Windows 98 For Spaceships? Not Quite!

One of the news items that generated the most chatter among Hackaday editors this week was that ESA’s Mars Express mission is receiving a software update. And they’re updating the operating system to…Windows 98.

Microsoft’s late-90s consumer desktop operating system wouldn’t have been the first to come to mind as appropriate for a spacecraft, but ESA were quick to remind us that it was the development toolchain, not the craft itself, that depended upon it. It’s still quite a surprise to find Windows 98 being dusted off for such an unexpected purpose, and it’s led us to consider those now-almost-forgotten operating systems once more, and to question where else it might still be found.

Win, or Lose?

A Windows 98 CD
This CD stood on the shoulders of 16-bit giants. Mark Morgan, CC BY 2.0.

For those of you who never used an earlier Windows version, perhaps it’s time for a short and sketchy history lesson. The original IBM PCs and clones shipped with DOS, PC-DOS or MS-DOS, Microsoft’s 16-bit single tasking operating system with a command line interface.

By the late 1980s they had developed the first few versions of Windows, a 16-bit GUI that sat over and further extended DOS with an extra set of APIs. To run these early Windows versions you had first to boot into DOS, and then type win at the command line to start Windows.

Meanwhile in the early 1990s they produced the first in a separate line of operating systems to be called Windows New Technology, or NT. These were native 32-bit operating systems that contained the full set of Windows APIs including 32-bit support natively, and were designed to compete with lower-end UNIX machines at the enterprise level. Alongside this the DOS-based Windows versions gained a set of 32-bit API extensions and eventually evolved into the more modern GUI of Windows 95, 98, and then ME. It was still possible to boot Windows 98 into a DOS prompt and type win to start the desktop, but by this point the underlying technology had been stretched to the limit and the result was often buggy and unreliable. In the early 2000s they were discontinued, and the next Windows NT version dubbed Windows XP was also aimed at the consumer market.

Peering Into The Mind Of A 1990s Scientist

XKCD 2347, a huge pile of infrastructure depending on one small software project.
Is that single project in fact a crusty old beige-box Pentium running some ASP? XKCD 2347(CC BY-NC 2.5).

So we return to Mars Express. By the time the craft was being designed it’s fair to say that Windows NT and its successors were a stable product, more stable by far than the consumer operating systems. Did the fruits of a desktop operating system eventually make it to space because whoever controlled a researcher’s IT budget skimped a bit on the software and PC purchasing? We may never know, but given that it seems to have delivered the goods, perhaps it wasn’t such a bad choice after all.

All of this brings us to the question of where else there might be a copy of WIndows 98 lurking. Sure, some of you will have retro gaming PCs and no doubt there will be tales of elderly relatives still using it, not to mention that some pieces of 1990s test equipment ran it. Even the McLaren F1 supercar famously could only be serviced with a particular model of 1990s Compaq laptop. But those aren’t exactly mission critical. Instead we want you to tell us about Windows 98 in the wild where it’s a surprise, or even where it definitely shouldn’t be. Is a nearly quarter century old OS that’s been out of support since 2006 propping up an unwieldy tower of services somewhere? We’re honestly not sure whether we want to know or not.

Header: Javi1977,CC0, and Federico Beccari, CC0.

78 thoughts on “Windows 98 For Spaceships? Not Quite!

  1. “32 bit extensions and a graphical shell for a 16 bit patch to an 8 bit operating system originally coded for a 4 bit microprocessor, written by a 2 bit company, that can’t stand 1 bit of competition.”

    was making the rounds in the times back when…

  2. “…you had first to boot into DOS, and then type win at the command line to start Windows.”

    Ah, the glorious hours of editing AUTOEXEC.BAT & CONFIG.SYS to build some amazing batch menu that could tweak your system for Windows, 3D Construction Kit or Space Hulk.

    Happy memories

    1. This is very likely. In 2005 I had to acquire a laptop with a real, classic parallel port and running Windows 98 to support a development system which needed to bit-bang the port to do hardware debugging and flash the target instrument’s firmware.

      1. FreeDOS is mostly compatible with older DOS software, and only some percentage of where it isn’t has been mapped, you don’t wanna find out about the remaining on a space mission.

