Review: eComStation OS/2 1.0

IBM’s OS/2 has a great history as a workstation operating system, it was a major alternative OS in the ’90s. At its peak time in the mid-’90s OS/2 had about 2 million users but the Windows NT and Windows 95 releases broke its further development. This year Serenity Systems has released a new client version of OS/2. This article will introduce you to what OS/2 is all about. You will learn its history, its user interface, and its power under the hood. The article is also accompanied by a number of screenshots.
Control Panels - click for a larger picture
OS/2 started as an effort between Microsoft and IBM in the mid-80s when the two industry giants were looking for an alternative OS to beat Apple’s Mac OS. OS/2 version 1.0 was text-mode only with a graphical user interface added to version 1.1. Windows 3.0 and OS/2 shared common APIs and source code back in the beginning of the ’90s, but Microsoft was playing a double game regarding their partnership with IBM. When they realized that they could continue developing Windows 3.1 without the help of IBM, they put an end to that relationship. IBM continued developing OS/2 alone and even tried to port it to the PPC platform.

The OS had its highest success in 1994 with the release of OS/2 Warp 3. I remember that in 1995 demo CDs of Warp 3 were bundled with RAM Magazine in Greece, a country not too hot for computers at the time. Warp 4 was released in 1996, but soon after IBM stated that they would be limiting support for the OS. This was due to Windows 95 taking the desktop market by storm.

Die-hard advocates and developers asked IBM to license Warp to them so they could continue supporting the community. Aurora was born, but supporting a full blown OS was proved difficult to the organize. The community started to shrink dangerously, but Serenity Systems managed to convince IBM to let them give it a go and continue develop OS/2. So, just some months ago, eComStation OS/2 1.0 was released, and this is the version I will review today.

To read more about OS/2 history, here are two articles: The story from a cold & objective point of view, and the moving story from the eyes of an OS/2 (ex-fanatic) developer (not by just any developer, but the person who released the best selling OS/2 application ever).

I always had a great respect for OS/2 in general, but my online OS/2 friends had already warned me about the somewhat problematic installation process. The hardware used for this review was a CTX eZBook 800 laptop with an AMD K6-2 300 Mhz CPU and 64 MB of EDO RAM.

This version of OS/2 comes on 3 CDs. The first CD is the installation CD with all the default software, the second CD is the OS/2 Warp4 CD, which includes the whole IBM Warp4 OS (used to extract additional drivers or features as needed) and the third CD has additional third party software. You have the choice of either upgrading your existing Warp installation or to make a clean installation. I did the clean install.

You will need at least 500 MB of hard disk space, so I gave it a primary partition of 850 MB (my laptop also has BeOS, AtheOS and Windows on it, all 4 OSes on the tiny 3 GB hard disk 😉 and I rebooted to explore the unknown world of OS/2 with only the help of an installation manual in PDF format found at the eComStation web site.

Windows 3.1, Java front-end for LVM, Screen setup and File Attribute editing with Attman
The installation process has three phases. My first effort to install the OS failed. The OS started to boot off the CD ROM, but just before going to graphics mode, it crashed. I Rebooted, changed the EIDE driver to ‘Standard IDE’ in the boot options, and this time the OS booted to the GUI just fine. My next task was to choose the partition, format it, and install the OS files. The biggest obstacle here was the Logical Volume Manager – LVM. Some OS/2 users had told me that in older versions of OS/2 the installation was very hard because of LVM, but that currently it’s quite usable. So, LVM is a text-mode program (a Java GUI front-end is also available) that allows you to configure partitions, create new ones etc. But LVM is far from being self-explanatory or easy to use. In my mind its layout and options do not make very much sense. I had to resort to Google to find information about the philosophy of LVM. I tried to create partitions, but it never asked me which kind of partitions these should be, neither was my hard drive was shown in the Logical view (LVM has two modes, a physical and a logical view). Not being able to go very far with it, I turned the machine off and did some more research. Soon after, I realized that OS/2 exercises the notion of HPFS or JFS compatible volumes, it does not care about the physical layout of your partitions.

