Exploring Microsoft's forgotten Unix distribution

End of Days

As the 1980s drew to a close, Microsoft began to slowly rid themselves of Unix – plus the weight of AT&T's heavy royalty fees – and had essentially left the business by 1989.

Power users hadn't migrated to XENIX as expected; its sophistication proved unnecessary for most customers. The majority of PC owners stayed with DOS, enhanced with environments like Norton Commander and early versions of Windows.

DOS and Windows provided an enormous software ecosystem that was sufficient for most people, whereas XENIX was complex, expensive, and had software limited to very specific markets.

Although there was talk of replacing DOS with XENIX, IBM's OS/2 seemed a more profitable alliance, though this partnership didn't last long.

In late 1989, Microsoft began developing their own NT architecture, based partly on work from OS/2. NT was seen as a chance to start afresh, incorporating what they saw as the best parts of Unix and the best parts of Windows.

The last XENIX server at Microsoft was removed in late 1996 – XENIX boxes at that point had been reduced to simple Internet and email gateways before Microsoft moved entirely to NT-based machines and toolsets.

The XENIX Legacy

Even though Microsoft's time as a Unix company was relatively short, it had a lasting effect on Unix and its derivatives. XENIX was the first successful multiuser system for the PC. In the era before Linux, if you wanted Unix on a PC, you ran XENIX. (BSD was ported to the Intel architecture in the 386 era, but that wasn't until 1991 – around the time Linux was created.) XENIX created the PC Unix scene that gave birth to Linux in the early 1990s.

Innovations like multiple virtual consoles accessed through key combinations and dual-booting between operating systems are features we now take for granted that started with XENIX.

While many in the 1990s and 2000s may have laughed at the idea of Microsoft promoting Unix, Microsoft now has their own Linux-based Azure services and has ported their Edge browser to Linux. They even ran a campaign saying "Microsoft Loves Linux" (not a claim anyone took seriously).

Regardless of their intentions, when it comes to Unix, in many ways Microsoft has come full circle.

Trying XENIX Yourself

While adventurous users may want to try XENIX on an old PC, for this tutorial, we're just going to settle for a virtual machine!

We won't lie, getting XENIX to work as intended has been difficult: Not every virtual machine worked with XENIX, and a lot of disk images didn't work. XENIX is from the bad old days of Unix, and there will be a lot of floppy swapping. Ubuntu this isn't.

In the end we settled for SCO XENIX 386 2.3.4 running on VirtualBox, which should provide the most functionality for the most people.

If you've never used a virtual machine before, you will likely have to enable virtualization in your BIOS. If it's not enabled, VirtualBox will probably only give you the option of creating 32-bit machines and then crash when they're activated.

If you've never activated virtualization in your BIOS, it will probably be under the Advanced section, named something like "Virtualization Technology" or "Virtualization Extensions." See your motherboard's manual for more information.

VirtualBox may already be available in your distribution's repositories. If not, head to the VirtualBox's website [3]. The Downloads section has installation instructions and packages are provided for many distributions.

Once installed, VirtualBox should be in your system menu or can be launched with the command:

$ virtualbox

We found our copy of SCO XENIX at Archive.org [4]. If you carefully look through all the download links, there are packages ranging from the base OS, to Microsoft BASIC, and even a games disk.

The most important file is Microsoft XENIX 386 2.3.4.zip. Download that file and extract it somewhere convenient, as you will use this folder frequently.

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