Running Windows 95 in an "app" is a stupid stunt that yields a good point

A stupid new app has been running this week: Windows 95 as an independent application. The Windows 95 "app" runs on Windows, macOS and Linux and combines Electron (a framework for building desktop applications using JavaScript and other web technology) with an existing x86 emulator written in JavaScript. The emulator can execute a number of operating systems: for the app it is preloaded with Windows 95.

This is natural software piracy. The developer of the app has no rights to distribute Windows 95 in this way, and I'm a bit surprised that the app has not yet been pulled out of GitHub. And for now the app is only a toy; there is no real reason to run Windows 95 in this way, except for the novelty of the fact that it really works.

But Windows 95 (and software running Windows 95) was an important piece of computer history. I think that it could be a case of being the most important Windows release of all time from Microsoft, and its influence is still felt today. Not only was it technically important as an essential step from the world of 16-bit DOS and Windows 3.x to 32-bit Windows NT, it not only introduced a user interface that has stayed with us for more than 20 years – Windows 95 was also a big consumer event because people lined up to buy the thing as soon as it was available. A complete understanding of the computer landscape of today is not really possible without running, using and understanding Windows 95.

However, Windows 95 was built for the hardware of the mid-nineties. Compatibility with disk controllers, video cards and other essential devices is largely non-existent. By 2020 it is unlikely that it will even start up on new PCs, because older compatibility is slowly being discarded to make the PC platform faster and safer. These hardware changes mean that very old software is a challenge in the long term, even for virtualization software such as VMware.

A neatly bundled emulator in a standalone package ends up all hardware problems. The use of JavaScript for the emulator also offers a good degree of durability: the emulator is not tied to a certain underlying hardware capabilities and can work virtually anywhere.

Systems such as these are essential for maintaining these important pieces of computer history. And yet there is no effective way to develop and distribute them without ignoring the copyright. This is of course the same problem in the console emulation world, but with an even greater historical impact: games are important cultural artefacts, but authentic access to Windows 95, Office 95, Netscape 3 (and the web content of that era), etc. is demonstrable. even more important, because of the wider influence these things eventually had.

The software industry has at best shown indifference to the preservation and protection of this legacy and, in the case of gaming ROMs, outright hostility. As foolish as the Windows 95 emulator – it was basically a joke – it serves a purpose that is becoming increasingly important. Rightholders and legislators should work to ensure that work such as this is legally protected at least or, better still, actively supported by the industry itself. If they do not? Our recent history will be lost and inaccessible to the detriment of all of us.

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