Bootstrapping An MSDOS Assembler With Batch Files

You have a clean MSDOS system, and you need to write some software for it. What do you do? You could use debug, of course. But there are no labels so while you can get machine code from mnemonics, you’ll still need to figure out the addresses on your own. That wasn’t good enough for [mniip], who created an assembler using mostly batch files. There are a few .COM files and it looks as if the first time you use debug to create those, but there’s also source you can assemble on subsequent builds with the assembler.

Why? We aren’t entirely sure. But it is definitely a hack. The technique sort of reminded us of our own universal cross assembler — sort of.

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Microsoft Releases Crown Jewels — From 1982!

If you look back 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t clear what was going to happen with personal computers. One thing most people would have bet on, though, was that CP/M — the operating system from Digital Research — would keep growing and power whatever new machines were available. Except it didn’t. MS-DOS took over the word and led — eventually — to the huge number of Windows computers we know today. Microsoft has released the source code to MS-DOS 1.25 and 2.0 on GitHub.

Microsoft — then another fledgling computer company — had written some BASIC interpreters and wanted in on the operating system space. They paid the princely sum of $75,000 to Seattle Computer Products for something called QDOS written by [Tim Paterson]. Rebranded as MS-DOS, the first version appeared in late 1981 and version 1.25 was out about a year later.

While you might not think having MS-DOS source code is a big deal, there’s still a lot of life left in DOS and it is also interesting from an educational and historical perspective. If you don’t want to read x86 assembly language, there’s also the BASIC source for the samples (paradoxically, in the bin subdirectory) along with compiled COM files for old friends like EDLIN and DEBUG.

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MSDOS Development With GCC

It might seem odd to think about programming in MSDOS in 2018. But if you are vintage computer enthusiast or have to support some old piece of equipment with an MSDOS single board computer, it could be just the thing. The problem is, where do you get a working compiler that doesn’t have to run on the ancient DOS machine? Turns out, gcc can do the trick. [RenéRebe] offers a video demo based on a blog post by [Chris Wellons]. You can see the video, below.

The technique generates COM files, not EXE files, so there are some limitations, such as a 64K file size. The compiler also won’t generate code for any CPU lower than a 80386, so if you have a real 8086, 80186, or 80286 CPU, you are out of luck. The resulting code will run in a real DOS environment on a ‘386 or higher or in a simulator like DOSBox.

You might be thinking why not use the DJGPP port of gcc to DOS. That sounds good, but it actually doesn’t produce true DOS code. It produces code for a DOS extender. In addition, [Chris] had trouble getting it to work with a modern setup.

The only real trick here is using the right combination of gcc flags to create a standalone image with the right codes. A COM file is just a dump of memory, so you don’t need a fancy header or anything. You also, of course, won’t have any library support, so you’ll have to write everything including functions to, say, print on the screen. Of course, you can borrow [Chris’] if you like.

The last pieces of the puzzle include adding a small stub to set up and call main and getting the linker to output a minimal file. Once you have that, you are ready to program like it is 1993. Don’t miss part 2, which covers interrupts.

If you pine away for QuickBasic instead of C, go download this. If you just want to run some old DOS games, that’s as close as your browser.

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QuickBASIC Lives On With QB64

When I got my first computer, a second hand 386 running MS-DOS 6.22, I didn’t have an Internet connection. But I did have QuickBASIC installed and a stack of programming magazines the local library was throwing out, so I had plenty to keep myself busy. At the time, I thought QuickBASIC was more or less indistinguishable from magic. I could write simple code and compile it into an .exe, put it on a floppy, and give it to somebody else to run on their own machine. It seemed too good to be true, how could this technology possibly be improved upon?

Of course, that was many years ago, and things are very different now. The programming languages du jour are worlds more capable than the plodding BASIC variants of the 80’s and 90’s. But still, when I found a floppy full of programs I wrote decades ago, I couldn’t help but wonder about getting them running again. With something like DOSBox I reasoned I should be able to install the QuickBASIC IDE and run them like I was back on my trusty 386.

Unfortunately, that was not to be. Maybe I’m just not well versed enough in DOSBox, but I couldn’t get the IDE to actually run any of the source code I pulled off the floppy. This was disappointing, but then it occured to me that modern BASIC interpreters are probably being developed in some corner of the Internet, and perhaps I could find a way to run my nearly 30 year old code without having to rely on 30 year old software to do it. Continue reading “QuickBASIC Lives On With QB64”

A DOS Education In Your Browser

In the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of us learned to program using good old-fashioned BASIC on machines ranging from Altairs, Commodores, Apple IIs, and the like. Sometime in the 80’s the IBM PC running MSDOS because the de facto standard, but it was still easy enough to launch BASIC and write a simple little program. Of course, there were other programs, some serious like C compilers, some semi-serious like flight simulators, and some pure fun like Wolfenstein 3D.

If you read Hackaday, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of people emulate old computers–including old MSDOS PCs–using a variety of techniques, including Raspberry PI boards running DOSBox or another emulator. Honestly, though, that’s a lot of effort just to run some old software, right? You can load up DOS emulators on your desktop too. That’s a little easier, but you still have to find software. But if you are as lazy as we are, you might want to check out the MSDOS collection at archive.org.

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