Duelling operating systems: a tentative look at OS/2 Warp and Windows 95

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, January 1995

Get a bunch of computer users together these days, and it's
easy to feel like you watching in a movie like "The Big Chill".

Intense, passionate discussions. And what's that in the
background? Songs from the mid to late '60s. I think I hear Sam
Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come". Or the Buffalo Springfield,
singing "For What It's Worth"... 'There's something happening
here. What it is ain't exactly clear....'

A few years since the last massive shift, from DOS to Windows,
we're being told that it's time to get ready to change again.
But to what? IBM's solution is OS/2 Warp. Microsoft would
like networks to move to Windows NT, but is asking end-users
to hang on just a few months longer for Windows 95. Apple
would have us make the big jump to a Power Mac.

Do you need to change at all? All too often, changes are
imposed from above, with the actual users unclear about the
benefits, and simply left in the lurch to learn how to get
the same jobs done in a new way.

Here are a few suggestions:

1) Any major change should provide clearly demonstrable
benefits-- these might be in ease of use, or in power.
Preferably, both will improve.

2) While you may need to upgrade your hardware to make
fullest use of the upgrade, it should work on your existing
hardware, and it should support your peripheral equipment--
printers, scanners, video cards, cd-rom players, etc, as well as existing
software and documents.

3) It should install easily, and provide support for users
during the transition from their former platform.

4) Where possible, end-users should be involved in the
decision to upgrade.

If we look at the mass succss of Microsoft Windows 3.x since
1990 and the lower levels of market penetration achieved by
OS/2 and the Macintosh, some patterns emerge--

1) All three offered improved ease of use and the power of
software designed for graphical environments.

2) Windows supported the widest range of existing PC
hardware. It would run (poorly) on a 286 with 1 meg or so of
ram. OS/2 version 2 required at least 8 megs of ram at a time
when most computers were shipping with 4 megs, and supported
only some of the widely used peripherals. Apple, of course,
suggested throwing out all your existing hardware.

3) While installation is almost a non-issue if you move to a
Macintosh, Windows was designed for one-button installation.
When I tried to install OS/2 2.1  (the previous version) from the CD-ROM, on the
other hand, I was instructed:

"At the command prompt, type: d:\DISKIMGS\LOADDSKF d:\
DISKIMGS\os2\35\disk0_cd.dsk a: (where d: is the CD-ROM

Not exactly a transparent start for installation. Then it
didn't support my CD-ROM drive anyway.

Back on the shelf.

4) Involving the end-users is not just an issue for big
offices and companies. At home, my computer is used by me,
but also by my children. Currently, it boots up to a DOS menu
program, allowing them to quickly and easily start games,
educational software, or a word processor or graphics
program. If I make any major change, I'm going to have to
deal with their wrath.

So when my editor, Lee called to tell me that she had a
shipping copy of OS/2 Warp and the latest beta of Windows 95,
I was both excited and apprehensive.


Despite all the ads and gossip pushing one platform or the other, in many ways, WARP and WIN95 are more similar than they're different.

Both are 32-bit operating systems that replace your current DOS. Instead of booting to DOS and then running a Windows session, you boot right into one or the other, then (if desired), run a DOS session, either full-screen or a in a window.

Both have borrowed ideas from small, fast Windows shell replacements-- WIN95 has a TASKBAR, by default along the bottom of the screen (you can move it or even hide it)... it shows all open programs as buttons (no more icons), and on the left, has a START button (no more Program Manager). This gives you access to your programs, and a list of your most recently accessed documents, as well as letting you safely shut down.

WARP has added a LAUNCH BAR, with a many similar features... again, a quick and easy way to access commonly used programs, without having to fuss with opening windows and finding the right icon.

Both have some variant on the familiar Mac Trashcan-- WARP has a paper shredder, WIN95 a recycling bin.

