Where It All Started

Every journey has a beginning. OpenGEM was the beginning of mine in Open Source.

The OpenGEM Desktop

I grew up in relative poverty for my generation in Ireland. The first computer in my home was provided by a family friend when I was 17 years old. It was an Amstrad PC 1512, originally built in 1986, and a decade out of date in 1997. The computer had a copy of DOS 3.3 installed, a 20MB hard drive with bad sectors, and little else except an accompanying user manual with a reference to a graphical desktop called GEM.

I diligently learned how to use DOS and I kept returning to the manual to review GEM with a certain twinge of curiosity. I did not have a copy of this software, I was not sure how to get it, but I felt sure it would be useful. My 11 year old sister was struggling to use DOS despite the batch files I created to automate tasks. But a graphical user interface…it held promise.

Eventually I tracked down a copy of GEM via a gentleman who collected old software (and later became a great friend) and installed it on my computer. It was crisp, clean and it solved some of the major problems my sister had faced while using DOS. This boiled down to making it easy to manipulate files. It was simple to click, select and drag or drop files to move them, copy them or delete them. Small things that completely transformed the user experience.

Around 1998 I bought a cut-price modern(ish) computer built from recycled components with a very early version of Windows 95 installed. This, in conjunction with a 33.6 kbit/s modem, brought me onto the Internet with blazing speed. Well, tolerable speed. For the time. It was a little like watching paint dry.

One of the first things I did when connected to the Internet was search for information about GEM. As wonderful as it was to have a connected Windows computer, it had been a long path to get there, and I felt there must be other people who had faced the same journey. I had a vague idea that it would be great to make technology like GEM more easily available for people with old computers and family members who did not particularly like the command line.

I quickly discovered FreeDOS and then the FreeGEM community. I was astounded. Instead of having to scrounge around for old and often broken floppy disks with original software in flea market sales or from generous friends who had stored their unused technology, here were communities rebuilding software from scratch and sharing it with the world. It blew my mind. After using DOS 3.3 with all its limitations, finding FreeDOS and its goals to be better than DOS 6.0 was simply outstanding. And you could ask questions! And the project participants would reply! And sometimes they improved the code based on feedback!

I joined the FreeGEM mailing list and became a small part of their community. First I tested the existing software and then I began to ponder what I could give back. It came back to “what would my sister want?” As noble as FreeDOS and FreeGEM were, they were both pretty technical to download, install and use. I felt that there was room for making things much simpler, and that perhaps — even with my limited skills — this is where I could make a contribution.

The OpenGEM project was born. As with most Open Source projects it started modestly. The launch announcement was on July 12th 2002:

Hi guys. I’m put together another beta of a new GEM distro […]. I need help with smoothening out the problems and with getting the thing in order. The basic idea of this distro is to create a GEM distro that install[s] and runs without hassle.

I built on top of the FreeGEM 1.2 distribution by Owen Rudge and used a lot of the code collected by Ben Jemmett on his excellent Deltasoft website. Most of my contribution was in collecting the latest versions of the packages and working on having some scripts to try and set things up or adjust things in as automated a manner as possible. This was wrapped in a simple website, some documentation, and designed — though I lacked the vocabulary to describe it at the time — as a way to make on-boarding to using GEM as simple as possible.

OpenGEM grew to become the most popular GEM distribution and had six major revisions, eventually becoming an official FreeDOS package for that project’s 1.0 release cycle. I was tremendously honoured to have become part of a community that had given me so much, and to play a small part in making computing more accessible to other people. The FreeDOS and FreeGEM communities were where I discovered and understood the potential of Open Source.

Even today people are downloading and using FreeDOS and I even occasionally get a question about OpenGEM. I may have stopped development in 2006 due to other commitments, but I have not forgotten about this community, and I try to respond in a timely manner when people reach out. DOS is a learning tool now, with Linux used by people seeking productivity, but it still delivers value all across the world.

There is a long tail of computing that goes far beyond the short life-cycles of product releases. There is a world full of people with old devices, with curiosity and with a desire to improve things. Open Source is an interesting approach to software because it allows both the commercial and the non-commercial users of code to accomplish their goals. It inherently enables all types of evolution and revolution around implementations of or approaches to technology. Use, learn, share and improve is far more than a mantra. It is a methodology that has transformed innovation.

OpenGEM, Enigmail, Mobility Project, FSFE, OIN… My journey through Open Source has evolved from projects to governance to building bridges for more than a decade. I’m curious as to where it will take me next.

Check out the OpenGEM page on my website for more background on the distro.