He eats little boys...puppy dog tails and big, fat SNAILS.
The above lines are a quote from Bela Lugosi's Scientist character in Ed Wood's infamous 1953 Transvestitexploitation & Sexchangexploitation film Glen or Glenda? The lines are puzzling in the narrative of the film, but Lugosi, acting as a kind of omniscient narrator, is clearly warning someone, presumably the main character who struggles with his desire to wear women's clothing in the repressed atmosphere of the 1950s. In my opinion, he is warning the main character of the dangers of his behavior, the confusion of gender roles, risk of exposure, rejection, humiliation and ruin by an intolerant post-War society.
This blog is mostly about vintage PCs, not bad movie criticism. However, I believe the quote to be quite appropriate to one of the greatest obstacles to the use of vintage PCs, the Internet.
The Internet is a necessity for modern computers. To the technologically literate, it is as much of a necessity as a driving license for suburbanites. We use it to get our news, to watch video, download audio and stay connected with out friends, especially those we have never met in person and due to distances are never likely to so meet.
How does the Internet deal with vintage PCs? In short, it is mostly indifferent or fairly hostile to them. Let me start with DOS. DOS has no particular difficulty with certain Internet protocols like hosting an FTP server, but the days of using a text-based terminal emulator to access a BBS or Telnet program to access email and post messages are long gone. Browsers for DOS are ancient like Arachne or text-based like Lynx. Just try accessing gmail through them, it won't be a pleasant experience even if it works at all. I observed some time ago now that you cannot really access the Vintage Computer Forums with a browser that runs on DOS or a vintage non-PC compatible like a 68000 Amiga or Atari ST. The more sites tend to update, the more likely they will break and fail to display and work properly on older browsers.
DOS multiplayer relied generally on direct serial (null-modem) connections and modems for two players at maximum. A null modem connection required physical proximity and a modem required a reliable phone line. Later, IPX protocols were sufficiently prevalent to allow many games to be played over networks and with more than two people. However, IPX networks were built for closed office networks, not a wide area network like the Internet. The Internet uses TCP/IP, and during the mid-to-late '90s, people used IPX-to-TCP/IP matchmaking services like Kali and Kahn to connect over the Internet with games that did not officially support it.
Today, DOS games are rarely played in multiplayer, and almost never on real hardware. Nobody wants to use a slow modem, vintage computer enthusiasts are not close enough to connect their systems directly, and the matchmaking services mentioned above are long gone. Some games are played using source ports like ZDoom, but they don't run on DOS. There is a modern matchmaking site called Classic Gaming Arena but it requires DOSBox to emulate IPX games and few people seem to use it.
The next step up from DOS is Windows 9x, and the Internet has long passed those OSes by. Modern Internet generally requires more horsepower than is recommended for those systems. Windows 98-ME had an absolute limit of 1GB of RAM, which seems to be the minimum required to obtain full enjoyment from today's Internet. It tends to be limited to Pentium IV chipsets at best, later hardware does not have chipset drivers.
Browsers for Windows 9x aren't great. Internet Explorer is limited to 6.x, which was crap then and is abominable now. Many, many sites will not display properly with it. Firefox versions officially supported are ancient, and above v2, KernelEx is required. KernelEx is a compatibility layer for Win 9x that allows certain programs that only officially work with Windows 2000/XP to run. However, even with KernelEx, you are increasingly limited to seriously out of date browsers. Firefox 8 works with KernelEx, and its from 2011, but using KernelEx is in my opinion is cheating. Don't expect to watch Youtube videos, but if you needed to look at a text-based walkthrough, these options will do. Modern Adobe Flash absolutely chugs on Pentium IIIs and IVs. No Chrome, no Safari, and Opera is limited to 10.10 for Java support.
I know of few people who actively use multiplayer with Windows 9x games. Most have moved on to more modern games or source ports that run on Windows XP hardware. Some servers, even though the game supports Windows 9x, refuse to let clients running Windows 9x run on them, citing security and stability concerns. You may want to keep a Windows 9x system and a Windows XP system for this purpose. Most Windows 9x games can run more or less on Windows XP, but they may also allow you to connect to servers.
Moving along, you can still find many good modern browsers for Windows XP, and the Internet will run fine with it today. However, it is a dying OS and official support for it will end from Microsoft next month. This is a none-too-suble way of trying to get people to upgrade. There are plenty of unpatched exploits and malware, viruses, trojans, malicious programs... Many people today advise to pull the plug, keep those Windows XP systems for playing old games (in singleplayer), keep them on the home network, but don't let them connect to the Internet. There is some wisdom in this.
One thing you can do to decrease the risk is to download anything you need from a modern computer and transfer it to the vintage computer over a home network. Essentially the communication works best one way, as Windows 9x and sometimes XP have difficulties sending things to Windows 7/8 over a home network. There is little reason to have two-way communication over the home network. One exception is if you are using Windows 9x and need to access CD images using Daemon Tools. You can also "hide" Internet Explorer to prevent inadvertent connections to the Internet. You can also use links directly to sites you use frequently like GameFAQs.
Naturally, in my opinion, you should only be using vintage computers for games. You should not store important documents, personal items or work product on an unsecured computer. If you do acquire some nasty malware, you can pull the ethernet cable and find a solution. If there isn't one, wipe your HD (Darik's Boot 'N Nuke takes care of that) and reinstall (slipstream updates with Windows XP).
In short, its probably best to keep your vintage Internet explorations to Trusted Websites, Trusted Servers and Trusted Services (battle.net for example). Otherwise, the Big Green Dragon may eat you.