  3. I remember back in 1997 arranging fort some old Heath Laptops that my Air National Guard unit was sending to DRMO transferred to some Coast Guard Units program their Motorola radios

  4. I can say with a high degree of certainty that no matter what device you are reading this site on, it contains at least 1 (but probably many more) semiconductor(s) that was processed at some point in the production cycle by a machine or machines that were running MS-DOS, PC-DOS, Win 3.X, Win NT 3.X, Win NT4, Win95, Win98, Win 2000 (or newer)… though I cant say I have ever seen a machine running Window ME….

    1. I remember windows ME (though I wish I didn’t). It’s probably correct to say very few have seen a machine running ME … because more often than not it’d be bluescreened or in a boot loop!

      1. I saw it once: running on an old Compaq server of all things. It was quickly replaced with Windows 95 to run an old piece of test equipment that was only supported by Win95 and an ISA card.

      2. I had to work on someone’s ME computer once, I tried to downgrade it to 98 but there were no drivers for any Windows OS except for ME! It was the absolute worst Windows version. It was only out for about a year between 98 and XP.

        1. I think its reputation suffered in part because it was contemporary with the first big “Capacitor Plague”. The fact it was also named like, but very different from, the business oriented Windows 2000 aka NT5 (which was rock solid) probably didn’t help.

      1. I am still using OS/2 Warp 3 (red box) to provide network support to DOS 6 for small CNC mill. Unlike modern virtual DOS machines, this has DOS running directly on the silicon with its own access to the parallel port. As far as I can tell, it’s just as ‘real time’ as the original pure DOS system is.

    2. The best thing about Windows ME is the universal USB drivers that have been wrapped up in an installer for both versions of Windows 98. Someone using the handle Maximus Decim on the MSFN forum did that. So nice to be able to plug any USB Mass Storage into 98SE and have it just work instead of loading the computer down with a dozen different drivers for flash drives and external hard drives.

    3. In 2015 the company I was working for had recently bought a new 6-axis CNC machine. It cost a fortune, several million dollars. Totally state of the art, I’m told.

      It was acting strange so the shop manager asked me to take a look. I pulled the cover off and lo and behold I found a 486 motherboard, a couple bespoke ISA cards connected to the CNC mill’s motor controls and control panels, and a floppy-to-USB adapter. I rigged up an RS-232-USB connection to my laptop and got a terminal prompt, which was running MS-DOS 4.0.

  5. I wonder why they rely on such OS, why not go with linux instead. Or a custom OS especially developped for the occasion.

    If the apollo program was based on Windows, they would have made a huge failure for sure :p)

    1. Read the article and you’ll see it’s only the toolchain that needs Win98. It would be better to have the toolchain ported to Linux (even if you have to hack the binary) but this may have simply been a one-off need which makes using win98 the fastest and cheapest solution.

  6. Up until a year ago, I still had a carwash tunnel that was operated by a Slot-1 PII-233MHz CPU with 8MB of ram running MS-DOS 6.22. Had a custom bespoke full length full height ISA card that interfaced to a microcontroller based digital I/O multiplexor that then chained into six cabinets full of relays that controlled all of the carwash functions. Finally convinced the owner that if this thing died there was no longer any hope of repairing it, as the company that built it finally ended all support for the system in Jan 2021. We also removed a different wash tunnel controller from another location that was based on a 6502 processor around the same time.

    You’d be amazed at the age of some of the industrial control systems you’ll find in older businesses with thin profit margins. They will literally not replace the system until it finally croaks and can no longer be repaired.

      1. It’ll probably be that way anyways, since developing the replacement while the original is still in use would be difficult. The machine has to be taken offline so the engineers can poke at it and develop an interface between the old and the new, which means it’s going to be a rush job to get it back online with the new system.

      1. The tunnel running on DOS, the controller was replaced with a PLC based tunnel controller. Took about a week to do, primarily because of the extensive re-wiring required.

        The tunnel using the old 6502 based controller was an acquired location that was literally crumbling, so we tore the entire place down and rebuilt on the property.

    1. That’s awesome! Run by a Commodore 64 processor basically. I like the older simpler stuff that I can fix. As long as I have my own parts supply chain figured out, I can keep things going. That’s precisely what I’m doing with al ate 1990s Sears washing machine. I’ve got a detailed list of all the parts on the motor control board and I just solder in new ones as needed as it keeps running!

    2. A while back on the Vintage Macs email list, some astronomer in Chile joined, looking for a Macintosh IIci motherboard. He worked with a radio telescope operated using a custom NuBus card in the IIci. To provide full sky coverage, an identical twin telescope had been built at the same time in the USA.