So, it was already midnight, but I could not go to sleep until I got it working. I booted the installation CD again, set LVM to Logical Mode, created a new Volume, assigned the Volume to my hard drive, gave it a drive letter, and then I picked the 850 MB partition. Now came the scary part, I saved the changes not being sure if I had converted my whole hard disk to HPFS and consequently losing all my other data. In the next screen, I was asked to long format the partition (around 25 minutes for the 850 MB partition) as the OS/2 default file system.

The partition was created perfectly, but to make a long story short, because I chose to install drivers for my graphics and sound cards, this installation effort was also fruitless. OS/2 was booting, but it was not loading the WPS (Workplace Shell) desktop. I installed for a third time without picking any particular hardware, rebooted, inserted the registration key required, rebooted again, and this time, OS/2 loaded the desktop successfully (in VESA with no sound).

I found the installation process to be fragile. Installation time takes an average OS/2 user about 1 hour including 3 reboots, but being an OS/2 newbie it took me several hours to install it.

As long you get past the installation, I must say that OS/2 itself is solid as a rock. Once a badly behaving third party application created some problems, but except this detail, I have not seen OS/2 falling down in any way for the short time I am using it. The OS is booting to full GUI in 70 seconds on my slow but (t)rusty Fujitsu drive (should be around 35 seconds on modern IDE hard drives).

Right clicking on the XWorkplace Desktop
The eCS OS/2 uses the same GUI engine (‘WPS’ for its friends) as in previous OS/2 versions and while it does the job, it also shows its age. 16-color, huge icons, big fonts that makes a 1024×768 resolution make you feel that you work on a 800×600 workspace instead (extra tweaking is required to change icon and font settings), while there is an over-customization and at times too many (confusing) choices in the context menus or properties panel windows. There is no font-antialias (no one wants to touch that part of the Presentation Manager source code, I hear). There is no alpha blending and I did not experience any support for non-rectangle windows or double buffering. The GUI engine is old, but at the same time, is extremely fast.

I must say that OS/2 is the most ‘different’ operating system that I have tried recently. It was a pleasant shock for me when I first tried BeOS in March 1999, but I had not felt the same since then for any other OS I used. OS/2 was indeed a pleasant surprise for me, even with its given aesthetic shortcomings. OS/2 does not normally come with a filemanager, but eComStation comes with a filemanager that does the job just fine, but still needs some UI fixes. On OS/2 I came across some new widgets that you can’t find in any other OS, like, multiple pages within a single tab view, tabs which are colored differently from each other and arrows that appear in menus that have a double meaning (open the sub-menu or execute the first/default command found on that sub-menu). Despite these interesting ideas in the UI design though, it still leaves a lot to be desired. Object Desktop 2 (from the same people who wrote WindowBlinds) and XWorkplace are the two third party must-have applications for OS/2 which can help a lot on many aspects of the UI. Object Dekstop also adds the functionality of Workspaces (virtual desktops), better ZIP (and other compressed formats) integration and more. I just wish that the product was either part of the eCS, or that a demo was available from Stardock.

OS/2 supports technologies like drag-and-drop very well, and it also utilizes the concept of Shadows. Shadows are like the symlinks found in other OSes, but because OS/2 exercises node monitoring extensively, they are one step beyond symlinks. A change in the original file, it will also change the attribute in the Shadow as well. You can have Shadows that link to files or folders on computers over the Network or Internet, not just your local computer. It is an excellent way of keeping track in real time what is going on in an object that is far away from your own workstation. Shadows and the OOP nature of the GUI itself are the best parts of the OS/2 in my opinion. And speaking of the OOP nature of the GUI, I should mention the nice context tree way of navigating your mounted filesystems. It works very similarly to the BeOS Tracker.

The OS comes with a powerful control panel where you can change a lot of the aspects of the OS, like window manager, colors, network settings, screen resolution, and install additional drivers etc.

