OS/2's History and Purpose

OS/2 was originally developed jointly by IBM and Microsoft as a multitasking successor to DOS for 286 and better CPUs, but version 1.x never really caught on except in a few specialized applications. With version 2.0, Microsoft dropped out of the OS/2 partnership, and IBM promoted OS/2 to a 32-bit OS requiring a 386 or better CPU. This basic configuration has not changed with OS/2 2.1 or 3.0. The upcoming "Merlin" version of OS/2 (probably to be called 4.0 when it's released) will not be tested with 386 CPUs, and at this point it's unknown whether it will work on a 386 system at all.

OS/2 Warp 3.0 is a multitasking, 32-bit, single-user OS for 386SX and better CPUs with 4MB or more of RAM. It is very DOS-like in some ways (such as the commands used in its command-line interface, and the presence of a CONFIG.SYS file), but resembles the Mac in other ways (e.g., the iconic representation of files from the WorkPlace Shell) and has some similarities to other OSes in still other ways (e.g., pop-up menus when clicking on the desktop itself, which are reminiscent of X Windows under Unix). Warp includes a Graphical User Interface (GUI) known as Presentation Manager (PM), and a desktop metaphor for launching programs and manipulating files called the WorkPlace Shell (WPS). The PM bears some resemblance to Windows, though it's not identical. The WPS is similar to Windows 95's desktop metaphor or the Mac's Finder, but is generally more flexible and more object-oriented than either. A Windows version of the WPS is available.

OS/2 Warp 3.0 comes in several versions with varying levels of networking support. The first-released version has only dial-up networking (SLIP and PPP) support. Two other versions, "Warp Connect" and "Warp Server," include client and server capabilities, respectively. The next release of OS/2, code-named "Merlin," will include client networking features in the base package. When used with Windows for Workgroups 3.1, the WfW networking features are disabled under OS/2, though they can still be used if WfW is run from native DOS.

The lower-end versions of OS/2 also come in two versions each, one that includes a re-compiled version of Windows (often called the "with Win-OS/2" or "Blue Spine" version), the other of which requires that the user already have Windows 3.1 in order to run Windows programs from OS/2 (somtimes referred to as the "for Windows" or "Red Spine" version, though neither term is official). The "with Win-OS/2" version sometimes runs Windows programs slightly faster than does the "for Windows" version, and is easier to set up if the user doesn't already have Windows 3.1 installed; but the "for Windows" version is less expensive.

Out of the box, Warp can run OS/2 text-mode, OS/2 GUI, and DOS programs. Windows is a DOS program which Warp can run, and this is how OS/2 provides Windows support -- by running Windows on top of its DOS mode. This method of Windows support will not change with Merlin. Note that Windows 95 CANNOT be used to provide Windows program support for OS/2.

Most new OS/2 users should get the original "for Windows" version of Warp. The "for Windows" version is slightly less expensive and will use less disk space than the "fullpack" version. Somebody who's upgrading from OS/2 2.1 fullpack should buy the upgrade package of the Warp "fullpack," which includes a "sniffer" to detect the old 2.1 code, and won't install if it doesn't find this. Somebody who's building a new computer and who doesn't already have Windows or OS/2 2.x, but who wants to run Windows programs, should buy the non-upgrade "fullpack" version of OS/2, which is the more expensive version, but more convenient than buying the "for Windows" version and a separate copy of Windows.

Major OS Features

These, then, are some major OS features, and where OS/2 fits in on them. As you have probably gathered from this, modern OSes are more alike than unlike on most of these features. For a more direct comparison of OS/2 to Windows 95, see that section. If OS/2 sounds appealing by these measures, then score a point for the "yes" vote to "should I buy OS/2?". Somebody who just uses a computer to run, say, a word processor, and absolutely nothing else, is less likely to be drawn to OS/2, though, since these features offer relatively few advantages to such a person. Somebody who wants pre-emptive multitasking, or who runs lots of DOS programs that require conflicting configurations, may find OS/2 tantalizing. That may not be reason enough to buy it, though....

This is the theory behind OS/2's design. The practice is often less rosy, since there can be device driver conflicts, incompatible hardware, and a considerable learning curve in setting up an OS/2 system optimally. For whatever reason, some people find OS/2's promises of crash protection, better multitasking performance, or whatnot to be only partially fulfilled. This is sometimes the result of flakey or incompatible hardware, sometimes the result of a non-optimal configuration, and sometimes the result of bugs within OS/2. Unfortunately, the only way to know how well OS/2 will work for you is to try it, though at least some hardware problems can be caught before picking up the box (see the hardware section). Configuration problems can often be worked out by getting help on the net. In this respect, somebody who's unwilling to take some time optimizing and possibly debugging a system should probably avoid OS/2 -- though such a person should also avoid DOS/Windows or Windows 95 if s/he is new to the PC world, since these configurations can be as difficult to a PC newbie. Such a person should view Unix as the bubonic plague.

It should be noted here that occasional incompatibilities or driver bugs will prevent OS/2 from even installing correctly. In many cases, these problems can be overcome by obtaining updated drivers. These are generally posted on the Cincinnati Team OS/2 Update List (the first choice for this), the IBM Europe device driver repository, software.watson.ibm.com, ftp-os2.nmsu.edu, and ftp-os2.cdrom.com, as well as various BBSes. Driver problems have been reported with IBMKBD.SYS, IBM1S506.ADD, just about every SCSI driver known, and others. If you press while the white square and "OS/2" are visible in the upper left corner of the screen when booting the OS/2 installation disk, OS/2 will print the name of the driver it's loading, so you can track a driver that simply hangs your system. It's important to note, however, that while problems exist with many drivers, they're uncommon with most drivers.

Copyright © 1996, Rod Smith, rodsmith@rodsbooks.com
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