Review: eComStation 2.0 RC1

Recently, Serenity Systems released the second first release candidate of eComStation 2.0, the successor to IBM’s os/2. Mensys, the online distributor of eComStation and other os/2-related products, was so kind as to provide OSNews with a review copy of this release candidate, and since my experience with os/2 and eCS is not much more than a few failed attempts at installing Warp 4, I was eager to try it out. Read on for a short history of os/2 and eCS and a review of the release candidate. History

Many of you will at least know os/2 as the operating system jointly developed by IBM and Microsoft. The two companies started their cooperation in 1985 with the Join Development Agreement, and the first version of os/2 was the first result of this agreement. The name of the operating system is derived from the new computer IBM was shipping, the ps/2 (personal system/2); I actually have an old ps/2 somewhere in the attic at my parents’ house.

The first version of os/2, released in April 1987, was a text-mode only operating system, lacking the graphical user interface (‘Presentation Manager’) due to time constraints. Despite this missing feature (and others that were missing as well), os/2 still meant a fundamental departure from the DOS era. It had many features DOS did not have, such as:

  • pre-emptive multitasking
  • multithreading
  • IPC features such as shared memory, pipes, queues and semaphores
  • virtual memory support (swapping), theoretically up to 1GB virtual memory
  • fully protected operation
  • dynamic linking libraries (.dll)
  • support for 16MB of physical memory
  • Interestingly, os/2 1.0 also supported running DOS programs. However, you could only run one DOS application at a time, due to a number of hardware constraints. The DOS program had to run in ‘real‘ mode, an operating mode for x86 processors in which software had direct access to BIOS routines and peripheral hardware; multitasking and memory protection are not supported, and there is a limit of 1MB of usable memory. Since os/2 ran in protected mode, switching between real and protected mode was needed. The DOS program could not run in the background; it had to run fullscreen. Your os/2 applications kept running in the background, though.

    The Presentation Manager graphical user interface, missing from os/2 1.0, was introduced with the release of os/2 1.1 in November 1988. As with the rest of os/2 at that time, it was jointly developed by IBM and Microsoft, and you can surely see the resemblence between PM and the Program Manager later found in Windows 3.x.

    In the early 1990s, the collaboration between Microsoft and IBM started to crack. Microsoft scored a tremendous hit with Windows 3.0, which came bundled with many new computers, while os/2 was an expensive stand-alone package. In addition, os/2’s hardware support was limited; for instance, only a few IBM printers were supported, no HP, no Epson, nothing. Windows’ hardware support was much better during that time, and that certainly contributed to its popularity. The popularity of Windows made Microsoft shift its focus away from os/2 and IBM to its Windows platform. Wikipedia gives a detailed overview of the reasons why the two companies parted ways.

    Because of the drawbacks in os/2 during that time, Microsoft hired Dave Cutler to start working on a version of Windows, a version that would be more portable and more future proof. This version would be Windows NT, and early versions of Windows NT contained specific bits and pieces of os/2 code, such as support for os/2’s HPFS filesystem, running os/2 1.x text-mode applications, and, most notably, the os/2 LAN Manager. Up until Windows 2000, NT had an os/2 subsystem for running os/2 text-based applications.

    IBM continued to develop os/2 by itself, which resulted in os/2 2.0 in 1992. os/2 2.0 Was a 16/32bit hybrid operating system, and it supported running multiple instances of DOS and Windows 3.x, thanks mostly to the virtual 8086 mode of the 386 processor. Windows 3.x applications could be run ‘seamlessly’ (as if they were os/2 applications), or on a either fullscreen or ‘windowed’ Windows 3.x desktop. os/2 2.0 Also saw the introduction of a new graphical user interface: the Workplace Shell, an object-oriented desktop shell.

    1994 Saw the release of os/2 3.0, which retained its codename ‘Warp’. Warp 3 improved upon os/2 2.x in many ways; the printer/display driver models were improved, and in general, Warp 3 had a much larger driver pool than its predecessors. On top of that, multimedia support was improved. Visually, Warp 3 received an overhaul, with new icons and more pleasing colour schemes. On the network front, Warp 3 had better support for the internet, while also coming with a basic office suite, IBM Works.