Each requires some getting used to for Windows 3 (or Mac) users... they both make extensive use of tabbed dialogue boxes (a la Word 6 or Excel 5), but the new habit required will be to use the right mouse button. Each use it (again similarly to many newer applications) to bring up a properties dialogue that changes with the item being clicked. In both environments, for example, right-clicking on the desktop gives the user to set properties of the desktop-- the colors, for example.

Both are designed to run on 4 meg machines, and will do so, but slowly. Both cry out for more ram. Each takes from 30 to 50 megs or so of hard drive space, depending on options selected, and each is most easily installed from a CD-ROM drive.

Each lets you break the DOS 8+3 letter filename limitation. In order to do this with WARP, however, you need to create a HPFS partition... and your current DOS and Windows programs won't be able to make use of files saved on that partition. Without that, on a DOS FAT partition, even native OS/2 software is still limited in its naming abilities.

WIN95 extends the current DOS FAT to allow 256 character filenames. While only upgraded WIN95 software will be able to make use of long filenames, your current software will still be able to access those files, though with more cryptic names, and WIN32 software (for WIN95 or Windows NT-- don't you just love all the acronyms?) can use long filenames without needing a special disk partition.

Both systems run your common DOS and current generation Windows ('WIN16') programs pretty well-- either runs DOS games better than Windows 3.1 does, but both run those WIN16 programs a bit slower than the current Windows for Workgroups 3.11.

Installing either results in a system that's pretty much ready to use your existing applications-- WIN95 moves your existing Program Manager groups over to its START menu. WARP actively searches your hard drive for applications, and sets them up for you. But be prepared-- either system takes longer to boot up then you may be used to. Once they're up and running, though things become peppier. And both want you to 'shut down' properly when you're done. No more simply flipping the power switch and walking away.

Both include SLIP/PPP support, letting modem users connect to the Internet. WARP includes a full-set of Internet applications in the BonusPak; WIN95's Internet applications are more modest. For other telecommunications tasks, both include a version of Hilgraeve's well-reviewed HyperAccess program. Goodbye forever to Windows' Terminal!

As you'll see, I wasn't able to test out WARP's Internet access, but IBM is providing one-button Canadian Internet access through 1-800 access to IBM-owned AVANTIS service provider... if you want to use a local Internet service provider, you need to manually configure the software, which is as complex as any other SLIP/PPP Internet setup.


Despite all the similarities, these are two different operating systems,  with somewhat different, though overlapping capabilities.

One difference-- OS/2 WARP lets you run your WIN16 programs in separate sessions-- requiring more ram, and slowing things down a bit, but providing the added stability of real pre-emptive multitasking. WIN95 lets you run DOS programs, or WIN32 programs in separately multitasked sessions, but runs all your WIN16 programs in a single, cooperative session-- just as Win 3.1 does today.

The currently-available version of WARP requires that you already own your own copy of Windows in order to run Windows software. It will let you use Windows for Workgroups, but doesn't support that version's networking features.

While OS/2 needs a working version of Windows 3.x to provide Windows support (a version with built-in Windows support is promised for later), WIN95 obviously includes built-in Windows support, and includes peer-to-peer networking (including TCP/IP) built-in. As with the current Windows for Workgroups, it will run fine on non-networked, stand-alone machines.

Each will run at its best with software that's native to it (similar to what happens with a PowerMac and old Mac software). There hasn't been  a lot of popular software native to OS/2... so IBM is providing a BonusPak with WARP, including a nice Works-type intergrated program... certainly a step up from what's been provided with either Windows or OS/2 up to now. In fact, for the cost of a copy of Microsoft Works, WARP users get the BonusPak including IBM Works, CompuServe Information Manager and the full Internet Access collection, AND a new 32-bit operating system (i.e. WARP). By some measures, this may be the software bargain of the year.

WIN95 comes with native, 32-bit versions of what we've gotten used to, but with some extra features. PAINT replaces Paintbrush. WORDPAD replaces both Write and Notepad. EXPLORER replaces File Manager.