      He’d tried for a while to get the people in charge of both telescopes to upgrade the control systems before they failed. Nope. No go.

      So to ensure everything stayed in sync he had to replace like with like, so both would continue running on a Mac IIci.

      Another guy joined who was looking for a different old 68K Mac mainboard. He had a CNC punch press, also with controls on custom NuBus cards. The press models running on Macintosh were the manufacturer’s “low end” line at the time. Hard to believe anything being operated by the always overpriced Macintosh was ever considered “low end” or “economy”. Now that Macintosh and everything else could be replaced by a Beagle Bone or other little SBC running Linux CNC and be capable of doing stuff the people who designed the machine never thought of.

      1. It’s not like there weren’t SBCs and microcontrollers with plenty of fast-enough I/O back then… But those, even today, are manufacturer-specific supply-chain-sensitive “black boxes” where even nubus is more of a “standard”. The odds of finding (or *repairing* a IIci, or other nubus mac, twenty years later are *far* higher than doing the same with a RasPiNxx. And, its simple-enough interface means that even if nubus-macs become unobtanium, the card interface and OS could be emulated pretty easily. Let’s see that with a Raspi.

    3. For a little additional explanation for those that are curious about how a carwash tunnel actually works, here’s a brief explainer.

      All of the fluid flow in a tunnel is controlled by a combination of high pressure pumps using VFD controlled three phase motors, and solenoid valves.

      Bulk concentrated chemicals are stored in 500gal tanks, diluted into 50gal drums via solenoids and venturi nozzles, and then fed into the sprayers via more pumps and nozzles. The dilution process and tank levels, at least for our washes, is controlled and monitored by a small Siemens PCL that was developed in-house.

      All of the moving parts in the tunnels are driven by either hydraulic or electric motors. Either way, hydraulic pumps, motors, etc. are driven by VFDs.

      All of the VFDs, solenoids, and other controlled items are managed by the tunnel controller. Everything is kept in sync via a pulse counter on the entrance end sprocket that drives the belt or chain that pushes your car through the tunnel.

      I was honestly very impressed with the level of tech in use for a carwash when I started here. I came on as the IT manager a few years ago, and for a local business with 15 locations (and growing), we have a pretty significant technology stack in place. We also design all of our own fixtures and tunnel equipment in-house, and recently acquired the local fabrication shop that produces all of the stainless steel tunnel equipment for us. I think the owner may have grand designs on selling our equipment to other chains…. Now if only I could find a viable replacement for our POS system. We jokingly refer to our current POS vendor as “Designed to be Really Broken”.

      1. Car washes have the Jurassic Park problem – you have all the complication of a production line and all the flexibility of something that needs to interface with many different vehicles, and of course – humans.

        Thanks for the run down. I love working with equipment that bridges the computer-real world divide. Even relatively boring access control and HVAC stuff.

        I’m surprised there’s not a decent vendor for car wash POS. All POS are, well, a POS, but some are better than others!

        I’m assuming the system controller has hooks to trigger different run programs. If you’re investing in your toolchains like that you might as well have a dev build out something. Beyond the controller connection it’s fairly easy stuff.

  7. I still have Windows 3.1 in shrink wrap. Only the 3.5″ floppy disk with the book!
    I have a Windows 98 computer that still functions well, also, I have a Window XP Pro with a real two chip AMD motherboard that still functions. I just buy new computers and keep the old ones!
    Using a Windows 11 now!

    1. To bad :) . Ha! Every thing I have now runs Linux. I do have VMs with XP and Win 7 but hardly ever pull them up. Old hardware is now ‘gone’ to wherever old computers go. Waste of space around here.

    2. I have Visual Basic 4.0 shrink wrapped which includes a 16 bit version that runs on Win3.1. Together we can rule the world, provided the Win3.1 machine has a working CD-ROM drive.

      Failing that, I have VB 1.0 for DOS on floppy somewhere.

      1. I always put Windows 3.11 (not For Workgroups, it was an OEM only release) on any 80286 that passed through my ownership. WFWG 3.11 had 32 bit disk and 32 bit file access.

        Windows 3.11 only had one of those which was pointless because the system would still be slowed by thunking. And since it had to be on a 32bit CPU to enable, just install WFWG 3.11 and enable both switches. ‘Course to use those, every driver loaded in DOS before starting Windows had to support that 32bit access. All hail the OAK universal CDROM.SYS! Once that was released it quickly became the only DOS CD-ROM driver I used.