There are some 5,000 to 6,000 OS/2 native applications found on the web for your downloading pleasure, plus OS/2 supports running both 16-bit DOS and Windows 3.1 applications out of the box. In fact, a full Windows 3.1 version is installed within the eCS OS/2. There are also ports of Mozilla (called WarpZilla), Star Office, Netscape and more. eCS includes all these applications on the 3rd CD, so you can install them at any time. We should also mention that a full version of Lotus SmartSuite Office Suite is also included, additionally to Star Office and IBMWorks Office offerings. All these applications can be managed with WiseManager, a software managing application, but once again, I experienced severe UI problems with it.

An interesting feature that can save you lots of time in the day-to-day use of OS/2 are Templates. You can save almost everything as a Template and then create new instances on new applications based off of these saved settings. Even the Desktop itself is a special folder that has saved its settings in a Template that are called every time WPS is runs.

Navigating on your drives the BeOS way
Another feature that can save you time and micromanaging is the WorkArea feature. You can mark a folder as a WorkArea and all the applications inside this special folder will behave seamlessly. For example, when you open the folder, all the apps inside will launch and when you maximize the window representing the folder, all these applications will also maximize. And speaking about folders, they can have their own background images and colors assigned to them, and each folder can have its own settings. You can also assign a folder as an FTP or a web folder with an Internet address and each time you drag something into it, it will upload the object automatically to the assigned destination. OS/2 does not exercise the MIME types for the file type problem, but rather uses the extension of the application. However, unlike Windows, OS/2 supports multiple associations for any data files, a way that offers a pretty good flexibility. For example, you can right click on an image file and if you just click on the ‘Open’ command found on the context menu it would open the image with the default image viewer. However, if you click on the little arrow on the right of the word ‘Open’, it will present you with a choice of additional applications that have registered themselves to the system that can handle the specific image type.

OS/2 is a 32-bit preemptive multitasking operating system, and its kernel is fully reentrant. The OS also features an effective memory protection system. The exceptionally good UI responsiveness owes its speed to the multithreading nature of the OS and it is almost comparable to the speed of the BeOS UI. You can clutter the desktop with applications, play a chess game and at the same time you can playback mp3s without skipping. The API shares a common ground with the early Win32 API, but the OS/2 one is more OOP, based on a system, which can safely be called ‘C with objects’. OS/2 only boots off an HPFS filesystem and it supports the journaling JFS filesystem as well but only for non-bootable volumes. Both filesystems offer the power of metadata, so you can have by default extra attributes on files, things like “Last Accessed” or “Last Changed”, and if you use third party applications you can add your own meta-data to your files.

Networking panel, Kernel settings, Theme manager
The kernel supports 192 threads per appplication by default, but I find it amazing that the OS allows you to easily change its value to a more desirable number. To do the equivalent in Linux you need to edit a header file and then recompile the kernel, while under BeOS its app_server will lock the kernel completely if your application spawns more than 192 threads as there is no way you can change its value. Another cool trick you can do with OS/2 is that you can turn off and on any additional CPUs you may have, on the fly. BeOS users are familiar with this feature (a great way to test applications under non-SMP machines – different number of CPUs can reveal different kind of bugs found in ones source code), but while BeOS goes up to 8 CPUs, OS/2 (reportedly) scales wonderfully on machines up to 64 CPUs.

The Network settings control panel is great. DHCP, web, ftp, telnet servers, BIND, DNS and other exotic networking software, all can be controlled. A small drawback is that each time you do a big change you have to reboot for it to take effect, but other than that OS/2 seems to be an excellent server platform, extremely fast and stable. I will go as far as to say that OS/2 handles networking throughput and server load better than any other single user operating system ever written.

As I mentioned above, you have to reboot for important changes to take place. However, other changes that mostly have to do with WPS itself can be made on the fly. No apply button is required. Any changes you make are applied immediately, they are done in real time.

OS/2 has a good driver base, there is support for USB, PCMCIA, CD-RW, but as far as I can tell there is no support for encrypted DVD playback. Also, because of the fragile installation, you may have to go through with basic installation as in my case with VESA and no audio or USB. After which you’ll then do a selective install from within OS/2. In my case, I also had to find in the installation CD and manually install SciTech Display Doctor which gave me accelerated 2D support for my NeoMagic 128XD graphics chipset.

