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Despite Apple’s ironclad control of the App Store, it seems that the iPhone maker has no real qualms about letting users run vintage apps from a bygone era, as demonstrated in a really cool new experiment by YouTuber Niles Mitchell.
While Apple normally takes a pretty hard-line stance against “emulator” apps — that is, those apps that can download and run their own code, there’s been a notable exception that’s kept popping up over the years: iDOS.
iDOS is an emulator from the days of old MS-DOS-based PCs. It’s had a rough ride over the years, first briefly popping up back in 2010 before being unceremoniously removed by Apple, and then appearing and disappearing over the next few months. However, it actually made a return about six years ago as iDOS 2, and for whatever reason it’s been allowed on the App Store ever since.
Until late last year, however, iDOS 2 had largely been neutered by the inability to actually access anything outside its own sandbox, and the developer appeared to have mostly given up on it. Last September, however, he was encouraged to try submitting an update with document storage enabled, and Apple surprisingly approved it, opening up iDOS to a much larger world.
In fact, the approval was such a surprise that iDOS 2’s developer, Chaoji Li, feared it was merely a mistake. However, iDOS 2 wasn’t the only low-level emulator app that seemed to qualify under Apple’s new and more relaxed policy. Around the same time, another developer managed to get iSH, a Linux shell for iOS, also approved by the App Store — albeit not without some controversy.
Both iDOS and iSH effectively do the same thing, just with different low-level operating systems — DOS and Linux. The apps themselves provide only the basic shell and command-line environment, requiring you to figure out your means of actually getting any real software installed.
While most Linux power users can figure out how to get around iSH, and there’s even a helpful Wiki on GitHub, the old-school DOS environment in iDOS is another matter entirely. MS-DOS was birthed in an era when most PCs used 300bps modems — that’s “bps” without a “k” or “m” or “g”, so to put it in terms of a modern internet connection, it works out to around 0.0003mbps.
So, needless to say, network connectivity wasn’t something that was built into MS-DOS. Instead, you needed to install software from a floppy disc, CD-ROM, or other local file system.
Of course, since iDOS on iOS will now allow you to access the Files app, you can place software there for installation, but Niles Mitchell of the YouTube channel Will it Work? decided that it would be much more fun to go completely retro, using iDOS to turn his iPhone into an old-school DOS PC.
You may remember Mitchell from other great classic iPhone throwback combinations that have included an Iomega Zip Drive, a vintage 1986 Apple Hard Drive, and even a 1977 Atari 2600 Joystick. These videos are a lot of fun for anybody who remembers those halcyon days of technology, or even just wants to take a peek back into an era long before the iPhone was even a glimmer in Steve Jobs’ eyes.
Now, however, Mitchell is offering up what we can only call his pièce de résistance — firing up iDOS 2 on his iPhone and then using legacy PC-era equipment to actually load in games from a floppy disc and CD-ROM.
In the 14-minute video, Mitchell pulls out all the stops when it comes to the use of vintage technology, going so far as to use an old PS/2 keyboard and Compaq mouse (via a PS/2 to USB adapter), as well as appropriately compatible floppy disc and CD-ROM drives. All this gets connected to the iPhone through Apple’s Lightning to USB 3 Camera Adapter, using a standard USB hub to handle the multiple connections.
As Mitchell notes, however, the process isn’t as simple as it looks. Since iDOS 2 doesn’t have any more of a concept of device drivers than MS-DOS did in the first place, it needs to simply rely on what iOS 14 is capable of handling — and iOS can’t deal with normal floppy disc drives or CD-ROM drives. Floppy drives use an entirely different USB storage subclass, while the problem with CD-ROM drives is that iOS doesn’t know how to read a ISO/UDF filesystem used by CDs and DVDs.
For the floppy disc drive, Mitchell used an Imation SuperDisc drive. This was an early competitor to the more popular Iomega Zip drive, but had the distinction of also being backward compatible with standard 3.5-inch floppy discs. However, it appears to iOS as a standard external hard drive — just like the Iomega Zip drive — at this point it can be accessed as drive “D:” within the iDOS command prompt.
In the case of the CD-ROM drive, the trick was to use a Lite-On optical drive that’s designed for smart TVs, which suffer from the same limitation as iOS does when it comes to reading CDs and DVDs. The Lite-On drive gets around this by translating the ISO/UDF file system into a FAT32 system on-the-fly, so that iOS simply sees it as an external hard drive. Mitchell notes that it’s a bit slower because of this extra translation layer, but not really a problem for smaller amounts of data.
Mitchell went on to demonstrate how he could successfully load two vintage DOS games onto his “iPhone PC.” He started with a DOS pinball game that he found on eBay, still in its original shrink-wrapped packaging, after which he installed the game and found it fully playable on his iPhone in much the same way as it would have been on a PC, with keyboard commands used to do things like control the flippers. Even the game’s sounds came through without a hitch.
From the CD-ROM, Mitchell installed “Clash of Steel” from an old game compilation CD that he already had on hand, which worked just as expected, with the only minor issue being that the wired mouse offered up a shadowed mouse pointer, since the normal iOS mouse cursor appears as soon as you move any connected mouse, regardless of the app you’re in. That didn’t affect the playability of the game, however.
While we were definitely fascinated to see Mitchell going for the full vintage configuration, it’s not going to be necessary to go to quite that level if you simply want to run DOS games. Bluetooth keyboards are supported by iDOS, and for most folks, copying the contents of a floppy or CD onto your iPhone via iCloud or direct iTunes/Finder File Sharing will probably be much easier than trying to find a floppy drive or CD-ROM drive that actually works with your iPhone.
Ultimately, however, despite Apple’s strong stance on game streaming services, the ability to use iDOS in this manner effectively allows iPhone owners to sideload thousands of vintage games, both ones that they have kicking around and many of the DOS-based games that can now legitimately be found in the public domain, or at other online games stores for really inexpensive prices.