Monday, October 15, 2018

DOS for kids

Find out why my kid is learning DOS in 2018...

There are many great options to learn how to use computers. You could get any excellent Linux distribution, and install it on a spare machine. You could teach a child Python or Basic256. My kids use Linux laptops, and that works out well for most of their needs.

Recently, my son took an interest in other operating systems. His hard disk is going bad after years of use, and we started experimenting with alternate operating systems on USB sticks. He saw me reading about Haiku; we booted it up and played with it. We already used Dosbox to play a game that I really enjoyed as a child, so we installed Freedos on an SD card to play with it.

He loved FreeDOS better than I had expected. It is a very simple system: single user, no access control, no hidden or magic directories. Everything is right there in front of you. We installed QuickBasic and a typing tutor, and he loves the system. He even loves the spartan look of the default editor, which looks like

Today, he practiced typing on a typing tutor from 1992.  Then we wrote a simple Basic program together, and compiled it to an EXE file. He loved every minute.

That made me reconsider tech's love of the new. The computing world is a slave to hot trends: Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, Internet of Things, Blockchain, ... Everyone wants to learn about new technologies, the old is an embarrassing relic.

But are new systems always the best to learn?

There are scores of videos showing how old systems booted up faster, and got the job done just as well. There's a hint of truth to that.
FreeDOS boots on a decade-old computer in less than a second. Quickbasic probably takes a second to start up. Compilation is quick. Everything is instant. Fast. No clutter. No notifications, no icons, no buttons, bars. The whole interface has been run through an optimizing compiler.

The system cannot connect to a network, so everything is child-safe. And there is no chance of my kid goofing off and playing a game, or being distracted by some pictures. My son said that FreeDOS was "an Xterm that became your full computer."

And to top it up, my son can modify whatever he likes and experiment to his heart's content. When he ends up messing up the system, we can reinstall FreeDOS in a minute by wiping the SDcard clean, and copying again. I have a stack of old SD cards.

All the knowledge gained is valuable in today's world: hierarchical file systems, writing source files, compiling, touch-typing. It is a simple system and a person can truly understand the fundamentals. Learning DOS might be easier than learning a very complicated architecture like Linux, where there is a kernel, but also userland utilities, X-Windows, browsers, multiple users, access control...

In the past few days of playing with FreeDOS my son has asked insightful questions, which make this experiment very satisfying for me.

Image: Courtesy Me.