OS/2 comes with full Java 1.1.8 and Java 2 1.3 support although you have to install the latest version of Java manually as above. The system proves very stable and still fast even when running OS/2, DOS, Win 3.1 and Java applications all at the same time.

We have to also mention the Odin project, which is an effort pretty similar to WINE that allows 32-bit Windows applications to run under OS/2. The Odin project is still in beta, but it works for a number of Windows applications. Opera Software found it reliable enough to base their OS/2 version of the Opera browser on Odin. It was done by recompiling their sources to accomodate Odin and OS/2 needs better.

Modem setup, Templates
There are several X servers for OS/2 as well, the most well known being HobLink X. There is a pre-registered version of the X Server on the eComStation CDs via a bulk registation to Serenity Systems. It installed just fine, but when I started the X server it stopped loading and said that I had violated the license and that I must call the company in Germany to resolve the issue. So while there is a full port of GIMP, I can’t show you any screenshots or talk about its performance, because the X Server did not load. As a sidenote, you can port and run POSIX applications to OS/2 with the use of the EMX POSIX/2 add-on.

OS/2 has support for software and hardware OpenGL and there are 3Dfx drivers available. Speaking of multimedia, there is QuickTime playback support via a third party application, QuickMotion, and also mpeg, avi and DivX support. OS/2 does not have a near-realtime kernel, however its latency is good enough to do some media processing, but in my opinion, not good enough for powerful MIDI processing. I have not seen support for high-end video or sound hardware, or applications for video editing.

OS/2 supports scripting and in fact it’s actively used in all aspects of the OS. The language used is REXX and it’s powerful enough to deal with installation issues, component registrations for apps, networking related matters and more.

One of my disappointments in the OS default setup is the FAT32 driver. While there is a FAT32 driver written by a third party included on the third CD, you have to install it manually. And the installation is not what I would call an easy task for Joe User, you have to mess with the drivers, the config.sys, the .ini files, and you have to mess (again) with LVM. Trying to install the FAT32 driver really reminded me of the DOS and Windows 3.1 days. While the OS/2 kernel is excellent, the way the system handles setup is in many ways are similar to the pre-Windows 95 era. Many settings files and command line work mostly done under a DOS or OS/2 terminal.

eComStation OS/2 1.0 is the killer operating system for 1995. OS/2 feels like Windows 95/98/ME done right, it is comparable and even better than Windows NT 4. I cannot compare it to Windows 2k/XP because it would not have been fair to do so (the last major changes under the hood of OS/2 were done years ago). Today rivals have surpassed the OS in most areas, and features once found only on OS/2 now can be found on systems such as BeOS, Linux, and Windows XP.

Chess game, Multimedia applications, X11 server folder
I believe that OS/2 still has a place on specialized workstations, running special purpose applications where stability & extreme speed on every level is important. Today many bank ATMs run OS/2 and the OS is also used by major corporations for mission-critical applications. I can also see small company offices running OS/2 where good networking is important. Of course most companies also need Microsoft Office compatibility.

With a price of $299 for the normal version and $399 for the version that supports SMP (please do not forget that eCS OS/2 is a business level OS, not a consumer level one), most companies will most certainly choose either Windows XP, MacOS X, or possibly Linux with a copy of StarOffice in it. OS/2 can be useful as a small server. It can run very fast on an old Pentium machine with only 64 MB of RAM and its full GUI configuration for Network related matters can have an edge over regular Unix.

It is good to see OS/2 being able to run applications in Java, Win16 and Win32, DOS, Linux and more, but what about the OS/2 itself? Its GUI is aged, hardware support has been kept a bit back, multimedia needs more attention, the installation is far from ideal, the OS management needs a way to get away from the config.sys and the micromanagement of configuration files etc. I want to see development tools coming with the distribution, I want to have Pentium-only instructions and also optimizations for MMX, SSE and SSE2 that can make the OS even faster than what it is today.

OS/2 has the important things already: stability, good internal design, speed, application base. Now, it just needs some good polishing.

