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23 December 2009, 20:06

New life for dead software

by Richard Hillesley

"The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." - L.P.Hartley

If you yearn for the operating systems or arcade games of the past, and are willing to make the effort to bring them back to life, free and open source software is definitely the way to go. Green screens and might-have beens, operating systems and games, BeOS, Amiga OS or DOS can be relived and replayed through a host of emulators, simulators or rewrites in varying stages of completion.

Some of the inspiration for a return to the past is curiosity and amusement, an aimless journey through the archaeology of computing, and some is pure nostalgia, a search for lost youth and a time when "programs were small, and they could romp wild and free over the whole system, unrestrained by memory management police and big-brother kernel." Some is due to genuine regret at the loss of culture and data, and the end of possibilities - BeOS never realised its potential and deserved a better fate. And some is 'just because...'.

So Haiku sets out to recreate BeOS from scratch, AROS reworks the Amiga OS 3.1 APIs, and ReactOS is an attempt to re-create a free version of Windows XP - "the XP successor people asked for" with secure defaults. The Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator (MAME), which is "easily the best arcade emulator" available anywhere, revives more than seven thousand arcade games which might have been lost to history.

The Planets project, funded by the European Union - for Preservation and Long-term Access through NETworked Services - seeks to preserve digital objects and ensure their availability for future generations, by use of Dioscuri, an open source all purpose-emulator. Dioscuri will save us from "a digital black hole" caused by the transience of proprietary data formats - a Rosetta stone for the digital age.

Zoom The Pandora console
Further out on a limb are those that roll their own hardware with Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGA) with fun or purposeful outcomes, or the makers of Pandora, which is part PC, part gaming console, runs on a customised version of Ångström Linux, and was "designed by the suggestions and requests of hundreds of people on the gp32x gaming forums" to run past and future games.

As long as there is a community of people with an interest in reviving the past there is always the hope of bringing a lost operating system back to life, and recreating the pain and the pleasure it gave.

Next: BeOS - Their winter had come

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