it was well after Windows95 but long before Windows98. And Larry Ewing created Tux the Penguin in 1996. So there's a short window for this image to have been created. It was probably the first alternative image anyone sent us.

I don't remember who created this image, but I do recall that this person wanted to have the Linux mascot and the FreeDOS mascot sharing a friendly drink at a table while copies of Windows were crushed behind them. We didn't have a FreeDOS mascot at the time (we adopted Blinky the FreeDOS Fish much later in 2004) so he used a blue ball with some eyes and the FreeDOS "oval logo" stamped where the mouth would be. I always thought of this mascot as related to the green ball guy from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.


One user contributed this image, as a possible logo for the FreeDOS Project, called the "pixels logo."


Another user sent us this simple image that I quite liked, showing a DOS prompt and the name "FreeDOS."


One contributor created this beautiful logo with a kind of lens flare effect, and the tag line "Born to be free."


Another user sent us this interesting modern logo. It was simple and fresh, but ultimately not what we were looking for.


Others also like to create images for their website that advertised FreeDOS, like this "Powered by" image. This is larger than a standard web button image, although you could also think of it as a web button.


Another user sent us a very nice round logo, as a suggested new logo for the FreeDOS Project.


I think this next one was originally contributed as an animated GIF image, with awesome flames that flickered from the FreeDOS wordmark. It reminded me of the old DOOM game. But around 1996 or 1997, a bunch of free software websites started an effort to replace all GIF images with PNG, to avoid patent and licensing issues inherent in GIF. I did the same with the FreeDOS website images, so converted this animated GIF to a static image.


Around 2000, I started discussing a new logo for the FreeDOS Project. We'd already had the FreeDOS "oval logo" since the beginning, but maybe it was time to update the logo. One user suggested this alternative logo, using colors and interlocking "DOS" to emulate the MS-DOS logo. I though it was a little close to MS-DOS, so we didn't use it. Instead, we adopted the "blue stamped logo" in 2001.


A few years later, some folks asked if we should have a FreeDOS mascot. After all, Linux had the penguin, BSD Unix had the daemon, and GNU had the gnu. What mascot should FreeDOS have? I thought a seal would be neat, but we already had the SEAL desktop environment, and there was an obvious name conflict. One user contributed a new FreeDOS logo with a fish outline, claiming the fish represented freedom.


I didn't know about the fish logo, but others liked it. User Mike Green sent us this version of a FreeDOS logo that used a different fish icon, although it wasn't really a "mascot" yet. Eventually, we would adopt Bas Snabilie's cartoony fish drawing as the FreeDOS fish mascot, who we later named Blinky. But Mike's fish came first, so deserves a mention here. He provided several versions of his fish logo.




CD jewel case images

In late 2001, after we adopted the "blue stamped logo," one user contributed an image that you could print out and put in a CD jewel case, for your FreeDOS distribution. I think a few online CD distributors used this as their FreeDOS CD cover.


In 2004, someone updated the CD cover image with one that used the new FreeDOS fish mascot, Blinky. One version included a tagline "Cool and fresh" and the other was plain.



Sunday, June 25, 2017

Guest post: Translating for FreeDOS

Nicolae Crefelean shared this FreeDOS story with us via Facebook, with permission to make it available as a guest post. Thanks, Nicolae!

I discovered FreeDOS about 15 years ago, when I still worked with MS-DOS quite frequently as a sysadmin, so I was amazed to find out about this project. There was still plenty of work to do, but even then it still did a lot of things, there was a lot of software that worked with it, and that was great.

I was so excited about it that I kept telling my colleagues (for a while) what else was new—considering back then the development was very active. But that wasn't enough to compensate for my enthusiasm. So I thought I should translate the FreeDOS Manifesto to Romanian, so others can read a little bit about the project, get curious, share the word, maybe support it, and so on.

That's all I did for this project, but it still felt like I did something important. And as tiny as my FreeDOS contribution was, it was my first contribution to an open source project and it lit up a spark in me. Since then I contributed to many other OSS projects with translations, code, management, tech support, donations, etc. It's been a blast so far! I'll keep at it, as I love doing it. FreeDOS was my first stepping stone to contributing to free software, and that makes it very special for me.

Thanks for keeping the ball rolling, guys! And it's a great initiative to have so much information out in the open.

-Nicolae Crefelean

Guest post: FreeDOS and Linux

Joel Graff writes about growing up with DOS, and later running FreeDOS under a virtual machine in Linux.

I grew up on DOS. My first computer was an IBM PS/2 Model 30 (actually, it was a VIC-20, but we’ll not mention that here). At that time, it came with a low-density 3.5-inch floppy drive, a 10MB hard disk, MCGA, 256-color graphics (which eventually spelled the end for EGA), and a 24-pin dot matrix.

All for the modest price of $3,495.

