When troubleshooting a Windows 95 build, I came across an interesting question: can you use Windows 95 in 2022? And a related question: is Windows 95 safe to use? As a retro computer enthusiast and a computer security professional, and one who specializes in software life cycle management at that, I take a special interest in questions like this.
Using Windows 95 in modern times
Windows 95 went out of support in 2001. That is a surprisingly short lifespan for an operating system that was so popular and, dare I say, revolutionary. Windows 95 didn’t break any ground that say, Amiga OS or IBM’s OS/2 didn’t break previously, but it mainstreamed them. I guess that’s how Husker Du fans feel about Nirvana. But at any rate, Windows 95 was the mainstream operating system that brought the benefits enthusiasts like me had been enjoying for years to the mass market. It only came out 3 years after its immediate predecessor, but the difference between the two felt like more like 10.
And yet, while successful Microsoft operating systems generally get about 10 years of support, Windows 95 got about half of that. And there’s a good reason for it. It was a big step in the right direction, but it was still flawed.
Windows 95 can be picky about the hardware it runs on. There were fixes in Windows 98 that broke compatibility with Windows 95 from a driver standpoint. So if you want to use hardware made after about 1997 or so, you’re better off with Windows 98. The best drivers for that hardware may not be compatible with Windows 95. On the other side, hardware that’s too old can struggle with Windows 95. I initially used an ISA video card from about 1991 in the system I was building. Windows 95 recognized it, and had a driver for it, but it acted weird. Anytime I tried to open a command prompt, I got errors about illegal instructions. When I replaced the card with a VLB video card from the mid-90s, the problems went away.
Having a machine with too much memory in it can also cause out of memory errors.
Software issues with Windows 95 in 2022
Hardware issues aren’t the only problem. Even though Windows 95 is nominally a 32-bit operating system, not all 32-bit Windows programs will run on it. Some of them have dependencies that require a newer version of Windows, especially software that was designed for Windows NT.
Now if I had to guess, if you’re interested in Windows 95 today, you’re probably interested in running older software that doesn’t run on newer versions of Windows. In that case, you’re okay, with caveats. You’re going to need to limit yourself to using 1990s hardware, ideally mid to late 90s hardware, and don’t plan on going online with it.
Is Windows 95 safe to use today?
I am in the odd position of building a computer running Windows 95 as a hobby when one of the things I do for a living is hoping companies find their last remaining computers running things like Windows 95 and get rid of them. Why the contradiction?
If you load Windows 95 up on an old machine that doesn’t have any kind of a network card in it, have fun. Don’t even worry about it, except maybe figuring out how to get data to the machine when you need to, but recordable CDs work.
The problem with putting Windows 95 on the internet is that Windows 95 never received security updates on a regular basis, it hasn’t received any at all in 20 years. Not every security vulnerability that affects Windows affects Windows 95, because the Windows 95 family tree is extinct. But some of those flaws do exist, and there are a number of flaws in Windows 95 that are well documented.
Windows 95 and the Internet
Not only that, the last web browser that worked with Windows 95 was released in 2009. So that web browser has 13 years worth of security issues. With hacks, it is possible to get that browser to function with reasonably modern cryptography, so the experience isn’t as bad as going on online with Windows 3.11, but it won’t be long before websites start wanting cryptography that is too new for Windows 95. Not to mention the overhead of that modern cryptography and modern web design is a bit much for CPUs of that generation to handle.
I have a network card in my machine, but I get my software and drivers with a modern machine and then transfer it to the Windows 95 machine over the network. I don’t go outside my home network with my Windows 95 machine.
On home networks, that’s generally okay. That’s generally what I advise anybody who has older software they need to run that can’t run on a newer computer do. Keep the software on an older computer running the correct operating system for that software, use it for that software, and don’t go on online with it. Transfer any output files you need to a newer computer locally, and you are reasonably safe.
Considerations for corporate environments
In corporate environments, the situation is a bit different. You have to assume there are people on your network who shouldn’t be there. And old, obsolete computers on corporate networks are an ideal place for someone like that to establish and maintain a presence while they figure out what they want to do. If you are in a situation where you have to use an obsolete operating system like Windows 95 in a corporate environment, the only safe way to do so is to limit its connectivity to the absolute bare minimum, and / or only power the machine on for as long as necessary to do what you need to do, then power the machine back off as soon as you have generated the data and sent it where it needs to go. Ideally, you should do both.
And of course, if you are running something like Windows 95 in a business environment, you don’t want to be using hardware that’s a quarter century old. It’s one thing to use ancient computer hardware as a hobby. Business is a different thing. Run it in a virtual machine, which abstracts out the hardware and provides compatible drivers to take care of the difference, while running on modern, reliable hardware. It’s one thing if a glitch messes up my game of Front Page Sports Baseball. It’s another thing if a glitch messes up something I’m relying on for business.
If you’re just interested in running software from the Windows 95 era, you’re better off running Windows 98 SE. That’s the best Windows from that series. Running Windows 95 is only good if you want it for nostalgia reasons, or you’re trying to use earlier hardware that doesn’t support Windows 98.
Similarly, if you want to use Windows from the 16 bit era (pre-95), the one to run is Windows for Workgroups 3.11. That’s the last and best version from that series. The main reasons to try that is for really old software that doesn’t work on Windows 95 and later, or for hardware that doesn’t support anything newer.
I wouldn’t use any of those on the internet. Too many unpatched vulnerabilities. The only saving grace is that they are so old, and used by so few people, that nobody is targeting them any more.
Of course, if you want to run some OS because you’re into retrocomputing, rather than wanting to run some specific software or hardware, run anything you like!