    In 1996, IBM released the last major release of os/2, known as os/2 Warp 4. This release added support for Java as well as speech recognition. IBM continued to feed os/2 users with point releases, and the last official IBM release was os/2 Warp 4.52, in December, 2001 (OSNews was a little late to the game). Official support for os/2 by IBM ended 31st December, 2005.

    However, that was not the end for os/2. IBM allowed Serenity Systems to continue development of os/2; this version became known as eComStation (eCS for short). Its first release was on 29th September, 2000. Serenity Systems works together with IBM and several other 3rd parties to develop eCS. Even though some believe this situation is similar to that of Zeta and BeOS, this is absolutely not the case. eComStation is fully authorised by IBM, and is completely, 100% legal.

    Installing eCS 2.0

    As previously mentioned, I have little to no experience with installing or using os/2 or eCS, so I had no idea what to expect. eCS comes on a single .iso file, which is easily burnt to a CD-R with your favourite burning tool. Obviously, the resulting CD is bootable.

    My first attempt at installing eCS was on my Inspiron 6000 laptop. This laptop has an Intel Pentium M 1.73 Ghz, 768MB of DDR2 RAM, Ati Radeon x300 with 128MB of dedicated RAM, 40GB hard drive, and a Sigmatel audio chip and Broadcom 4318 wireless chip. The installation procedure had a few kinks (more on that later), but I managed to install eCS fairly easily. However, upon completing the install, I soon gave up on using eCS on this laptop; even though it supports the Broadcom 4318 wireless chip via the GenMac win32 driver wrapper, I was unable to actually connect to my wireless network (which is an open, freely accessible network, so no advanced encryption stuff). On top of that, even though it supports an 1280×800 resolution, it did this by using something I thought was long dead and buried: an extended desktop on one screen. In other words, the desktop was larger than my actual display. Odd, and extremely annoying, and I could not fix it.

    In short, despite it installing just fine, it was not an optimal experience. I decided to retry on a dedicated machine, which I ordered a few days later at a local computer store which specialises in 2nd hand computers. It is a Dell Optiplex GX110 with a PIII 667Mhz processor, 256MB of RAM, 10GB hard drive, Avance Logic audio chip, 3Com network chip, and an integrated Intel video chipset. Coincidentally, it turned out the machine used to be owned by my high school (from which I graduated four years ago). It is a small world, indeed.

    With the previous experience of installing eCS on the laptop in my mind, installation went a lot smoother this time. I generally tend not to dwell for too long on installation procedures, but I would still like to make a few remarks about it.

    I have to commend Serenity Systems for the excellent help messages and instruction texts throughout the installation procedure. As a complete newbie to the os/2 world, I had no problems whatsoever getting around. The procedure is entirely graphical, and pretty much self-explanatory. A few problem points remain, though.

    Firstly, the partitioning tool is a bit complicated, and could do with some simplification. The help messages here are not as good as during the rest of the installation procedure, and there is no guided partitioning option (that I could find, at least). For an experienced computer user like me this was no problem, but people with less experience might get lost in the tool.

    The second, deeper problem is related to hardware recognition. The installer asks you to select the proper drivers for your network card and audio chipset, but sadly, lacks any form of hardware recognition. In other words, you really need to know your system inside-out in order to know which drivers to select. To make matters even more complicated, selecting the proper driver is kind of a hit-and-miss procedure, since the list of drivers in the installer is a bit short on details (i.e. it does not list all supported revisions for a driver). The installer should try to autodetect hardware, or at least present some device_id’s it found in the system, so you can ask Google.

    I spent an hour hunting down the specific revision of the 3Com network chip in the Optiplex, and another 30 minutes trying to determine the proper driver. The audio chip was a little less problematic, but interestingly, I cannot get it to work. The proper audio driver is loaded, the driver finds the device (on os/2, if you load a driver without a corresponding device, it complains it cannot find the device, during boot up), but no sound is to be heard. Sadly, my inexperience with os/2 makes it very hard to troubleshoot the situation. On top of that, there is a serious lack of decent how-to’s on the internet (but more on that later).

