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IBM's latest version of OS-2: Has its time finally arrived? It all depends


You know about the easy-to-use Apple Macintosh user interface. You know about Microsoft Corp.'s response: Windows. Now comes the latest version of IBM's OS-2. And surprisingly, this PC operating system, which many once gave up for dead, is something you might finally want to consider.

You'll need to answer a key question: Will OS-2 bring you more power and ease-of-use, or will it lead you to a dead end, where you'll eventually have to dump your software and jump to some other, quite different operating system?

But the latest offering, version 2.1, has promising technology and may make sense, especially for 486 machines.

To see where OS-2 has come, let's back up to walk through its history.

Every PC-compatible needs an operating system, of course. Nearly all use DOS. Many also use Windows on top of DOS.

DOS is OK, but it's old. It was designed when PCs didn't have anywhere near as much memory and speed as they do today. In fact, DOS prevents you from getting the most from a 386 or 486-based machine. For example, you don't get multitasking -- the ability to run more than one program at once.

After developing DOS, Microsoft worked on Windows. This wasn't a new operating system but a "graphic interface" laid on top of DOS to make DOS easier to use and make it look more like the Macintosh.

Microsoft also worked with IBM on a newer replacement operating system dubbed OS-2 (for Operating System-2) designed to take advantage of the new functions of the latest processor chips.

OS-2 appeared in 1987, and both IBM and Microsoft predicted that it would quickly replace DOS. They persuaded many major software companies to write their latest word processors, spreadsheets and other products for OS-2 version 1.0.

But OS-2 had troubles. It needed far more memory and disk space than most PCs had. It cost $695. And it didn't even have the graphic look -- with menus and icons -- that the Mac or

Windows had.

Sticking with DOS

It was soon clear the market was sticking with DOS or, for those with the most hardware power, moving to Windows version 3. Why? Several factors. Lower price to upgrade to Windows than to OS-2. The graphic interface, which made Windows easier to use. Better marketing by Microsoft -- many people who got Windows received it free on PCs they bought, and they came to like it.

There was also better operation. OS-2 was crippled in several ways, as in supporting very few printers and displays. IBM seemed to think that it didn't have to be compatible with the world; rather, the world had to be compatible with it.

Microsoft and IBM argued and stopped working so closely. Microsoft pushed Windows; IBM stayed with OS-2. Windows was a winner, with lots of programs being written for it, OS-2 was a loser, or at best, a minor character, appearing only in a few large corporations that write their own programs. Even with its problems, almost everyone agreed that OS-2 had a more modern and powerful foundation.

By the early 1990s, IBM seemed to finally wake up and realize that it couldn't charge $700 for an operating system that few needed. At that price, it wasn't going to reach beyond those large corporate programmers. A few big programs appeared for OS-2, like PageMaker for desktop publishing and Lotus 1-2-3 for spreadsheet calculations. But those sold miserably. There just weren't enough PCs running OS-2.

OS-2 version 2.0 then appeared and was better. By then, it was easier to use because it had a graphic interface nearly identical to that of Macintosh and Windows. It didn't take as much memory. It did a better job of running DOS and Windows programs; you didn't have to wait for your favorite to be translated into the OS-2 world. IBM cut the price. And IBM seemed to discover that it had to reach out to customers with support for a wider variety of hardware and with marketing beyond the big corporations.

Microsoft has fought back with the announcement of Windows NT, a new operating system that looks like Windows, so computer users won't need to learn anything new, but it has a modern foundation like OS-2.

OS-2 2.1 is more efficient, more compatible with DOS and Windows programs -- it can even run the latest programs for Windows 3.1 -- and yet offers solid, safe multitasking.

That safety is beyond what Windows or even the not-yet-shipping Windows NT provides. OS-2 2.1 can run several DOS programs at once, plus Windows programs, too. It can run them under different versions of DOS, even connected to the same mix of peripherals and networks, and bar them from bothering one another.

OS-2 is built from scratch to handle networking, unlike DOS or Windows. The standard OS-2 can be a "client," or computer on a network, while the extended services version can operate as a "server" at the center of a network. Here, OS-2 competes with Novell's Netware 3, though it doesn't have the power of Novell's Netware 4 for large networks or the easy small network abilities of a special Windows version called Windows for Workgroups.

The new offering shows IBM's determination to work with the world, with support for many more CD-ROM, SCSI and Super-VGA devices. It has the ability to run the latest Windows twists, such as TrueType fonts, OLE linking of programs and Windows multimedia for sound and video.

IBM offers electronic bulletin boards and fax numbers for support, and a toll-free line for questions. The price is $195 new, with upgrades for anyone owning DOS at $99 for a CD-ROM version or $119 on diskette.

All this feels like a new IBM, ready to fight instead of assume you're going to buy from it. Watch for an aggressive marketing push. OS-2 is drawing praise, and the new IBM attitude has also encouraged software developers.

New OS-2 versions

There are OS-2 versions of 1-2-3, Freelance, WordPerfect, CorelDraw and Designer. The Describe word processor works only on OS-2 and is gaining an enthusiastic cult following. Computer Associates International, the world's second-largest

software company, says it will create OS-2 versions of its programs. Borland has an OS-2 version of its latest C++ language for those who want to create more OS-2 programs. And IBM has its own person-to-person program, for collaborating on a network of OS-2 computers.

You'll also find many who will acknowledge OS-2's technical powers but who aren't convinced that OS-2 will now make it. Paul Brainerd, the head of Aldus Corp. and creator of desktop publishing with the PageMaker program, says in Windows Sources magazine:

"At this point, unless Microsoft makes some major mistakes with Windows NT, we're placing our bets with Windows NT."

So back to the beginning. Should you buy OS-2?

It certainly brings new powers, though only if your hardware is powerful enough. You must have a minimum of 6 megabytes of memory (but should get 8 MB or more for best results), a 386DX or later processor (get a fast 486), 35 MB in hard disk space (60 MB or more is best), and ideally, a CD-ROM drive (otherwise you'll install from 26 floppies instead of one CD-ROM).

What to consider

Here's my advice:

* If you have a 286 or older PC-compatible, stick with DOS. You might try DOS 6.0, but at least get DOS 5.0 if you don't have it already.

* If you have a 386 and like the "easy" learning of Windows, stick with that.

* If you have a 486 with plenty of RAM, or the budget to get one, try OS-2 2.1. (A 386 will work, though slowly.) This is a good idea for those who run some Windows programs and some DOS programs. But even if you only run DOS programs, OS-2 can let you keep more of them ready at once yet protect you from crashes.

* And if you're developing network software, especially client-server, ask IBM for details on what OS-2 can do. For large networks, I'll bet you stick with Netware; for small networks, with Windows for Workgroups or LANtastic.

(You can reach Phillip Robinson at (415) 771-6256 or on the MCI Mail e-mail service as "probinson" at mailbox 327-8909, or you can write him in care of the Mercury News, Business Department, 750 Ridder Park Drive, San Jose, Calif. 95190.)


OS-2 2.1. $195 new, or $99 (on CD-ROM) and $119 (on floppy disks) as an upgrade for DOS owners. From International Business Machines Corp., (800) 342-6672 or (800) 426-4329 for faxed information.


On a scale of one to four, with one indicating poor and four indicating excellent, here's how the product rates:

Performance.. .. .. .. ..4

Ease of use .. .. .. .. .3

Value .. .. .. .. .. .. .3

Overall .. .. .. .. .. ..3

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