        1. Windows 95/98 works as a real-time operating system …. with a help from a Metrabyte board.

          95/98 turned off interrupts for a LONG TIME before re-enabling.

          Metrabyte board buffered a/d data in hardware which then is read by a fast i86 processor.

          I wrote interrupt handles for a continuous lumber tester in in the 1990s for the Metriguard corp.

          Within the interrupt handler was a call to MASM code to process the data which was reutured to
          A QuickBasic program. The output was displayed in MIcrosoft Office.

          CanFor used these system. Home Depot sold this lumber. I wrote the code the code [spray btytes]
          which color printed with grade at the end of the lumber.

  8. Honestly, they would be a lot better off if they simply patched the toolchain to run natively on Linux. It’s not complicated if you’re only hacking a single piece of software.

    1. Sounds great, but the rate and directions I’ve seen linux change since the 2.x kernels suggests its going to be very incompatible with itself in a few years… E.G. Well over half of the stty POSIX-standards I’ve tried aren’t even implemented in linux, and don’t give any warning, despite being in the manpage. And of course, let’s not mention systemd. The point is there seems to be a complete lack of direction these days, based on the whims of pop-culture, rather’n tried-and-true (and WELL-documented) standards. So, relying on it twenty years from now to be compatible with something written twenty years prior is no different at all than relying on the whims of Microsoft. I can’t believe I’m saying this. What has the world come to?!

  9. A few years ago I was in a postal mail sorting facility. More than a few machines were still running XP.

    There is a very large parcel carrier who is still using OS/2 in their sorting facilities.

    Anyone remember the US Navy Ageis class cruisers and their NT problem?

  10. My surface mount pick and place machine still runs Windows XP and it will until it dies. But why? Because the program that runs the machine itself runs on XP and upgrading Windows to a newer version would require replacing that software and the machine it runs.

    I have no doubt that the Mars Express program has it’s version of the same constraints limiting it to an upgrade to Windows 98.

  11. I had to laugh about the drawing saying some random person in Nebraska… I must agree, as a Nebraskan myself we fix things and make them last as long as we possibly can – especially out on the farms and acreages. I have a 1948 8N ford tractor I mow my acreage with. In fact I have 2 of them. I can get my maintenance parts at Tractor Supply. Yeah, we milk it out, but hey – at least I don’t have to buy a new John Deere and get involved in Right to Repair movements.

  12. Ah, Win’98. I haven’t heard that name in quite a wh… Oh. Wait. I just used it this morning.

    I still support in excess of 80 robotic systems from the early 2000’s that run a real-time controller over an ISA bus in a DOS machine.

    It’s a small niche market, so it never made sense to respin the hardware and rewrite the code for something more modern.

    And, the fact is that after 20 years of development, DOS 6.22 ended up about as bulletproof and on-the-metal as you could ever ask for a machine controller that doesn’t need much interface. The hardware interrupts actually interrupt, and it never stops in the middle of a task to ask you if you want to update the clock for daylight savings time.

    In a world where you’re moving big machines, the “blue screen of death” really could be the blue screen of *death*, and DOS, clunky as it is, just runs.

    And we still have a Win98 machine running in the shop that serves as a “mother ship” to move data between the DOS media for the robots and the larger network.

    Remember that “legacy system” often means “shit that works well enough that people just forgot about it for 30 years”

      1. I mean, that, and the fact that they were still putting it in infotainment systems in Subarus in 2018 at least. Looking at the file list, it did look like some Linux desktop tech did get used on the qnx base (e.g. d-bus)

    1. Whenever I setup a router with OpenWRT or DD WRT as an extender, it never gets updated once it’s working. Why? Because in extender mode they are a PITA to update. Once rebooted after the setup is done, they become ‘invisible’ on the network. Can’t login to make any changes without doing a reset then having to redo the whole configuration.

    2. Nice… And even if, somehow, it wasn’t “bulletproof”, it still has had quite some time to be tested such that bugs that *may* exist are well-known and have workarounds.
      LOL @ Stopping to ask for daylight-savings. The sad part is, that barely even begins to represent the mass of absurd interruptions we (or the OS) have to deal with now.