Installation: 6/10
Hardware Support: 8/10
Ease of use: 8/10
Features: 8/10
Speed: 9/10 (UI responsiveness, latency, throughput)

Overall: 7.8 / 10

eCS OS/2 1.10 is expected to be released very soon. The new version will have some new features, and the price will be dropped to less than $99 for upgrades or around $199 for new users. Serenity Systems is also branding a new product, called eCS/WorkPlace which will be eCS Entry (the basic 1.10 release), plus HobLink, StarOffice, VPC, a full Linux distribution and a number of other packages. WorkPlace will also include a copy of Connectix’s VirtualPC with a full Linux distribution in it. Using VirtualPC (a VMWare-alike application) in a window or fullscreen you will be able to run Windows 9x/2k/XP and Linux under OS/2.

“eCS/WorkPlace will be a departure from traditional OS/2 from a hardware requirement standpoint. It’s designed to work with the latest hardware. In fact, to be able to run any favors of Windows, Linux, and be 100% compatible with any versions of OS/2, the minimum hardware required will be a 1G P3. The amount of memory required will depend on the number of simultaneous operating systems you will be running. For instance, you can run an IMAP4 server, and other Linux applications, and use HobLink to access the Linux apps from the OS/2 desktop. This will raise the minimum RAM requirement to over 512MBytes – but then again, that only translates to may be $50.00 at today’s memory prices.” Kim Cheung, executive manager at Serenity Systems explains.

IBMWorks spreadsheet, Launchpad, Acrobat Reader, eCS Clock and Calculator, Netscape, Screen grabber app
“One of the major features for 1.10 (both base and WorkPlace versions) is the ability to remote boot eCS from an eCS machine using DHCP/PXE and run completely diskless. This is in contrast to the Windows Terminal server approach where the processing is done at the server (which puts a drain on the server and network bandwidth). With remote booting, the management of the stations is done at central location but the processing power comes from the local station. The local station continues to be as “fat” as you so wish but the management headache of these wonderful PCs gets centralized.

With eCS/WorkPlace, you will be able to remote boot diskless from a central boot server, and run any of the Windows, Linux and OS/2 operating systems locally. This in effect, allow organizations to “tame” the untamable Windows. I did a demonstration of this technology couple weeks ago at the SCOUG user group. I had Windows running Cool-3D and Bryce4 on one machine. Told VPC to save the PC state, then powered down the machine and yanked out the hard drive and plugged it into another machine of completely different configurations (AMD vs P3, S3 vs Matrox), powered it up, fired up VPC and the Windows applications continues to run – never missed a beat.

The remote boot function has been in place for a number of years. That’s the WiseManager product. However, it only works with RPL (old remote boot technology from Novell) and requires a WSeB as the server PER sub-net. This is equivalent to the WSOD product that IBM had.

What we have done is porting WiseManager to become WiseMachine which supports the DHCP/PXE remote boot technology (Intel) which is more modern and can remote boot across routers. Hence, you can use eCS as a boot server (or an AS400, RS6000, Sun Solaris – and yes, even Linux, as a boot server). This will be the first time where this level of technology will be within reach to the “smaller” folks. For them, they nolonger need to buy a copy of WSeB just to remote boot your machines.

No, nobody can compete with Windows when it comes to glitz. What we are addressing is the part of the industry where all they want to do is to get the job done — and that’s 80% of the business user.”
Kim continues.

“eCS Workplace 1.1 will really be something special. Kim already outlined what it is … and the upgrade from Warp 4 will cost less than $250. To put that in perspective, it will include an eCS VPC application with a Linux distribution and HOBLink X/11 Server. Both those applications have SRPs in the area of $200 each. Then consider that the user is getting IBM’s Desktop on Call remote control software … and OS/2 V4.52, with support for DOS, Windows 3.1, and Java.

A new user license for this product is likely to have an SRP around $350, which is still an incredible value … because the equivalent would be a Warp 4 license and IBM’s Software Choice, a cost to the user of approximately $400. Plus two $200 applications (HOBLink X/11 Server and VPC)… so the package value exceeds $800.”
Bob St. John, Director at Serenity Systems told OSNews.

OSNews will follow closely the release of eCS 1.10 and will keep you posted for any big news happening in the OS/2 world.


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