The Joy of DOSBox — A cross-platform productivity solution (?!)

For someone who lives in the past, this is a truly fantastic program.  In brief, DOSBox lets you run DOS applications (though in those days we often just called them ‘programs’) on almost any piece of modern hardware.  This has numerous benefits.

  • If there is a bit of old software you really like, you can still use it.
  • You can run the DOS program on Mac, Win or Lin equally easily because DOSBox acts as a layer between the OS and the DOS program.  Since DOSBox can be run from a USB flash drive, this allows truly portable apps (see below).
  • It sandboxes the program, since if it falls over it will only toast the DOSBox session.
  • Despite the emulation required, DOS programs are so small and fast that they are generally quite responsive under DOSBox, and you can tune DOSBox to use more or less host system resources to control that anyway.
  • DOSBox runs a huge range of DOS software, up to and including Windows 3.1.

I have noted recently how sometimes the first piece of software you use remains a favourite tool for various reasons, not all logical.  DOSBox enables me to maintain my neurotic use of ancient tools.  The biggest problem is often conversion to more modern file formats, but the open source community has often fixed that — OpenOffice/LibreOffice/Abiword/[Insert name here] provide far more conversion tools than a lot of commercial software, and enable users to keep using older versions of WordPerefect, WordStar and similar.  Below is one of my favourite editors, TDE, running inside DOSBox.

TDE running inside DOSBox.

TDE running inside DOSBox.

One thing that I flanged together was a USB stick that lets me run LaTeX on any system I am likely to plug into.  Now I am sure that this could be done using modern portable apps, but I already had a working emTeX install from years ago which I had set up to run under DOSBox, so all I needed to do was create a USB stick with portable versions of DOSBox that run on Windows, Linux (well, i386 Linux) and a reasonably current version of Mac OS X, which was trivial — I just had to copy on the binaries and modify some configuration files. emTeX also has a great DVI viewer.

DVISCR inside DOSBox.

DVISCR inside DOSBox.

So because LaTeX is so stable, emTeX is still quite usable (though a little bit limited by the 8.3 DOS filename limit).  All the software on the USB is open/free as far as I know, and I tend to avoid ‘abandonware‘ as a dodgy concept, though in reality I doubt there would be a problem, generally.

DOSBox was really put together for playing games, which means if you want to be distracted it is more than capable of accommodating you.  I only have one game on my emTeXbox USB stick, the venerable Sopwith, CGA graphics and all.



Plainly, if you have a licensed version of the superb WordPerfect 5.1, a portable DOSBox USB stick would be a great way of taking it with you, and I know for a fact that LibreOffice imports (simple) WP5.1 documents pretty well.  Further, if you install a PostScript WP printer driver and print to a file, you can use the host system to print out your WP files and they’ll look just as WP intended (or you could make a pdf from the ps), or you can import into OOo/LO for reformatting and distribution.

If you are looking for distraction-free writing with plenty of formatting options if you want them, (like in WriteRoom, DarkRoom, WordGrinder and the like) then a fullscreen DOSBox session with WP5.1 would be a pretty good solution.  Not, perhaps, compelling, unless you grew up with the program, I suspect…

What more could a reactionary want?


Maybe not.


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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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