Exploring Microsoft's forgotten Unix distribution

Subsequent Boots

When you reset the system, you will be asked either for a root password for maintenance mode or Ctrl+D to start normally. Given that we haven't added any users, enter the root password.

Once you enter root mode, there will be a message that says TERM = (ansi). Just press Enter and you will brought back to the terminal prompt.

Assuming you want to add more software, you can always re-enter the installer program we used earlier by entering:

# custom

If you have more disk images, you can install applications by following the numbered menu prompts. Under a fresh installation, enter 4 for Add a Supported Product.

You will be asked to Insert distribution volume 1, meaning insert the first disk of any product recognized and supported by custom.

If custom recognizes the disk and it works correctly, you will be prompted with a new menu. If you simply enter 1 to install one or more packages, it will usually provide a program listing automatically.

You may be prompted to restart the system after installing new software. Make sure to remove the disk from the virtual drive and press a key.

Unfortunately very few disk images that we found online beyond the base OS worked , with most giving some kind of read error. They appear to be working fine for people writing images to actual floppy disks, but didn't work with any virtual machine software we tried (Figure 3).

Figure 3: We know it's possible to install a graphical server with access to the right disk images, thanks here to YouTuber Dev Null [5].

We were particularly hoping to experiment with any X servers and Microsoft Word. If any users out there can repack the images with virtual machines in mind, it would be greatly appreciated. Fortunately we were able to get a games disk working – see the box "So What About Games?"

So What About Games?

Thankfully XENIX users weren't all business, and there are at least a few games available for the system. Although the IMG file from Archive.org wouldn't work, we found a working disk image from YouTube user MentionedBefore [6], who provides a link below his XENIX 2.3.1 VirtualBox tutorial.

The disk comes with Worms (not the famous DOS game!), Rogue, Hack, and Trek, plus fortune and mathrec. (And there is a terminal-based version of Tetris somewhere out there!) Once installed, the executables for the games/amusements are found under /usr/games (Figure 4).

Figure 4: Accessing /usr/games. XENIX does come with a visual shell, vsh, but it's probably more intuitive just to use the command line.

To start a game (we'll use hack for the example, see Figure 5), you can either change into the directory and run the game from there like so:

Figure 5: Hack was particularly popular among XENIX users, giving a dungeon crawler experience with ASCII graphics.
$ cd /usr/games
$ ./hack

Or you can run games by entering the full path:

$ /usr/games/hack

For further information on how to use XENIX, full scans of the official product manuals are available on Archive.org.


  1. Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/
  2. "Of IBM, Operating Systems, and Rosetta Stones" by Chris Morgan, Byte, vol. 7 no.1, January 1982, pp. 6-10, https://archive.org/details/byte-magazine-1982-01/page/n9/mode/2up
  3. VirtualBox: https://www.virtualbox.org
  4. XENIX 386 ports: https://archive.org/details/Xenix386Ports
  5. Dev Null: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atvTV9xU3Cw
  6. Games disk image: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_pq297tcCM

The Author

When he's not punishing his feet double-kick drumming, John Knight can be found somewhere near a Commodore 64.

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  • Introduction

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    Klaus Knopper is the creator of Knoppix and co-founder of the LinuxTag expo. He currently works as a teacher, programmer, and consultant. If you have a configuration problem, or if you just want to learn more about how Linux works, send your questions to: klaus@linux-magazine. com

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