Can I run old 16-bit programs like Superbase in Windows 10?

All my personal records since the very early 1990s, my record catalogue, and my family research – which has been deposited as data DVDs in County Records in England and State Records in Australia – are based on 16-bit programming in Superbase.

I’ve alerted the various organisations that my data DVDs will not install in Microsoft Windows 10. At this stage, they will have to keep PCs running earlier editions of Windows, but this is not a satisfactory long-term bet for them or me.

Can you point me to any existing or prospective software which will respond to 16-bit .exe files with Windows 10? I recognise that the number of people in my situation is relatively small, but we do exist, and I really think that Microsoft (or someone) should have made provision to enable the continued use of older software. John

Microsoft and the Superbase programmers have done well if a personal computer program has worked for more than 35 years, but you really should have moved on before now. Schofield’s First Law of Computing says that you should never put data into a program unless you know exactly how to get it out. Perhaps I should also have specified “when”.

Although your problem may affect relatively few users, it does illustrate a point about the common failure to appreciate the value of data.

People seem to worry about which PC to buy, rather than think about the software and web-based services they use, and they pay even less attention to the fate of their data. It should be the other way round. PCs last a few years, and software might survive for a few decades, but data is forever. Also, it costs far more to recover or recreate lost data than to replace hardware or software.

History and the Next Generation

Superbase was developed in the UK by Precision Software, and first appeared on the Commodore 64 in 1983. It was a huge success, was ported to other machines, and in 1988, it became the first database on Microsoft Windows.

Like a lot of good British software, Superbase was sold to an American company – Software Publishing Corporation (SPC) – which sold it on to Computer Concepts Corporation. It eventually ended up back in the UK, where it was rescued by Papatuo Holdings Ltd. This looks like a husband-and-wife team operating several small companies.

According to Wikipedia, Papatuo bought the Superbase family of products from the official receivers of Superbase Developers plc in 2010, and in 2015, it “also purchased the SIMPOL intellectual property upon the liquidation of Simpol Limited.”

Simpol originally stood for Superbase International Multi-Platform Object Language. It was designed to be the programming language built into SBNG, aka “Superbase Next Generation”.

In a press release posted in January 2015, the company said: “Superbase Software Limited, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Papatuo Holdings Ltd, has been established to provide support, consultancy and training for Superbase both legacy Superbase and Superbase Next Generation (NG) based on SIMPOL. Users can be confident of on-going support for their legacy Superbase-based systems. Superbase Software Limited are also offering a related range of paid support and professional services.”

In theory, you have an upgrade path via Simpol Professional (£349), though the conversion may not be simple. Also, the blog has not been updated since June 10, 2014, before the merger into Superbase Software Limited. However, if paid technical support, consulting and bespoke development services are available, this could be an option for the businesses that still use Superbase.

Running Superbase today

Superbase’s developers released Superbase Classic, the latest version, in 2003 – only 13 years ago! This is still available as a free download. The problem is that it runs in 32-bit versions of Windows, not in 64-bit versions.

This may not have anything to do with Windows 10 per se: I can’t run Superbase Classic on any version of Windows I have handy because they are all 64-bit versions. However, it might run in Windows 7 or 10, if you have a 32-bit version.

Basically, 32-bit Windows uses a technique called “thunking” to convert 16-bit memory addresses to 32-bit addresses, and vice versa. In contrast, the 64-bit versions of Windows use a special subsystem called WoW64 (Windows-on-Windows 64-bit) to emulate a 32-bit environment to run 32-bit software. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to thunk between 32-bit and 64-bit versions of Windows: as Raymond Chen points out, “the 64-bit address space is four billion times larger than the 32-bit address space.”

But all is not lost…..

Microsoft provided businesses with a “get out of jail for a reasonable price” card with Windows 7 Professional. This includes a free copy of Windows XP, which runs in a nicely integrated VM (virtual machine). You can therefore run Superbase in a 32-bit copy of XP inside Windows 7, which will keep you going until 2020. This is what Superbase suggests.

Obviously, Windows 7’s XP Mode is not, and was never intended to be, a permanent solution. However, it did give organisations a whole decade to convert their old software.

Alternatively, you could try running Superbase in any other VM – there are several free ones – but you will have to provide your own licensed and activated 32-bit copy of Windows XP, Windows 2000, Windows 95 or whatever.

Perhaps you could try or even buy a new or second-hand PC running a 32-bit version of Windows 10 or earlier, and see if it works on that. Sorry I can’t test it, but there’s no reason why thunking should stop working. (There’s a Control Panel entry to enable 16-Bit Application Support, but when you double-click sbclasde.exe, Windows should ask if you want it enabling.)

Exporting your data

Like all good databases, Superbase lets you to export your data in a number of formats, so that you can import it into other programs. The options include CSV (comma-separated values), DBF (for dBase II etc), XLS (for Microsoft Excel version 3 and earlier), XML, and HTML. Text-based CSV is the most common option, and you can import CSV files into many programs, including Excel. XLS is often the convenient option, and most spreadsheets can import XLS files.

See the Superbase website for more information and screen shots.

There is, however, a huge problem. While you can extract the raw data and field names, your layouts and forms will disappear, and so will your Superbase programming. As far as I can see (this is not my area of expertise), you will have to rewrite your programming routines in the language of your new database.

Perhaps readers who have previous experience of converting Superbase files – or just running the Classic version on a modern PC – could share their expertise in the comments below….

Have you got another question for Jack? Email it to

comments powered by Disqus