Arachne spins its World Wide Web inside MS-DOS

If you have a legacy machine running DOS, you can turn it into an attractive mail client and Web browser with Arachne. Downloads let you add Telnet and FTP. In this Daily Feature, Michael Jackman shows you how to set it up.

MS-DOS is old but far from deceased. It’s still useful for all kinds of system recovery and diagnostic tasks, and FAT16 coupled with MS-DOS lets you create a safe place to store data or create multi-boot machines. But what about browsing the Web? There are some programs that let you do that in MS-DOS. One of the most visually appealing GUI interfaces is Arachne. In this Daily Feature, I’ll show you how Arachne lets you access the Internet. Maybe it will give new life to the dusty 386 or greater legacy machine you’ve got in the closet.

System requirements
Arachne works best on 386 machines or greater. Also, for best results you’ll need some Extended Memory (XMS), say 4 MB or more for Arachne to run comfortably, MS-DOS 6+ or DRDOS 7+ (now called OpenDOS), SVGA video with at least 1 MB of video RAM, and a few MB of hard drive space or a RAM drive. Arachne has its own TCP/IP stack and PPP dialer, which is handy if you’ve never set up DOS to run on the Internet before. And of course, you’ll need a modem. It helps if you set up your DOS config.sys and autoexec.bat to make the most available DOS memory possible. So load DOS and as many devices as you can into high memory.

Installing Arachne
In these directions, I’m assuming you’ll be setting up Arachne on a machine running MS-DOS only, without networking. Therefore, you’ll need another machine to use for the download at At only 982 KB, the installation file ARCHN169.EXE is small enough to fit on a floppy disk. Transfer Arachne from your download machine to an appropriate directory in your legacy machine such as C:\DOWNLOAD\ARACHNE. Change to that directory and at your DOS prompt, type ARCHN169.EXE [ENTER] to expand the files.

Setup will ask you to confirm whether you want to install Arachne version 1.69. Once you do, you’ll have the opportunity to choose your program directory. If you don’t accept the default choice, you’ll be able to name your location. Remember, however, that this is DOS. If your directory doesn’t exist, you’ll receive an error (see Figure A). You’ll need to create your directory in advance using the MKDIR command.

Figure A
You’ll receive an error if you type in a nonexistent directory.

The installer then checks to see if enough disk space is available, creates subdirectories, and unpacks the files. While it does, you can see a progress bar.

When the files are unpacked, setup begins. Choose the type of memory to use for swapping—either XMS (Extended), EMS (Expanded), or Disk. Then, choose your video card. The available choices are VGA, EGA, and CGA. As you can see, EMS and EGA let you run Arachne on older machines, though I’m not sure how successful that would be considering Arachne’s memory and hard disk space requirements.

Once you set up video and memory types, setup continues in GUI mode with a Video Setup screen (Figure B). At this point, your mouse is enabled. Set your video mode and click the button Try Selected Graphics Mode. You may have to play with the video settings to find the best one for your machine. At any time, you can hit [Esc] to exit the program and type Setup to start over. The chiseled effect of the title bars is the first indication that Arachne graphical interface will be one of the more appealing graphical DOS programs.

Figure B
In GUI mode, Setup enables mouse support and lets you choose your video configuration.

You’ll work within the Arachne browser from this point forward.

Setting up your dial-up connection
The screen shown in Figure C gives you the option of installing PPP and Ethernet through wizards or using a manual installation. For PPP you’ll need to know the usual information, including the numbers to dial, username and password, and the IP address of your DNS server. You should also know the COM port of your modem in case Arachne can’t detect it. If you have another computer that can dial up to your ISP, your DNS server address is easy to find out without calling up your ISP’s tech support and waiting for someone to answer. From within Windows, connect to your ISP, then open a DOS Prompt or Command Prompt, type Ipconfig /all, and then press [Enter].

Figure C
You can set up PPP or Ethernet using wizards or manually from within the Arachne browser.

Setting up e-mail
Following completion of your dial-up information, press E-mail Setup Wizard to continue. Enter your e-mail address, name, and SMTP server in the areas indicated (see Figure D).

Figure D
Enter the information for your outgoing mail.

On the next screen (Figure E), enter your POP3 server, your username and password, and then click Finish Setup. The Arachne PPP Dialer appears. From that, you can dial in to the Internet, hang up, manage profiles and scripts, set up PPP, or exit the program. This screen capture shows the dialer in a full-screen view. Note the icons, toolbars, and system information displayed on the right of your screen. The browser is actually like a self-contained desktop system that lets you exit to the DOS shell, run commands, and perform other tasks.

Figure E
Once PPP is set up, you can use the Arachne PPP Dialer to connect to the Internet.

Setting up an Ethernet connection
For setting up access to the Internet through Ethernet, the Ethernet Wizard tries to detect your packet driver. If you haven’t done so already, you will need to set up a packet driver for DOS. Arachne comes with several and gives Web sites for more. The program can install a packet driver by adding a reference to your AUTOEXEC.BAT file. Supported drivers include:
  • 3Com 3c509 or compatible (ISA)
  • Novell ne2000 compatible (ISA)
  • Novell ne2000 compatible (PCI)
  • ODIPKT for Novell NetWare

Arachne also contains links for downloading other packet drivers. Choose the packet driver to install and then click Update AUTOEXEC.BAT (Figure F). Setup will show you the line being added to your file and give you a chance to edit it or confirm it. If you’re sure, click Next; if you’re not sure, click Previous. Remember you can also always use the Escape key to exit. If you want Arachne to change the AUTOEXEC.BAT file, it will then prompt you to reboot your computer.

Figure F
Use the Ethernet Wizard to install packet drivers and set up TCP/IP for networking

Once you’re finished setting up Packet drivers, the wizard tries to detect BootP or DHCP. If that fails, you can always set up Ethernet manually, as shown in Figure G.

Figure G
You can set up your Ethernet manually.

Arachne has the ability to set up address books, send attachments, sort e-mail, and perform other e-mail functions. It’s a fairly full-featured GUI e-mail client that is excellent for a DOS machine.

Other features and a few bugs
Though the browser comes with a text editor and has the ability to look at page source code, it could use more features. To this end, the developers of Arachne have provided an impressive list of plug-ins for the browser. You can get these at the Download section of their Web page. Of note are plug-ins that can get you the ability to use telnet, ftp, secure shell, a zip/unzip utility, and players for .wav, .avi, and .mpg multimedia files. Under development are an MP3 player and an IRC client. Also available are different skins for the program and an array of DOS utilities. One other problem you may notice is trouble viewing sites with frames or with extensive JavaScript.

I enjoyed using Arachne on a 486 machine, but I can’t say it’s completely stable. The program has crashed a number of times, most often by running out of DOS memory. A help file contains tips for how to speed up and tune the programs, but the best thing to do is to get as much DOS memory available as possible. The download page contains different versions of the Arachne core, so if you have a 386 or 286 machine with different video requirements, one of these downloads could help avoid problems. I’m also bugged by the English errors within the program’s text. But since I’m an editor, that’s a bug that may not be as critical to the end user as it is to me.

The program is stable enough to provide a steady Internet connection and attractive enough to make using DOS fun again. You’ll be able to browse many of your favorite Web sites, if not all, and use a middle-weight e-mail client. Since we’re running in DOS, a system crash is more annoying than harmful, and a reboot, on the rare cases it’s necessary, only takes a few moments.
The authors and editors have taken care in preparation of the content contained herein but make no expressed or implied warranty of any kind and assume no responsibility for errors or omissions. No liability is assumed for any damages. Always have a verified backup before making any changes.

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