Virtual PC Museum 2007

As Mike Swanson mentions in his blog, Virtual PC 2007 was released this week as a free download. This isn't a revolutionary release, but it's notable for its support for Windows Vista as both a guest and host OS, as well as x64 architecture host support.

Some of you know that I have a side-interest in collecting vintage editions of Windows. In the same way as many people see their histories as being framed by the music of each era, my professional career and interest in computing is set against the soundtrack of different Windows milestones. My first experiences of PC computing included Aldus Pagemaker running on Windows 2.x; Windows 3.0 represented my first experience of setting up a network of PCs; my memories of Windows 3.1 are dominated by learning almost every entry in win.ini in order to pass my first MCP exams. I remember the excitement and pain of installing each Windows 95 beta release on a 386 PC; the embarrassment of taking out an important server for two days with a failed Windows NT 3.51 upgrade that I hadn't properly prepared for; the agony of Windows NT 5.0 Beta 1 and so on. Now I'm turning into a thirty-something curmudgeon, I look back with some nostalgia at those days when life was simpler and you could truly know a Windows release to a depth that is impossible today.

For a few years now, I've been keeping a little "museum" of old Virtual PC images on my machine as a way to remind myself of these old Windows releases in all their warts and glory. My collection goes as far back as Windows 1.03, a release that typically ran on a 4.77MHz 8088 machine with dual 5¼" floppy drives and no hard disk. Virtual PC was clearly not designed first and foremost as an archival environment, but it's actually impressive in its compatibility with these older releases. I was a little worried that the 2007 release might have broken many of the vintage images, but to my satisfaction everything that worked on Virtual PC 2004 continues to work without change on the latest release, as the following screenshot demonstrates:

A few releases have never worked, sadly: Windows NT 3.1 fails at the second or third reboot with a fatal warning that doesn't come to mind right now. Microsoft OS/2 1.31 gets most of the way through the floppy-based installation before locking up the virtual machine. And Windows 3.0 hangs in 386 Enhanced mode (you need to run win /s from the command line to start it in the 80286-compatible standard mode). But it's good enough to satisfy my nostalgia.

One obvious benefit of running in a Virtual PC environment is the ability to easily run so many releases side-by-side. It's possible to see the subtle transitions that took place between point releases (ooh - WfW 3.11 introduced fax support!), and identify amusing idiosyncrasies (Notepad didn't gain Find and Replace support until as late as Windows NT 4.0). One day I'm sure I'll look back at Windows Vista with similar nostalgia...