Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in 2018

It’s been 25 years since Microsoft released Windows for Workgroups 3.11. To take a trip back to the end of the 16-bit era of operating system, [Yeo Kheng Meng] got WFW 3.11 running on a modern Thinkpad.

To make things difficult, a few goals were set for the project. Obviously, this wouldn’t be much fun in a virtual machine, so those were banned. A video driver would be needed, since WFW 3.11 only supports resolutions up to 640×480 in software. Some basic support for sound would be desirable. Finally, TCP/IP networking is possible in WFW 3.11, so networking hardware would allow access modern internet.

[Yeo Kheng Meng] accomplished all of these goals on a 2009 Thinkpad T400 and throughly documented the process. Some interesting hacks were required, including the design of a custom parallel port sound card based on the Covox Speech Thing. Accessing HTTPS web servers required a man-in-the-middle attack to strip SSL, since the SSL support on WFW 3.11 is ancient and blocked by most web servers today.

If you want your own WFW 3.11 laptop, the detailed instructions will get you there. [Yeo Kheng Meng] has also provided the hardware design for the sound card. You can watch a talk on the process after the break.

59 thoughts on “Windows for Workgroups 3.11 in 2018

    1. what else would you use? Opera 3.x(1999) was so primitive and incompatible it hurt. Netscape Navigator 4, uh Im sorry, Communicator 4(1998), wasnt better. Bloated, slow, and had a habit of popping up cryptic javascript errors in users faces.
      There was a reason behind IE winning browser war in 1998, competition sucked balls. IE5 really was better :/

      1. Even if IE5 wasn’t objectively better… any incremental benefit that could be gained from installing another browser was deemed “not worth it” by enough users that it sparked a massive anti-trust lawsuit, and resulted in having to include a can of Pepsi in every case of Coke.

      2. Firefox is often credited as the first browser with the killer feature of Tabbed browsing, I clearly recall Netscape communicator having tabbed browsing all be it hidden away behind the shortcut combo ctrl+T, mozilla engine at that stage so tomatoe tomato. but still yeah, Netscape was the better browser by far back in the day. Opera good too but had built in ads bar to help pay the bills, was a deal breaker for me.

        1. Opera had tabs long before the ad-bar. That was introduced in version 5, if I remember corrrectly. Version 4 was still “pay for support” (I worked at Opera back in 2000). Opera 3.x was considerably faster than the competition at the time and had all kinds of nifty features, but also struggled with non-compliant web-pages. That’s why we had the ability to set browser identifier… :-)

  1. See mdgx.com for loads of cool Windows 3.1x software.

    One useful addon is “Long Filenames for Windows 3.1 and 95”. Yes, that is the name of the product. Made it insanely difficult to find but a full copy was found a few years ago.

    What it does is enables Windows 3.1x to fully utilize the new for 1995 Windows long filenames so a FAT16 volume can be formatted with Windows 95 then have Windows 3.1x installed. On Windows 95 it enables 16bit software to access the LFNs. Very usefully, it lets 16bit Windows and software to *write* to files with long names without destroying the long name.

    It was NOT like the other long name addons that used some incompatible hack. It used Microsoft’s own LFN system.

  2. This system was perfect for my father who uses PC as typewriter. After it he used windows 98, 2000, xp and now Ubuntu and still misses simplicity and reliability of win 3.11 (in his usecase of course)

    1. There was a Windows 3.x shell (progman.exe) up to at least Windows 98SE and I think it was still present in XP.

      You could swap the shell and boot to the old style desktop. Other than that, as long as you got your device drivers in order it was solid as rock.

      The problem with many computers back then were the ALi Aladdin (Acer) chipsets which were subtly broken, and crashed a lot. The other was VIA who used to make bad motherboards. You could almost say, if it wasn’t Intel all the way through you always had some minor problem, whether the hardware conking out due to cheap components and poor manufacturing, or the software side being slightly wonky.

      Worst combination I ever had as an Aladdin chipset with S3 graphics and Windows 98. Had to reinstall the whole OS every two months or it would just start throwing bluescreens every 15 minutes.

      1. Progman was usable until Windows XP SP1, SP2 took out the functionality of it :-( progman.exe was still present, but it was just a bunch of icons and not the actual program.

      2. VIA did not make motherboards. They made chipsets. When i bought my AMD K6-2 system, AOpen AX59Pro (i had to cheat and search the net, i just couldn’t remember the name, and it was hard to find) with VIA MVP3 chipset, it was rock solid. IF i remember correctly, it was a 450Mhz AMD K6-2, which OCd to probably 500Mhz or something. No problems with that system. I made a ton of research before buying that setup.

        1. There was a lot of voodoo around the Intel competitors like VIA, ALi, MSI… etc. Some combinations were magic and just worked, while in others you’d have no end of trouble.

          Like, I remember there was this one nForce chipset with a -known- fault that it would sometimes corrupt data from the hard drive or from the DRAM controller, I forget which, with a very low probability, but nonetheless if you had certain parts you’d be okay while other parts would just crash endlessly.

          1. The absolute worst was attempting to download video drivers from a vendor that configured the download portion of the website in high rez, making reading the instructions using a video card without drivers impossible.
            Still no cure for stupid it seems.