    All my other hardware was properly detected, not a problem to be found. eCS supports USB 1.1 and 2.0, as well as ACPI. In fact, the 7 years old Optiplex goes into sleep mode perfectly fine when using eCS, something I did not expect at all. For display drivers, eCS makes use of SciTech Snap Graphics, which supports a broad array of video cards.

    Experiencing eCS

    eCS boots quickly, and during boot, you are warned if device drivers fail to find the devices they try to, ehm, drive. For instance, I had first chosen the wrong network chipset driver, and hence, an error message during boot alerted me to that. You need to press enter to continue booting.

    The desktop eCS comes with, still the Workplace Shell, definitely shows its age. There is no support for antialiased text, and icons look quite outdated, and overall, it has a very Windows 98ish feel to it. This is certainly not automatically a downside, but more of an observation. The interface is very quick and snappy, almost BeOS-like when it comes to responsiveness (probably due to the use of multithreading). As Eugenia already noted in her review of eCS 1.0, the context menus used in WPS can be extremely confusing. A long list of options with or without expanding menus lead to a dazzling array of options.

    Behaviourally, WPS works mostly like Windows’ Explorer, although there are a lot of differences as well. Most notably (and one of the first things you notice) dragging and dropping works by using the right mouse button instead of the left. Another difference is that eCS uses coloured tabs (easy for differentiation purposes), and also multiple pages per tab. This can be a bit confusing at first, but it does allow programmers to easily hide the more advanced options. In addition, the order of the titlebar widgets is a bit odd: close, minimise, maximise. Lastly, the file manager is spatial, and very reminiscent of Finder in Mac OS9.

    eCS also supports multiple desktops out of the box (contrary to Explorer), and the menubar can be enriched with plugins; by default, it includes things like a performance monitor, lock/shutdown buttons, a search button, a sort of menutray which provides quick access to settings panels and drives, the inevitable clock, and of course a taskbar. An interesting feature of the taskbar is that you can tell it to not display certain windows. For instance, adding a filter named “Desk” will filter out all instances that start with “Desk”. Since eCS and WPS are very configurable, you can even tell it to do things like minimise windows to the desktop, known as iconify. A very welcome feature.

    The eComStation user interface elements look, just like the icons and text, quite outdated. I really am the last person on earth to advocate the use of flashy effects and pretty colours (in fact, I consider CDE to be the pinnacle of usability, and trust me, roadkill is prettier to look at), but some beautification and pretty colours are sorely needed on eCS. WPS and eCS support themeing, but the themes are quite limited, and do not make the situation any better.

    System administration is in some cases a very easy matter on eCS, but sometimes, it is quite problematic too. For instance, configuring things like themes, icons, system sounds, kernel options, screen options, etc., are all pretty easy to do. However, some things, like networking, are a bit of a mess in that there are a lot of different configuration panels, and it can be hard to determine which does what. On top of that, the most important one (where you configure your LAN card and DHCP and such) uses a different UI scheme; I suspect it is a different toolkit altogether as the application is also a lot slower to respond compared to the rest of the operating system.

    Overall, eCS is a very configurable operating system, almost along the lines of KDE. Sadly, eCS does not use the concept of the multiple pages per tab to its fullest; it could be used to hide the more advanced, less-used options, and while it does do this in some places, for the most part, it does not. A missed opportunity if you ask me.

    eCS comes with Firefox and Thunderbird, which work quite well on eComStation; in fact, these releases are more stable for me than the Firefox and Thunderbird versions for BeOS/Zeta. Fonts in the two ports are, contrary to the rest of the operating system, properly antialiased, making for a pleasant browsing and emailing experience.

    By default, eCS does not handle .doc files. A port of is available, however, this version needs to be bought separately, so I could not test it out. Instead, I downloaded StarOffice 5.1a (from 2000), and this way, I could easily open office files. You can understand, though, that the switch from an Office 2007/Office:Mac 2004 environment to the 7 year old release of StarOffice is a bit… Odd. You are probably better off buying

    As for multimedia, my lack of a working sound card obviously hindered me a great deal in testing out the multimedia capabilities of eComStation. It supports various codecs, including the RealPLayer and w32codecs using Odin and WarpVision. WarpVision also plays DVDs, DivX files, and just about any other audio/video codec. WarpVision also integrates with Firefox/Seamonkey, and can use hardware acceleration.

