Does OS/2 open up your Windows?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1993. First publised in Our Computer Player, November 19, 1993

OS/2, like comic Rodney Dangerfield, just doesn't seem to get any respect.

Maybe it's history... originally announced back in 1987, media 'experts' confidently announced that by 1990 we'd all be using the new, high-powered operating system.

OS/2 version 1 came and went, mostly unnoticed. Even though a few powerful applications were released for it, few copies were sold. It suffered the stigma of being designed for the 286 at a time when people were switching to more powerful 386s, and was cursed by limited support for printers and other hardware, and limited options running DOS applications. Instead, 1990 became the year of Windows 3.0.

These events helped lead to IBM and Microsoft's divorce, followed by the near-simultaneous release of Windows 3.1 and OS/2 ver 2.0. The new OS/2 was a real 32-bit operating system, requiring a 386 or better, and was promoted by IBM as "a better DOS than DOS... a better Windows than Windows".

Well, sort of. While the new OS/2 provided a solid platform for running DOS programs, Windows 3.1 provided new challenges... OLE and TrueType support, for example. Still, OS/2 emerged as a solid, 32-bit operating system, and a steady seller.

This spring, IBM released version 2.1... which provided much of the Windows 3.1 support lacking in the previous version. This was important, because software companies, forced to choose between releasing an OS/2 version for a couple of million users, or a Windows version for tens of millions of users, had been mostly avoiding the more-powerful, but less popular OS/2. Instead, OS/2 users have often gotten most of their work done running Windows applications.

In fact, many users have decided that Win-OS/2 is their platform of choice, rather than the more common Win-DOS. They claim to be able to have the best of both worlds, running Windows' wide range of applications, without Windows 3.1's reliance on an archaic operating system, DOS.

With OS/2 ver 2.1, they get the full range of Windows  utilities... even Program Manager and File Manager, if they choose to avoid OS/2's own interface for starting programs and file management. As well, they get a wide range of customization options for each program 'migrated' to OS/2.

Windows programs can be run full-screen, or 'seamlessly' integrated into the OS/2 desktop. A number of Windows applications can be run in a single 'virtual machine', or with each application on its own. There are advantages and disadvantages to each mode.

Running each Windows application in its own virtual machine provides maximum security... if a program crashes, it will leave other programs unaffected. As well, programs run this way will not be subject to the resource shortage that often affects Win-DOS users. However, running several programs this way can quickly use up large amounts of RAM... each 'virtual machine' requires at least a couple of megs of RAM. As well, because each application run this way thinks it's on its own computer, it is difficult to make use of features like OLE that require several programs to be running together, on the same machine.

Instead, you can run several Windows applications in a single Windows session, just as you typically would under DOS. In this case, your memory requirements are lessened, and you can make use of OLE. In this case, however, you can have the same problems with limited resources and system instability as you might under DOS.

The growing popularity of OS/2 has led to an increase in hardware support... there are finally a wide range of drivers for printers, video cards, scanners, and CD-ROM players. There are even large numbers of shareware utilities showing up on BBSs. Still, this support is nowhere near as widespread as you'll find for Windows.

And in some key areas, you'll still find support lacking. Some of this may be the result of a conscious strategy by Microsoft, who are not releasing OS/2 versions of their products. For example, the millions of users who have installed DOS 6's DblSpace to compress their hard drives find themselves in a dilemma-- OS/2 does not support DblSpace, and so to switch to this environment means to abandon this means of disk compression. (They could switch to Stacker, which has released an OS/2 version).

Similarly, while OS/2 supports a High Performance File System (HPFS), which speeds up disk access at the same time providing long filename support, DOS and Windows programs are unable to read HPFS files. While users can partition their harddrive between HPFS and the traditional DOS-FAT system, as long as they have few native OS/2 applications, there's little incentive.

Initially, many users rejected OS/2 because they perceived it as requiring huge amounts of hard disk space and RAM, and providing few benefits. In the late 1980's, RAM cost $2-300 per meg, and most users had 40 mb hard drives. Today, most computers sold are far better able to run OS/2. In fact, the 18-31 mb disk space required by OS/2 seems almost svelte compared to the 70 mb or so to install Windows NT. A single application, such as Word Perfect 6.0 for Windows asks for 30 mb for a full install, and requires 4-6 meg of RAM... the same requirements as OS/2.

And switching to OS/2 instead of DOS as a base for Windows provides a more solid core, with better DOS support, and speedier multitasking for multiple Windows applications. It still may not be everyone's "better Windows", but for many people, it has emerged as the way to go.

(Note from the year 2003): The above article was originally published in 1993, as a review. A decade and more later, I've gotten a series of emails from OS2 fans hoping that I could sell them a copy of this software or direct them to a place where it is still available. While I have reviewed software since 1991, I am not a vendor of r any products. I suggest to everyone looking for copies of older software to check at eBay or at you check on my Files webpages, you'll find links to a number of (mostly freeware) downloadable software, some of which may be good replacements for older programs.
-- AZ (September 15, 2003)


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan