C:>BANNED! Apple gives DOS game emulator for iOS the heave-ho [Updated]

Of all the apps Apple might get upset about, one that lets you emulate classic DOS games on your iPhone doesn’t seem like it would make the top of the list.

Someone at Apple clearly disagrees, however. iDOS 2 developer Chaoji Li recently revealed that Apple rejected an update to his DOS-emulation app — on the grounds that it launches executable code. That’s despite the fact that some version of Li’s iDOS app has been in the App Store since 2010.

In July, Li posted Apple’s message warning him about pending removal from the App Store in a blog post titled “iDOS 2 will be gone soon.”

Update August 9: 2021: As Li feared, iDOS 2 is now gone from the App Store.

DOSBox for iOS

Chaoji Li, a thirty-something app developer and stay-at-home dad living in southern China, started developing iDOS soon after picking up a first-gen iPad in 2010.

“The performance was quite impressive,”Li told Cult of Mac. “People said that DOSBox (read: a free, open-source DOS emulator) [was] too demanding for mobile devices, but I decided to give it a try and see how bad it [actually was].”

The app Li came up with, iDOS, allowed those with iOS devices to run old DOS games they downloaded. It even included mouse and keyboard emulation that worked impressively well.

DOS, for those not old enough to remember it, was the command-line disk operating system central to the experience of owning and running games on a PC back in the 1980s and early ’90s. Think titles like Prince of Persia, Doom, Lemmings, Duke Nukem and Commander Keen.

While a few of these games (Doom, for example) can still be found in the App Store as official ports, many have fallen by the wayside. That holds especially true for obscure titles that did not spawn franchises still bringing in cash in 2021. While emulation remains controversial from a legal perspective, in some cases it’s the only way gamers can play old titles without buying vintage hardware.

That’s the appeal of an app like iDOS. Well, that and making out like your fancy new iPhone is a computer from 1988.

It’s like being back in 1988, only without the acid-wash jeans.
Photo: iDOS

The days of DOS

Before he got into Apple devices, starting with the original iPhone, Li was a PC guy.

“My first PC [was] a Win98 Pentium PC, so I played DOS games alongside games like StarCraft [and] Tomb Raider. “[Civilization II] is my all-time favorite.”

iDOS was meant as an open-source project that allowed users — like him — to download and play the games they had grown up on. But Apple didn’t take long to object.

“When iDOS was first released in [the] App Store, it was pulled off the second day it went viral,” Li said. “I have since dreaded publicity. Sure it gave you a spike, but then you lost the ability to make it do useful things.”

Since then, there have been continuing skirmishes with Apple. The app was allowed back into the App Store in 2011, but wasn’t updated for a four-year stretch between October 2015 and September 2020. This was due to restrictions that involved iTunes file sharing and bundled game files without ownership. However, last year iDOS reemerged with new updates.

Now Apple has turned against it again, rejecting a bug-fix update because of an App Store rule that stops apps from installing or launching executable code.

“I feel genuinely terrible for you,” wrote one commenter on Li’s website when he announced the news. “The new generation of computing is here, and it’s [sic] color is dystopia.”

Battles with Apple

In a message to Apple, Li argued that there is “no security risk [posed to users] since the user code is running inside emulator within the app sandbox.”

“For years, we have been requested by thousands of users to enable iTunes file sharing,” he continued. “They really want their old DOS apps to continue to work for them on their iOS devices. So we think we should try for them.”

He also noted that there are multiple apps in the App Store that run JavaScript or Python code, ostensibly the same rule infraction iDOS stands accused of. Apple, however, seemingly isn’t having any of it.

Li said he hopes Apple will “come to its senses” and restore iDOS once again. Given Apple’s continued opposition to allowing side-loaded apps (as seen through the Epic Games lawsuit), that doesn’t seem likely, though.

But, even if it doesn’t, Li’s not throwing in the towel.

“I will continue to maintain the GitHub project, and people who have the developer program can build from source and install the app on their devices,” he said. “It’s open source, after all.”