It was expensive, but it was a valuable addition to our family, and it drew me into the world of computing. I had gotten a taste of gaming and BASIC programming with the VIC-20, but the PS/2, pre-loaded with DOS 3.31, introduced me to a system with configurable hardware and a fully functional operating system. It was an entirely different, and far more powerful experience than the old VIC-20.

I quickly grew to love DOS, and it wasn’t long before I mastered nearly every facet of it. Then I was coding mouse hardware support in GW-BASIC, thanks to my buddy who shared a book on DOS hardware programming with me. Really, it was that direct, low-level access to the system and it’s hardware that kept me coming back.

DOS wasn’t a complex environment. It was quick, clean, and simple. But then, the computing environment it had to manage was small and limited. There was no Internet, no cloud and no mobile platforms. “Scalability” wasn’t a word, and even if it was, DOS wasn’t going to have anything to do with it. And it’s that lack of complexity that afforded it the ability to master a hardware domain which, in retrospect, it accomplished with remarkable simplicity and efficiency. It wasn’t a bad way to be. My entire digital life could be contained on a single, 720KB floppy disk.

As time moved on, my interests changed. Life, in general, had much to do with it, but I can honestly say that Windows replacing DOS as the preferred gaming platform gave me little reason to pursue my gaming interests. Being a developer didn’t really hold much appeal either as Windows, with its arcane API dominated by Hungarian-notated commands, appeared to be the only commercial future for software developers.

So I did something else with my life. But I never gave up entirely on computing.

These days, I’m a Linux and FOSS nerd. I abandoned Windows when I saw the Windows 8 ship sailing and I haven’t looked back. It’s been a challenging, but great experience. Still even Linux, for all it’s terminal-level coolness, just doesn’t compare to the experience of working at a DOS command prompt. And while I didn’t have any real need for my DOS skills, those old DOS games seemed to always go with me, wherever I went, just waiting for something to happen.

Preserving those games had always been in the back of my mind; I knew I needed to do something about it. I had toyed with DOSBox in the past, but using it didn’t really encourage me to dust off the floppies. Then I discovered FreeDOS and it got me to take a second look.

I downloaded the FreeDOS ISO and built a virtual machine with it. QEMU made quick, easy work of that. Booting it for the first time was a blast! I discovered I had somewhat missed the C:\> prompt with it’s patient, blinking cursor. A few minutes later, and I had surprised myself with just how much I remembered, and with how faithfully FreeDOS preserves the DOS computing experience. Because of that, I had little difficulty working out the unique features of FreeDOS and taking advantage of some of the goodies (like Ethernet support) that, while not part of the original DOS experience, have been implemented in a way that’s really appropriate to it.

So I finally dusted off my old caddy and got a floppy drive for $15. Mounting the virtual machine image under Linux to copy data files in was simple. A couple weeks later, and I’ve copied most of my old disks from that dusty old caddy. Unfortunately, several were unrecoverable, which I expected, but enough had survived to preserve most of my gaming library.

Reliving my old gaming days has been a great experience. I don’t really need FreeDOS to do it. I can dig up some original DOS floppies somewhere and make it happen or I can use DOSBox. They’re both good options. But FreeDOS gives me a true, open source DOS environment to use, which beats both proprietary DOS and an emulator, in my mind.

The real advantage, though, is in the virtual machine.

Using a virtual machine means I can contain my entire library in a single file. This makes it easy my entire DOS library easily portable to different machines and platforms and even easier to preserve. That I can preserve a snapshot of my entire DOS life is just really awesome.

The best part, though, is that the FreeDOS project is alive and well. Because it’s a genuinely useful operating system that’s great for low-resource applications, people care about it. And that means it’s going to stick around for a while. Now if I could just do something about those old Commodore floppies.

-Joel Graff

A collection of FreeDOS images

I'm going through some interesting moments in FreeDOS history, and I found a series of web images that highlight the popularity of FreeDOS. Here are a few interesting image collections:

Web award "stickers"

Looking back at the FreeDOS History timeline, you can see that 2000 and 2001 was when FreeDOS finally got noticed. Our FreeDOS Beta 5 "Lara" distribution, released August 2000, was very popular, and was distributed via CD in several computer magazines. Beta 5 raised our profile. In late January, Open Source Land Magazine recognized us as a "Link of the Week," also with an accompanying interview and article about FreeDOS Beta 5.


Then in March 2001, we released the FreeDOS Beta 6 "Midnite" distribution. This version was also very popular, and I think earned FreeDOS recognition from a web magazine with this "New Cyber Tech" award. I don't have the exact date of this web award, but it was probably early-2001. I have a vague recollection that we received this award before the FreeDOS Beta 4 "Lemur" distribution, released April 2001.


In January 2012, we released the FreeDOS 1.1 distribution. This was our first major release in almost six years (DOS doesn't need to change that much) and was immediately popular. Many websites offered a copy of the latest FreeDOS. DO Download recognized FreeDOS 1.1 with a web "sticker" indicating it was safe to download.



