1,500 Windows 3.1 shareware apps are now free, immortalized on your browser
Warp back to 1992 with Ross Perot, Saddam Hussein, hundreds of shareware nag notices.
Earlier this week, Internet Archive software collector and historian Jason Scott answered our phone call to talk about one of his latest efforts: the Malware Museum, which offered online passersby a glimpse at how nearly 80 classic viruses worked once they infected an MS-DOS computer. We enjoyed picking his brain about the collection and told him so, at which point he stopped us from hanging up the phone.
“I have one more drop for you,” Scott said. “On Thursday, we’re going to put up a bunch of Windows 3.1 software. What we did for MS-DOS, we’re doing for Windows 3.1.”
We were immediately intrigued, remembering exactly what Scott and his slew of Archive.org volunteers did for MS-DOS and other computing and gaming platforms. Thanks to that team’s efforts, thousands of seemingly lost pieces of software had found new life, all brought back to life with free downloads and a mighty fine Web browser emulation solution. From beloved classics like Oregon Trail to cult hits like Karateka, the collection’s thousands of titles seemed to have it all.
Welcome to Windows Inception
Scott says the pieces to this project have been in his hands for some time. For starters, the software: “As a software curator, I’ve been collecting pretty much everything, from driver CDs for old network cards all the way through to applications and grabbing collections that other people have carried,” Scott said to Ars. “Along with the emulation, where we can make something run again, I try to first make sure we have everything. At one point, I had a group go through and grab stuff from every existing FTP site, for example. ‘Grab every piece of software!'”
His efforts thus far have resulted in plenty of people sending software his way, as well, which he always gladly accepts. “I love being somebody’s missing piece,” Scott says. “‘I can’t find a host, I can’t find a dependable URL. You’re a non-profit, this is great!'”
As his early Windows collection grew and grew, Scott and his collaborators quickly came up with a way to run a solid instance of Windows 3.1.1 within a Web browser. However, Archive.org’s emulation solution—the DOSBOX emulator—requires a full download of an OS’ element for every application’s load, which would have added up. Worse, Scott thought he would have to work on instance-by-instance optimizations and other file maintenance for every one of the thousands of EXEs he’d amassed.
A volunteer “really did the hard work” of getting the Windows files required for each DOSBOX instance down to 1.8 MB—and in the process came up with a more centralized version of those files on his server’s side, as opposed to kinds that would require optimizations for every single emulated app. With peace of mind established—and with an emulator that kept stuttering to a minimum and offered perks like full sound emulation—Scott got to work “dumping Windows shareware CD-ROMs for a while.”
The primary “3.X Showcase” landing page should be your first stop, which contains a small, curated selection of notable and weird offerings. SkiFree’s monstrous, cartoonish yeti roams free and wild here, as do some card, gambling, chess, and board games. (One of those, Merlin, puts some fantasy twists on the game Risk and asks players to find and bring a key to “the Gate of Billium, called Bill Gates.”)
In addition to a fully functioning Windows 3.1.1 stock install—complete with save functionality preserved in apps like Notepad—the Showcase page also includes a hilarious Windows 95 preview that Microsoft distributed via floppy disks ahead of the OS’ launch. In this preview version, clip art of coffee mugs and globes float around for no reason before users get to tinker around with the “brand-new” Start menu and other features. It’s the most Inception-like Microsoft experience we’ve ever had—running a neutered version of Windows 95… within a version of Windows 3.1… within a Web browser.
Emulation in 30 minutes or less
For Scott’s money, the appeal of this Windows 3.X Showcase comes from the deeper dives afforded by its separate game, app, “toy,” and “productivity” archives. (The games library is by far the largest, having more than 1,100 entries as of press time.) In many cases, you’ll have to click around to figure out just what an app is about—like “filesave,” an application that exists solely to save any open documents from other programs, or “gravity,” a graphically simple simulation app that can be used to determine planets’ orbits based on various points of data.
The whole collection offers quite the 3.1 rabbit hole. Need a legally dubious Ms. Pac-Man clone? Say hello to Ms. Chomp. How about a Magic 8 Ball simulator? Right here. What about an app whose sole purpose is to help users keep tabs on whether or not their Domino’s Pizza order arrived within the chain’s guaranteed 30-minute window of the early ’90s? Pizza.exe to the rescue. (As in prior interviews, Scott elects not to speak at length about any potential legal issues, except to insist that apps that are commercially available are always taken down if his team discovers any crossover and that “Microsoft has shown pretty remarkable allowance for legacy products that are not currently for sale.”)
“You can still see all the themes with graphical interfaces in this era,” Scott says. “Anyone could do it. All these weird little people who wanna make, like, an eclipse predictor. That stuff is all in phones now. These days, you’d make a website or an app—never an EXE that downloads and runs and does one little thing. This collection is starting to get towards the end of the era where that happened.”
“And these are all baked with messages like, ‘Please help me, I work as an indie, please send $15,'” Scott adds. “All very quaint and trackable.” (Scott’s right: the collection’s selection of nag messages, old-GUI “company” logos, and open disclosure of home addresses could fill an entire museum.)
Scott believes all of these little details, especially the ones that emerge as consistent trends in certain eras, are crucial when it comes to educating younger computer users about where their current experience comes from (though he also cheekily admits, “hopefully this means people will play Solitaire-like games and really weird chess variations for most of next month”). He expects to grow this Windows 3.1 Showcase collection even more, all while continuing to optimize and error-check the current collection, before he moves on to his next out-of-nowhere archive of digital memories.
“People have very different relationships with software that has simply fallen into the range of lore,” Scott says. “A kid born in 1995 or 2000, if you asked him or her about, say, the old Macintosh, they might have never interacted with a System 6 or System 7 machine. That’s eye-opening to see the predecessor work, as opposed to a screenshot. Bringing interaction to [younger users] is a real experience.”
Listing image by Archive.org
Read the original article over at ArsTechnica.