Tuesday, 9 Aug, 2022

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..


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?

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 which 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.

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

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