  13. I’m replacing a piece of custom test gear that I designed/built in 2001 this week.

    It uses a Keithley PCI DAQ board that only had NT 4 & 98 drivers available at design time. Couldn’t wait for the Win2000 drivers to be released because it was replacing an original PC/XT that was making bad noises.

    It was never on a network of any kind and it still works fine 21 years later. It’s being replaced with a Raspberry Pi 4 touchscreen based system primarily to save floor space in the production area.

    1. Ugh… I just can’t… This comment-thread is full of bad decisions. Seriously, with supply-chain issues and the fact RasPi comes out with a new, and abandons an old, model at the rates they do, you really think this is a good idea?! I’m done. These comments are stressing me the he** out.

  14. This article doesn’t really jive with the source article. It sounds like they’re updating the custom firmware on the space mission with new custom firmware, and the ORIGINAL was built in Windows 98 so they’re still having to use Windows 98 to build it. There’s no “Windows 98 Upgrade” at play here at all?

    1. You might have missed part of this article, where it says: “…but ESA were quick to remind us that it was the development toolchain, not the craft itself, that depended upon it”?

      1. I know it says that, but that’s about the only reference to it. It “feels” like the rest of the article is about how they’re somehow moving from something older *to* Win98. But I guess “someone pulls out old computer to develop new firmware update” is a less compelling headline.

  15. Why are people saying they should port the toolchain, try freedos or otherwise try to escape Windows 98?

    It’s not like they are going to be making more spacecraft on this toolchain. I’m sure they DO use something newer when making new spacecraft.

    They are just maintaining the one. And it’s already in space so the last thing they are going to want is to change anything that isn’t necessary. If anything goes wrong… and the firmware they upload is bad.. it’s not like they can go fix it in person.

    Nor is Windows98 likely to be some sort of expense. No doubt they still have old licenses from back when they did use it every day. Though I doubt that even came into play. More likely they are just using an old workstation or VM that they kept around back from the project’s active development days and will keep around until it is shut down for good.

  16. A lot of cashpoints run older windows versions. Remember comissioning a handful of them at one job with 95, afgter its official EOL date (worked in a comissioning\ decomissioning centre for a large computer company with many client lines in the early 2000s).

    Same job, one of the lines was to mass upgrade desk computers for banks. From os\2 to 98 around the same time as the above.

    1. ^ this is most likely, otherwise you can clone a machine into a virtual machine and have at it, but some dongles and their drivers don’t play well with that scenario if there’s no driver for them on host machine.

  17. I still boot up an old laptop with 98 on it to run the software for my Realistic data logging multimeter from time to time. The battery has long gone but it still happily chugs away logging data – I could write some new software for it but it’s a lot easier to just boot up the old machine

  18. Bowling alleys using Brunswick machines are based off 486, and still run since they were installed in the early 2000’s. They just run, run and run and never breaks.

    Also, danish marine echo sounder maker Skipper still produces and sells those equipment which are Win95 over 386 single board computers.

  19. After Dark from Berkley Systems in 1991 was a really cute and fun screen saver for Windows 9X and they came out with add-on packs for Star Trek, The Simpsons, Looney Tunes and more. I have the entire collection. I watch yard sales and thrift stores for vintage laptops that will run it. I disassemble the laptop putting the screen into a nice frame with the motherboard behind it and create a piece of ever-changing digital wall art. I’ve done 7 of these to date for friends, family, and myself. It also ran on Windows XP and 2000 but was much less stable. I really wish someone would port it to modern 64-bit Windows.
    Johnny Castaway from Sierra 1992 was another great one and amazingly, it still works on modern Windows!

    1. Look for the Under Ware screensaver for Macintosh. The demo included a few modules but somewhere out there is a full copy. Possibly on the Macintosh Garden. It’s supposedly able to run After Dark 1.0 modules but I never found any that would work. Under Ware does run on the Basilisk 2 68K Mac emulator so you could have a Mac screensaver running on your PC laptop wall art.

  20. “Did the fruits of a desktop operating system eventually make it to space because whoever controlled a researcher’s IT budget skimped a bit on the software and PC purchasing?”

    I can almost guarantee that this happened because Win98 was current when the requirements for the project were written, which, with most government projects, can be years before funding is approved, and then even more years before work starts.

    A plethora of niche industrial and scientific products keep long-obsolete Windows versions alive through tight integration, esoteric design and little incentive to upgrade.

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