Here's the catch, however. While Microsoft is in no great hurry to run OS/2 software, most OS/2 users have used it primarily to run Windows software. And each time Microsoft changes the requirements for Windows software, OS/2 gets left a generation behind, and has to race to catch up.

So while WARP will happily run most of the current WIN16 programs, it will be unable to run the next generation's WIN32 programs. And Microsoft is putting all its muscle behind getting software developers to write for the new standard. These programs will make full use of WIN95, and will run under Windows NT as well, Microsoft's high-end, network-server platform. But OS/2 will be left out in the cold.

This may not matter to you now... currently there are currently no WIN32 programs to speak of. And I'm sure IBM is busy making trying to let the next version of their operation system run WIN32 software. Still, depending on the timing, this could be a critical factor next spring, when WIN95, and a whole new generation of software upgrades are expected to be released.

Another big difference is in the installation process... even though it's still in pre-release beta form, WIN95 has a pretty clean and slick installation. It can start from a DOS command line, or from your current Windows, and does a good job of identifying your hardware. It correctly identified the video card on several computers, and found installed modems.

While better than previous versions, OS/2 WARP, by contrast, supports a smaller number of peripherals than even the beta WIN95. You need to insert two boot disks, even if installing from a CD-ROM. And the manual comes with instructions to manually (from DOS) edit those boot disks to enable them to recognize several popular CD-ROM brands.

It never was able to recognize my Media Vision SCSI CD-ROM, however. IBM's free tech support wasn't much help-- they said it was up to Media Vision to provide drivers.

And my copy did not include a set of floppy disks (the WIN95 beta came on both CD-ROM and floppies). All was not lost, however... I could boot back to DOS, enabling me to use the CD-ROM dirve, and type

X:\DISKIMGS\XDFCOPY C:\DISKIMGS\OS2\size\diskname.dsk Y:

to make each of the required 30 disks.

(Hasn't IBM heard of batch files? Forcing the user to type commands like this is a far cry from the ease of operation that I would expect from an advanced operating system).

And there was no similar process for the CD-ROM only BonusPak... I'll have to wait to exchange my CD-ROM version for a full disk version to see IBM Works or the much advertised one-button Internet access).

By the way, at the end of WARP's installation process, you'll need to insert a few of your original Windows floppies... you do still have those original Windows disks, don't you?

Of course a big difference between the two is that WARP is shipping now... WIN95 is still in beta. Microsoft hopes that we will patiently await a much-delayed shipping date now set for 'the first half of 1995' (i.e. sometime before June 30th). So as OS/2 users gleefully point out, while there may not be much commercially popular native OS/2 programs, the number of native WIN95 programs is currently zero.


As indicated, both operating systems provide the benefits of true 32-bit computing, with appropriate native software. Either will run most of your current generation of DOS and Windows programs. Both are different enough from the current Windows standard to take some getting used to.

While Microsoft has gotten the most advance press, OS/2 has the most passionate and vocal defenders.

For the past couple of years, OS/2 supporters have claimed, with some justice, that theirs was the technically superior operating environment, and that they've often been ignored by the media.

With the release of OS/2 WARP and the upcoming release of WIN95, Windows will have caught up with much of OS/2's technical superiority, and produced a somewhat slicker (though similar) interface. WARP, however, retains for OS/2 users the advantage of providing stabler multitasking for WIN16 applications.

For that reason, and even more so since WIN95 won't be widely available before next Spring, many users will make the move to OS/2 WARP. If you're a current OS/2 user, you owe it to yourself to upgrade right away!

However, I suspect that Microsoft's marketing juggernaut will be successful in keeping the number of Windows users defecting to a minority of their huge installed base.

And if the next generation of software upgrades provide real benefits that are only available to WIN95 users, I suspect that IBM and the minority of OS/2 WARP users will be back to playing catch up.

It'll make for an interesting year.

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