      3. Windows 95 and newer versions are not solid as a rock because they have tendency to work slower and slower (the registry and dll hell) and are easy to break on power loss (the registry..). Windows 3.11 can run as new after 10 years if you won’t have any hardware issues. Under win 3.11 power loss can damage FAT filesystem if you are not very lucky but the OS is undestructable.

        1. That wasn’t the case unless you continuously installed and removed programs from it. Likewise, registry wasn’t affected by power loss unless you had some weird software that kept poking at it continuously.

      4. If only, I had a Cyrix MediaGX that if the ram was installed backwards and then replaced correctly would alternate between booting successfully at only 200mhz, or up to 333, I think it was a 266mhz chip.

  3. Isnt there a fair to good simulator/emulator for the Android OS
    which would work on a Lenovo tablet – nostalgia times revisited ?

    Wonder if it would run “Protel for DOS” as a CML window inside
    Win 3.11 inside Android :D

    Cut my teeth on Win 3.11 on a flakey laptop when in Malaysia 1998
    – my business partner Roslie Mustafa at JRC Tenaga in KL had
    the same basic type but, kept borrowing mine as he liked the
    colour screen with Norton on parallel port to load up his videos
    and stayed up with girlie photos whilst I got shut eye – LoL :-)

    1. I believe that there are DOSbox options for Android; and that Win3.11 can be installed on top of DOSbox DOS if you have the media.

      If you want to ‘bare metal'(in a sense) or need virtual devices not provided by DOSbox, there appears to be a QEMU port to Android, supporting x86 guests. Probably rather slowly since VMs of different architectures aren’t models of speed and most Android devices lack the VM-focused features that ARM has been adding; but which have limited availability in actual licencee silicon, especially in consumer devices(Cavium and friends trying to push ARM in data center/actually credible NAS areas are a better bet; though not generally cheap or tablet-y); but Win3.11 doesn’t expect a terribly fast system, so it would probably work.

      1. Ah so an emulator for the processor to make it look like a 386 then,
        that would be cool, I could then play the original Dune, though would
        be better with a mouse – the android touch mouse equivalent messy
        when it comes to keystroke efficiency…

        Thanks Fuzzyfuzzyfungus, I do like meat tasting mushies ;-)

        Will be checking lottsa things out over w/end before next trip, cheers

        1. Beware that many of the more involved DOS games run rather poorly because they utilize undocumented features of the systems. The point of the PC was to be as standard as can be, but still they found ways to hack the hardware to do weird things that don’t translate to emulation well.

  4. “I found the existence of this parallel port sound card called the Covox Speech Thing first sold in 1986. Covox Drivers for Win3.1 can still be found online. I wanted to purchase it but could not find any source for such a vintage piece of equipment.”

    It’s readily available like the excellent CVX4 (I’m not affiliatedwith this project, I just stumbled uppon it few months ago) > https://www.serdashop.com/CVX4

      1. Not entirely. Similar, but covox could handle far higher samplerates than the DSS. The Disney Sound Source featured a FIFO buffer that helped relax the strict timing requirement posed by usage of the Covox, at a significant expense of sound quality.
        Here’s a good video that compares the two in practical use:

  5. I seem to remember a 3.12 ver as well and for some reason (game?), I ran the 32 bit extension as well. I suspect that old system was a lot bit outta spec for its day.

  6. I had a windows tablet wlth 3.11 for pen computing, it was nirvana. It had a 486, 64 megs of ram, and 80 megs of disk space. All that at only 3 lbs! It was my first ebay purchase.

  7. Windows for Workgroups was the first Microsoft “operating system” that didn’t corrupt the file system. Remember chkdsk? All the earlier DOS versions would occasionally cause some corruption but this versions of Windows solved the problem by using a “protected mode” file system. I loved it.

    1. Windows NT 3.5 shipped two years before WfW 3.11, it had a stable kernel and a solid file system. There was never any reason, other than ignorance, to put up with that MS-DOS based crap. A half decent system back then cost about $3000, scrimping on software was not an option.

      1. You’re thi9nk NT 3.1 and it only came out 2 months before Windows 3.11.\
        But NT had much higher system requirements as it needed at least a 25Mhz 386 with 12megs of ram but preferably a 486 with 16megs while 3.11 could run on a 286 with 4megs of ram.

  8. Ah, yes, the days of editing ini files to set up DMAs and IRQs (and sometimes memory ranges), hoping that none of the hardware had unresolvable conflicts. Don’t miss that one bit!

    1. Don’t forget cramped tiny beige boxes with the internal parts stamped from steel with the sharp burrs still on the edges – and every socket or power connector was built with negative tolerances so you’d almost have to heat it up with a torch to get it loose.

      Every time you opened one of those things up, you got bloody knuckles.

  9. Speaking of old stuff.. I still have the original Windows 95 “Beta” CD and Floppies..
    The boot floppy was beyond stupid.
    It took me a couple of boots to figure out Micro$oft had not put the “Path Command” in the floppy.
    I had to CD to the CD to finish the install (Pun intended)

  10. Recently, I have to factory reset an old laptop. The factory installed OS is Windows Vista SP1. You would think that it is quite modern. But turns out the IE7 that came with the OS cannot reach most website. Specifically, I can’t download the IE9 from Microsoft’s own website.

  11. Really? I remember someone at work showing off a Windows 1.0 demo with FOUR analog clocks running at the same time. Woo woo! It crashed in less than a minute, though. It used an Everex 386SX with extended memory. Another, woo woo! You can’t drag me back.

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