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    IBM's Warp operating system has plenty to recommend it,
    but the corporate clout of Microsoft will be hard to beat

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1995 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #293  June 6, 1995 High Tech Office  column

    A while back, I suggested that despite a lot of hype in the computer media, and even TV commercials, people simply were becoming indifferent to things like battling operating systems. They just want systems that work and let them get the job done.

    Of course, like any sweeping generalization, that one contained a core of truth, and an overlay of exaggeration. And I went on to contradict my own conclusion by writing, a few weeks later, about the still-to-be-released Windows '95, adding my voice to the clamor.

    Inevitably, I have been called upon to comment on other operating systems, if only to attempt to prove that I'm not an unwitting pawn of Microsoft. Reader Roger Zulleg urged me to write about IBM's Warp, so here we go.

    A little less than 20 years ago, Microsoft consisted of two people--Bill Gates and Paul Allen--renting space next to a laundromat in a mini-mall in New Mexico, peddling BASIC computer language on paper tapes to purchasers of Altair personal computer kits. At that time, the computer industry really consisted of IBM and the so-called seven dwarfs, which meant everybody else. Most high-tech companies scrambled for a tiny niche in an industry completely dominated by Big Blue.

    Now Microsoft has taken on the image of the company that everyone loves to hate, while IBM, after frittering away an early domination of the personal computer market, ends up playing the unexpected role of underdog (even though IBM still has sales figures several times Microsoft's).

    Which brings us to OS/2, IBM's operating system for personal computers, also known as Warp, the favourite of Czech nuns everywhere, or so one amusing TV commercial would have us believe.

    During the past year, while Windows '95 was delayed from Christmas to spring, and from spring until August, Warp was in the stores--a real alternative for anyone who found Windows 3 a bit too fragile for work in the real world.

    I tried Warp, having previously taken advantage of IBM Canada's offer of free copies of its predecessor, OS/2 version 2.1 on CD-ROM. But it demanded ridiculously convoluted command-line strings to create a couple of boot disks just to start the installation. Then it failed to recognize my CD-ROM, and stopped dead. So that version went back on my shelf.

    When Warp came out, I got a copy. But I waited a couple of weeks, and managed to avoid the initial printing, which failed to install if users had backup configuration files on their hard disks, and thereby burned a bunch of journalists, and generated more than a little bad press. Oops.

    Warp's installation program started off better than that of version 2.1: no silly 50-character-long strings to get started. But it too failed to recognize my CD-ROM drive, and stopped.

    OK, time to get the manual out, right? Aha! I could buy two dozen or so floppy disks, and create a floppy disk set--but only by typing yet another long command-line string two dozen times! But it's all in the cause of journalism and integrity.

    So this time, the installation went further, and instead of failing to recognize my CD-ROM, it failed to recognize my (SCSI) hard drive.

    IBM kindly offered free technical support, and a 1-800 phone number. Unfortunately, the person on the other end simply left me with the impression that I was out of luck, and that he really wasn't very interested in my problem. (Since then, others have suggested that I could have found information and drivers that might have solved my problems on IBM's bulletin board, but by then, IBM had already lost me as a potential customer.)

    Later, I successfully installed Warp on a couple of other machines... both from CD-ROM and from floppies. It can be done. In fact, some have suggested that my tale of woe represents a small minority of installation attempts.

    I can't claim to have spent anywhere near the amount of time with Warp that I have with a bunch of different beta versions of Windows '95... but I think I can pass on a few conclusions anyway.

    * Warp lives up to a lot of its advertised hype. It is a stable operating system that runs nearly all DOS and Windows programs, in many cases as well or better than DOS or Windows.

    * The Plus Pack included free with Warp may be the software bargain of the decade. For around $100 or so, you get the operating system, along with IBM Works--a basic word processor/spreadsheet/database/etc. package--a solid Internet connect kit (although it's not as easy as it ought to be to connect to a non-IBM service provider), and more.

    * Aside from the Plus Pack, however, there are still too few native OS/2 applications. While OS/2 runs Windows applications, most users don't see much reason to switch from running Windows applications via Windows to running them via OS/2. IBM quotes several thousand native OS/2 programs, but most of these are custom-written, specialized applications of little use to anyone outside that single company or industry.

    If the expected flood of Windows '95 applications is released this fall, IBM will again be forced to play catch-up, because this version of Warp won't be able to run them. Ironically, OS/2's abilities to run existing DOS and Windows software is working against it here--software developers can produce a single Windows version, and the seven million OS/2 users can run it as well. So why bother producing a native OS/2 version, they ask, even though that means forgoing the benefits of a native application?

    * There can be a relatively steep learning curve for Windows users trying to switch to OS/2. Things that you think will work require looking up in the manual.

    * As my experiences suggest, while Warp and family supports most of the common PC peripherals, it needs to do better at supporting the huge range of PC hardware add-ons--right out of the box. Driver support is increasing, but telling a user they have to look for a file on a bulletin board is not good enough for an operating system with an eye on a mass market.

    OS/2 has amassed quite respectable sales, especially over the past year, and has become a particular favourite among certain segments of computer users--people with a particular grudge against Microsoft, and people who love to tinker with the hardware and squeeze out every last drop of performance.

    As we speak, IBM is releasing versions of Warp with more features--built-in Windows support, networking connections--although they've fallen behind on efforts to get OS/2 up and running on IBM's PowerPC machines. Still, Warp has a lot going for it: an attractive interface, a tested operating system that will almost certainly prove to be much more stable than anything as new as Windows '95 (and Warp is here now). And the nun commercial is pretty cool.

    I suspect, however, that Warp's users, despite their passion, will remain a deeply committed minority.

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