Running Windows 95 in an “application” is a stupid move that makes a good point

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A silly new app did the rounds this week: Windows 95 as a stand-alone application. Running on Windows, macOS, and Linux, the Windows 95 “app” combines Electron (a framework for building desktop applications using JavaScript and other web technologies) with a x86 emulator written in JavaScript. The emulator can run many operating systems: for the application, it is preloaded with Windows 95.

That’s for sure, software piracy. The app developer doesn’t have the right to distribute Windows 95 like this, and I’m a little surprised that the app hasn’t been removed from GitHub yet. And for now, the app is just a toy; there is no real reason to run Windows 95 this way, other than the fact that it actually works.

But Windows 95 (and software that runs on or requires Windows 95) was an important part of computer history. I think it could be argued that this is Microsoft’s most important Windows version of all time, and its influence continues to be felt today. Not only was it technically important as a vital stepping stone to the world of 16-bit DOS and Windows 3.x to 32-bit Windows NT, and not only did it introduce a user interface that has largely remained with us for over 20 Years “Windows 95 was also a big event for consumers, as people lined up to buy the thing as soon as it became available. A full understanding of today’s computing landscape cannot truly be achieved without running, using, and understanding Windows 95.

Windows 95, however, was designed for hardware from the mid-1990s. Compatibility with disk controllers, video cards, and other essential peripherals is already virtually non-existent. By 2020, it’s unlikely that it will even be able to boot on new PCs, as legacy compatibility is slowly being ditched to make the PC platform faster and more secure. These hardware changes mean that in the long run, very old software poses a challenge, even for virtualization software such as VMware.

A carefully bundled emulator in a stand-alone package solves any hardware issue. Using JavaScript for the emulator also provides a good degree of longevity: the emulator is not tied to any particular underlying hardware capability, and it can run more or less anywhere.

Systems like this are essential to preserving these important pieces of computer history. And yet, there is no effective way to develop and distribute them without ignoring copyright law. This is, of course, the same problem encountered in the world of console emulation but with an even greater historical impact: games are important cultural artifacts, but genuine access to Windows 95, Office 95, Netscape 3. (and the web content of that time), and so on is arguably even more important, due to the wider influence these things ultimately had.

The software industry has shown indifference to preserving and safeguarding this heritage at best and, in the case of game ROMs, outright hostility. As stupid as the Windows 95 emulator is – it was designed as a joke, essentially – it serves an increasingly important purpose. Rights holders and lawmakers should strive to ensure that work like this is legally protected at a minimum or, better yet, actively supported by the industry itself. If they don’t? Our recent history will become lost and inaccessible, to the detriment of all of us.

List image by m01229 / Flickr


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