My experiment to see if you can still run Windows 3.1 in a business environment hits an early major setback as networking problems immediately appear. Read on to see what went wrong and where things stand.


As I had mentioned before, I planned to run an experiment to see if you could still be productive with old technologies. The first thing I planned to do was to see if I could survive a week running Windows 3.1. The experiment hit the wall almost immediately when a combination of limitations in Virtual PC and Windows 3.1 conspired together to put the experiment to an early end.

The initial plan

My initial plan was to create a 1993-era environment complete with vintage equipment and Windows for Workgroups 3.11. To that end, I had an old Compaq Prolinea 425/s set and ready to go. This was an old 486SX-25 machine with 4MB of RAM. It seemed like the best way to go to see if you could really make do with old technology.

The problem was the Compaq needed a CD-ROM to make it easier to install Windows and all the other software. Not having a spare that would go into the unit, I decided to just go with the Virtual PC version of WFW that I had installed a while back. Doing so wouldn’t give the full effect, but I figured it would be good enough to start the experiment.

Virtual PC limitations with Windows 3.x

It was a good plan, but the combination of Windows 3.x and Virtual PC quickly became a headache. Most of the problem revolved around the choice of emulated hardware that Microsoft uses for its virtual environment compared with Windows 3.x support.

Essentially none of the emulated hardware is supported by Windows 3.x. To make anything work, you must run around and gather up all the necessary hardware and software needed to make the system work acceptably. The necessary hardware drivers to make Windows 3.x play nice with Virtual PC include:

Each driver presented its own challenges, but eventually I got everything up and running. The next problem, however, was overcoming limitiations with Windows 3.x itself.

Windows 3.x limitations

As if getting the emulated hardware to cooperate wasn’t bad enough, I then encountered the problem of getting creaky old Windows 3.x to make it into the twenty-first century. I at least had a head start because I chose to use Windows for Workgroups 3.11, which was at least designed with networking in mind. Naturally, it was designed with early 1990’s networking in mind, which was little help.

WFW ships with support for the two most popular protocols of the day — NetBEUI and IPX.  Of course, both of those protocols are useless for connecting to the Internet in general, and NetBEUI in particular won’t connect to anything anymore. That means downloading a TCP/IP stack for WFW.

Installing it was easy enough. Merely extract the files from the EXE and run Setup. Configuring TCP/IP, on the other hand, was a pain. Yes, the stack could support DHCP, but not as completely as you’re used to in this day and age. DHCP in Windows 3.x allows you to automatically draw an IP address and Netmask, but it won’t automatically pull the default gateway or DNS information. That means you must find those numbers and add them manually. Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but certainly a bit of a pain that defeats the purpose of DHCP.

The next and biggest problem came in the form of Web-browser support. The latest and greatest Web browser I could find for Windows 3.x was Internet Explorer 5.01. This was suprisingly modern — I thought IE 4.01 was the last version for Windows 3.x. Alas, it’s not modern enough. After installing this browser, it quickly became apparent that you can go almost nowhere with IE 5.01.

IE 5.01 doesn’t support the JavaScript used by most modern Web sites. And you can completly forget anything with AJAX or Flash. The JavaScript limitiations were enough to put the brakes on things.

Google loads with errors, but search result links don’t execute. AltaVista works with minor complaints. Most major Web sites, however, wont render at all. For example, visiting TechRepublic causes the browser to completely seize up.

I was hoping to find a newer browser that would support JavaScript at least, but no such luck. Not even open-sourced Firefox or Mozilla offer a Windows 3.x version of their browser.

Dead in the water

So, for now I’m pretty much stuck. An OS without useful Internet access in the twenty-first century is essentially useless. I still have a copy of Microsoft Office 4.2 to install, but without Internet access to download the necessary filters to bring it closer to this decade, it will be basically useless as well. On top of that, I’d still need to figure out how to connect Windows 3.x to our Exchange server and find a serviceable IM client.

It doesn’t bode well for old Windows 3.x. I think I may be forced to give it an “F” and move on to Windows 95.  Right now it gets an Incomplete.

If you want to see what I went through to configure Windows 3.x in Virtual PC, check out my Windows 3.x/Virtual PC Photo Gallery.