    Experiencing Windows 3.x and DOS

    Probably the single coolest feature of eComStation is the outstanding support for Windows 3.x and MS-DOS. eCS comes with a full installation of Windows 3.x, and you can easily load an instance of this operating system. You can select to start a windowed instance, or a fullscreen instance. The same goes for DOS sessions, with the added bonus that you can run mutliple DOS sessions side-by-side. Basically, eComStation is a better DOS than DOS, and a better Windows 3.x than Windows 3.x. The instances are isolated, so crashes in the virtualised boxes do not crash eCS itself.

    For me, it was all a trip back to childhood. When I first started using computers, in 1990, the first computer my parents bought was a 286 with MS-DOS installed. Hours on end I played Keen and other games on that computer, and all that gaming made me a master at using MS-DOS. I was 6 at the time, but I could easily use “all” aspects (“all” does not really mean a lot in this context) of MS-DOS, and later on, of Windows 3.x. We had a huge dot-matrix printer attached to the computer, and this way, I even printed my first school assignments back in the day. I still have all manuals and floppy disks from that era, safely tucked away in my humongous collection of manuals.

    But I digress. The fact that you can so easily run DOS and Windows 3.x applications simply lowers the bar for actually doing so. I have a large collection of old DOS games, for instance (The 7th Guest! The 11th Hour! SimCity 2000! Keen! Monster Bash!), but performance of these games under i.e. DOSBox was never acceptable for me. Under eCS, however, they run just fine, and I am really happy with that.

    Experiencing the stability and lack of online documentation

    eCS has not let me down in the stability department. The operating system is fast, stable, and seems really robust. I have not experienced a single crash during my use of eCS; nor the OS itself, nor any of its application have crashed so far. I also have not encountered any weird bugs in this release candidate (save for the audio chip not working).

    My biggest gripe with eCS is the apparent lack of decent documentation and how-tos online. When a newbie like me encounters a problem, I do not really know where to go. IRC channels were empty (save for a few bots), and the forums were sometimes outdated. This can be really aggravating if you are trying to solve a problem (for instance, my sound issues). A friend of mine noted that the lack of online documentation might be caused by the fact that os/2 used to come with a huge manual.


    As always, giving an encompassing conclusion about such a legendary operating system is very hard. On top of that is the fact that I was a complete newbie at os/2, and hence, I probably even barely scratched the surface of what eCS can actually do. In the coming weeks and months, I plan to learn a whole lot more about eComStation and os/2.

    Anyway, you are expecting a judgement. First and foremost, eCS is a good system. It is stable, relatively easy to use, and fast. It offers interesting GUI elements, and a lot of configurability. Installing applications is painless (Windows-like installers, mostly), and the excellent compatibility with Windows 3.x and MS-DOS gives major brownie points to eCS.

    However, it is not all sunshine and roses. The GUI could definitely receive a beauty treatment; I am not proposing flashy effects and pointless transparency, but more things like antialiased text (a definite must for readability) and more up to date colour schemes and window decors. Widgets in general have an outdated feel, and with the current focus on pretty GUI effects, this could be a real weakness for many people.

    There are also more structural problems. The installer definitely needs some form of hardware recognition, and the various system settings dialogs and applets should receive an overall treatment, making them more consistent among one another, while also doing a better job at hiding advanced features (using the interesting multiple pages per tab option).

    Now, the problem with eCS for us ‘normal’ users is the price. Since eCS is aimed at professional and corporate users, the price is substantial: EUR 235,- including sales taxes. In other words, you must be a real os/2 fanatic to shell out that amount of money for eCS. But, even if you are not a fanatic, and have the money to spare, eCS is a very interesting and relatively complete (and fast, even on older hardware) operating system, despite its deficiencies.

    If you would like to see your thoughts or experiences with technology published, please consider writing an article for OSNews.


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