Also in 2012, Download Atlas was another website that offered a copy of the FreeDOS 1.1 distribution. They similarly awarded FreeDOS as the "Editor's Choice," with several options on web sticker.




I don't have the date for this one, but I think it was also for the FreeDOS 1.1 distribution, so around 2012. Download Route offered a copy of the FreeDOS distribution, and shared with us a suitable web sticker.



FreeDOS-32

I'm not sure exactly when they started, but sometime around 2004 or 2005, a small group of developers forked a copy of FreeDOS in an attempt to forklift it to support 32-bit features. "FreeDOS-32" was an unofficial but recognized development effort. Unfortunately, it proved to be too ambitious; development on FreeDOS-32 stalled by 2010 and developers seem to have dropped out entirely after 2011.

An interesting note to FreeDOS-32 is their Sloth mascot. You see, we'd been discussing adopting a mascot for the FreeDOS Project. Linux had Tux the Penguin, BSD Unix had Beastie the Daemon, so why shouldn't FreeDOS have a mascot? I argued that we should adopt a seal, but there was already a SEAL Desktop with the obvious choice of mascot. Eventually, a user contributed a fish mascot, and that seemed to capture attention. Then Bas Snabilie sent in a very cartoony fish mascot that we loved, and officially adopted as our mascot in February or March 2004.

So when Salvo and the other developers forked FreeDOS-32 in 2004 or 2005, they decided to create their own mascot, too. They picked a sloth (name?) probably because they expected development to be slow. Here he is, in a fetching cap and t-shirt:


FreeDOS Web Ring

Do you remember "Web Rings"? These were a popular way for similar sites to associate themselves with each other. The idea of a "Web Ring" was that every website partnered in the ring, and used a web image to advertise the ring. Each website was issued a unique ID within the ring, and used "Next" and "Previous" links to navigate via the ring host to other websites in the ring.

FreeDOS was part of such a "Web Ring", and used this 3-D image:


Friday, June 23, 2017

Guest post: Joining FreeDOS

Erwin Waterlander shares this story about first starting with FreeDOS:

I have good memories of DOS. In the end of the Eighties and the first half of the Nineties, I used it mainly for playing games and text processing. Around 1996, I started my programming hobby on MS-DOS. Like many, I didn't like that MS-DOS was going to be deprecated. I used MS-DOS until about 1999 when I started using Windows 98SE.

Via Usenet, I learned about the FreeDOS Project, probably around 1997. For several years, I was on the FreeDOS mailing list. It was nice to see there was a large community of DOS enthusiasts. This kept me supporting the DOS platform.

I contributed my wcd program ("Wherever Change Directory") to the FreeDOS utilities since 1998. Later, after 2009, I added dos2unix to the FreeDOS Project. The community gave me lots of useful feedback.

I ran FreeDOS 1.0 in QEMU, and now I run FreeDOS 1.2 in VirtualBox. I have to admit that after 1999, I did most of my programming for DOS in a Command Prompt on 32-bit Windows, because that worked for me. And I have used DOSBox for gaming. I use FreeDOS nowadays only for porting my programs. I will keep on supporting FreeDOS as long as I can.

-Erwin Waterlander

Guest post: First contributions to FreeDOS

Gregory Pietsch shares his story about how he contributed first contributed to FreeDOS:

I stumbled across FreeDOS around 1998 or so. At the time, I was familiar with MS-DOS, having used it since 1985 or so, and thought, "Okay, this group wants to build a GPL'ed clone of MS-DOS, it shouldn't be too hard." I decided to contribute a couple of programs. One of them, named "Code", is an encoder/decoder for uuencode/uudecode/xxencode/xxdecode. I thought it was useful.

A few years later, I got more ambitious. I wanted to get something in the Base distro with my name on it. I noticed that base was missing a version of Edlin, the line editor from the early days of MS-DOS. I figured, who cares if nobody uses this program anymore, that's my ticket into Base. Of course, I had to write it along different lines than the original. The original was in tight Assembler, so I wrote mine in C. After several false starts and a week of programming, I finally had something that was usable, and sent it in as FreeDOS Edlin 1.0.

Since then, I have debugged FreeDOS Edlin when I've needed to and attempted to add internationalization to it with varying degrees of success. I also made it easy to take apart. A programmer could use the back end of Edlin as the back end of Edit or reuse the string and array handling bits if they wanted to.

Also, every time I upgraded Edlin, the new version came with a note written by me from the perspective of a TASS editorialist proclaiming that Edlin was the linchpin holding FreeDOS together. It was the least I could do.

By the way, the development environment I use for this and other programs nowadays is Cygwin. That's why FreeDOS Edlin is successfully autoconf'ed. I figure, is there an easier way to make a distribution than "make dist"?

-Gregory Pietsch