Microsoft’s Merry-Making MS-DOS Code Caper

Well it’s the end of another March here in the Linux blogosphere, and that can mean only one thing: the arrival of another April Fools’ Day.

As if on cue, Microsoft recently made an eminently Fools’ Day-worthy move.

“On Tuesday, we dusted off the source code for early versions of MS-DOS and Word for Windows,” wrote Roy Levin, distinguished engineer and managing director for Microsoft Research Silicon Valley, in a blog post last week. “With the help of the Computer History Museum, we are making this code available to the public for the first time.”

Microsoft? Opening up code? Hah, yeah right — nice one.

Well, it may seem like an April Fools’ Day joke, but the move was genuine — sort of.

“Psych! Microsoft didn’t really open-source MS-DOS” was a headline that followed soon thereafter, and bloggers have been debating what actually happened ever since.

‘It Has No Actual Value’

Linux Girl

“Well, they really did ‘Open Source’ it, since that only means you get to see the source code and hopefully make changes to it,” Hyperlogos blogger Martin Espinoza told Linux Girl. “What they didn’t do is ‘Free’ it, or arguably, give it away, since it’s license-encumbered.”

That said, “you’re supposed to be able to use it for your own amusement, and it has no actual value aside from seeing what’s actually in there,” Espinoza added.

“I can think of several old-time nerds of the type that knew every line of their BIOS — back when you could reasonably do that — who are probably chuckling and shaking their heads right now over its contents,” he said. “Seriously, who is going to try to use code from DOS 1.0 to try to get work done? Are they going to use the original PC-1 BIOS as well?

“I hope they enjoy their 64KB of memory, which of course really ought to be enough for anyone,” Espinoza concluded. “To run CP/M, or DOS 1.0.”

‘Accept No Substitutes’

The move “illustrates something very important: that ‘Open Source’ is not the same thing as ‘Free,'” Google+ blogger Kevin O’Brien agreed.

“Free Software puts the emphasis on protecting the rights of the user above everything else, which means it has always been seen as subversive by the people who want to restrict what users can do,” O’Brien explained. “But because so many users and developers are seeing the advantages of more free software, companies are always trying to get the benefit without accepting the responsibilities, and Microsoft is in this respect probably now worse than a lot of other companies.

“That is why I always start with the four freedoms and talk about ‘Free Software’ (which protects the four freedoms) vs. ‘Non-Free Software’ (which may be in some sense Open Source, but which does not protect the four freedoms),” he concluded. “Accept no substitutes.”

‘A Monument to Stupid Restrictions’

And again: “That’s not open source,” blogger Robert Pogson said. “That’s yet another NDA from M$. If we needed drivers from the 1990s, Red Hat and have good archives.”

Real free and open source software is “software you can run, examine, modify and distribute on the basis of a license you obtain with the software — no NDA required, no restrictions on who you are or what you do,” Pogson pointed out. “FLOSS is a vibrant dynamic ecosystem of intelligent people building on the ideas of others.”

The source code of DOS, on the other hand, “is a monument to stupid restrictions on what you can do with the hardware you own,” he said. “I remember DOS. I used to cross my fingers before printing/saving because those actions often triggered crashes. I saved often because the OS crashed often. That was DOS 5. What horrors were in DOS 1?”

GNU/Linux “made all that obsolete, and it’s just silly to even look at the code unless you think M$ left some footprints in there of its theft from the ecosystem,” Pogson asserted.

‘The NIH Syndrome’

Google+ blogger Rodolfo Saenz chose to take a more optimistic view.

“Microsoft is finally starting to learn that open source is a not a choice anymore but a survival strategy,” Saenz told Linux Girl.

The company still suffers from “the NIH (Not Invented Here) syndrome — that is, ‘If it’s not made by us, we do not want to do anything with it,'” he added. “They think becoming open source software would contaminate the purity of their products’ design and they are afraid of losing control.”

However, “if they want to survive they will have to do it sooner or later,” Saenz said.

‘This Changes Nothing’

Others weren’t so sure about the move’s significance.

“This is not a sign that Microsoft is changing its ways — it’s a session of show and tell,” Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone suggested.

“It’s not licensed to use for anything, so really it’s only one step better than being absolutely closed,” Stone explained. “It makes for an interesting tidbit of news, and I’d love to review the code just for my own personal edification, but this changes nothing about anything in the long run.”

Similarly, “this really doesn’t change anything,” agreed consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack. “Both are so old that we honestly don’t have any reason to care about them even if they were properly open sourced.”

The net effect of the move is “nothing, absolutely nothing,” Slashdot blogger hairyfeet echoed. “It’s an OS that is older than dirt and frankly better alternatives to DOS have been around for ages.”

FreeDOS and DOSBox, in particular “make MS-DOS completely worthless for anything but a curiosity for old programmers,” hairyfeet added. “I seriously doubt anybody else would care. Its just a relic of the past, and once the buzz dies down I doubt anybody will even touch the thing.”

‘So Generous!’

In fact, it’s a “clueless” move, and “with FreeDOS, no one wants (or needs) that ancient piece of c____,” Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol concurred. “It’s suitable for museums, and that’s about it.

“That’s corporate good will in America,” Ebersol added. “Give away something that is aged, useless and no one can do anything with it.”

Indeed, several years ago Microsoft was asked to release the code for Windows 98, “but of course they didn’t because it would jeopardize the selling of XP or other versions,” Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C. pointed out. “Now, they say they have released DOS!!??

“Thanks, M$! You are so generous!!” he added.

‘Very Little Practical Relevance’

“I have trouble seeing this as having any impact whatsoever,” agreed Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project.

“FreeDOS people can’t use the code, not only because of licensing reasons but also because their own implementations likely differ in important ways, making transplanting the code undesirable even in the absence of licensing issues,” Travers explained.

“However, what Microsoft has done is take a piece of computing history and make it available for study,” he concluded. “This will thus likely be of interest to historians of software, academics, and the like, but of very little practical relevance.”

Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


  • The fact that you had to even publish this points up one sad fact: there is nothing technologically newsworthy any more. I suggest this as a project and story for you: Why?

    Gather your brain trust around to see if you can find out what the real reason is.

    There’s SOME reason the aisles are empty and the shelves are empty at once-flourishing technology stores, both on-line and brick-and-mortar.

    One caveat:

    I get dibs on Microsoft’s and Mark Shuttleworth’s dysfunctionality. I’m certain your Think Tank can come up with some really good answers to this problem.

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