Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 145 / OCTOBER 1992 / PAGE 73

OS/2 or not to OS/2. (operating system)
by Mark Minasi

It hasn't received as much press as Windows 3.1 or DOS 5.0, but the other new operating system is here.

It seems as if OS/2 has always been "the operating system we'll use sometime in the future." Unfortunately, that future has been just about every year since 1984, when the operating system was preannounced by IBM and Microsoft. Talk to any OS/2 advocate, and you'll hear a litany of excuses why OS/2 isn't on your desktop today. The excuses have been coming for years: "Nobody's going to really start writing programs for it until Presentation Manager [the OS/2 version of Windows] appears" and "People are waiting for the 386 version."


The 386 version is here, complete with Presentation Manager, in the form of OS/2 2.0. Why should people be flocking to it? What's so speacial about 2.0, anyway? The reasons to run OS/2 are simple:

* It's more stable than Windows in most cases, because it's a real operating system.

* It multitasks DOS programs, and it includes all of the features of a state-of-the-art memory manager.

* For those who prefer one, OS/2 also offers a graphical user interface (GUI) that's superior to the Windows GUI.

* Finally, for the adventurous, OS/2 frees you from some of the annoying limitations of the DOS file system.

A Real Operating System

The most important reason to consider OS/2 for your machine is that it's a real operating system. At last. Microsoft describes Windows as an operating system, but it's not. An operating system does three things:

* It provides a file organization system (subdirectories and such).

* It provides disk management tools (programs that erase, copy, back up, restore, and move files, to name a few examples).

* It provides a method of loading and executing user programs. Windows certainly does the last, and in a manner preferable to the usual DOS C:\> prompt. But it definitely doesn't provide a file system. If you're running Windows. DOS provides the file system.

Windows does contain file management tools in the form of the benighted File Manager--but how many people actually use File Manager? Most either open up a DOS prompt to do basic disk maintenance or use some alternative like Norton Desktop for Windows.

Windows isn't an operating system. DOS and Windows together are an operating system.

By contrast. OS/2 is a complete operating sy, stem built around the 386/486 family of chips. It can directly address 512MB of RAM and over 2,000,000MB of disk space. (No, that's not a typo. That's 2 trillion bytes of disk space.)

While that may sound like quite a bit more than the amount of memory on your PC, OS/2 will also allow you to load more programs than you've got RAM for, using the technique known as virtual memory. With virtual memory, OS/2 uses free disk space as if it were free RAM. That's nice as disk space is usually easier to come by than RAM space, but, of course, there's a price: You pay for virtual memory in access speed. Disk access is considerably slower than RAM access, so virtual memory slows things down--sometimes by a bit, sometimes by a lot. Still, it's better than nothing if you're RAM-crammed. Certainly virtual memory isn't a back door available with DOS.

Double the Bits

One strength of OS/2 over Windows is that it's a 32-bit operating system, while Windows is a 16-bit operating environment. Windows was built around the 286 processor, which can only address 16MB and can work with pieces of data no larger than 64K. Yes. you read that right: 64K.

This 64K limitation makes writing programs that use large data areas difficult. BASIC users may know that most implementations of BASIC under DOS are limited either to a 64K program overall or to 64K of data and 64K of program. These limitations stem directly from those of the 8088 processor, limitations inherited by the 286. The 386, on the other hand, can address data areas as large as 4096MB, or a little over 4 billion bytes.

Multitasking Without Tears

Since OS/2 was built from the ground .up with multitasking in mind, it's a more stable multitasker than Windows. Windows programs sometimes intrude upon one another's memory areas, resulting in the all-too-familiar Unrecoverable Application Errors. Those don't exist in OS/2.

When an OS/2 program attempts to overwrite another program's memory space, the offending program is shut down by OS/2 without crashing the whole system. (There are no more UAEs in Windows 3.1, but that's only because Microsoft renamed the error message. Unfortunately, this hasn't eliminated the errors themselves. It's kind of like when the Reagan administration whipped inflation back in the early eighties by redefining what inflation meant in the government's statistical records.)

"A better DOS than DOS! A better Windows than Windows!" was OS/2 promoter Lee Reiswig's cocky refrain. Many who heard him thought that IBM had bitten off more than it could chew. After all, DOS 5.0 is pretty good, and Windows 3.1, while flawed, is the desktop system of choice for millions of users. OS/2, by contrast, still hasn't broken the 1 million mark, even after five years of sales. So is this all IBM puffery?

In addition to the intrinsic stability of DOS multitasking derived from OS/2's multitasking foundation, OS/2 contains the memory management capabilities of DOS 5.0--and more. How's 720K of free RAM space for a DOS session sound? With a bit of memory management hocus-pocus, I've gotten the free space in a DOS session up that high.

Surprisingly, OS/2 2.0 has turned out to be largely what it was promised to be. It's as good a DOS multitasker as DESQview, and its implementation of Windows even compares favorably with Windows 3.1, which is faster in some ways than its predecessor, 3.0. Running a standard Windows benchmark test on both Windows 3.1 and the OS/2 2.0 Windows emulator on the same machine shows that OS/2's Windows emulator does most things about as quickly as Windows itself. Of the 125 tests that the benchmark performs, OS/2 was faster than Windows in 25 of the tests and no more than 20 percent slower on most other tests. This comparison is with 3.1. The comparison with 3.0 is even more favorable.

Many DOS speed benchmarks, like the old LANMark speed test, often fail in multitasking environments, making speed comparisons difficult and casting doubt over the general quality of the multitasking. OS/2, however, makes them all run without a hitch. I find myself spending entire days in OS/2, if only to multitask DOS programs under OS/2.

A GUI to Love

Let a user work with the Macintosh for a while and then work with Windows for a while, and that user will come away saying that the Mac is still easier to use. Ask for specific likes and dislikes, and you'll probably hear that the consistency of the Mac's user interface makes it the favorite.

In the Windows world, the author of the PIF Editor clearly was different from the author of the Control Panel. And the Control Panel has a look and feel radically different from that of the File Manager.

Why, for instance, do you download fonts to your printer with the Control Panel but monitor the progress of printing with the Print Manager?

In OS/2's Workplace Shell GUI, on the other hand, all applications and utilities work alike. OS/2 gives specific powers and attributes to everything on the screen: things like program icons, folder icons representing data files, or the printer icon. There's only one printer icon because there's no print manager. The printer icon represents both the printer itself (its connections, fonts, memory, and the like) and the things that the printer is doing (the print jobs).

OS/2 calls all of these things objects, and all objects have attributes and properties. You can see these properties by clicking on them with the right mouse button.

Click on the printer object with the right button, and you'll see the menu of things that you can do with the printer. Double-click on the printer object, and it opens up to reveal objects within it that represent the print jobs waiting to be printed. Click on those objects with the right button, and their properties are revealed. The print jobs can be viewed (even if they contain graphical information--a graphical metallie viewer is built into (;)S/2), deleted, or individually held or released.

There isn't space here to do justice to the Workplace Shell, so I'll offer this one piece of advice: Get in the habit of right-clicking on everything. You'll be amazed at what you can do.

High-Performance File System

After 11 years, DOS still hasn't mended its old ways where files are concerned. Filenames are still limited to eight characters with three-character extensions. Not even the advent of Windows has resulted in a better file-naming strategy. OS/2 offers an improvement in the form of HPFS--the High Performance File System. HPFS is designed to speed up disk access, something immediately obvious with database files over 1 MB in size. HPFS also allows filenames of up to 254 characters in length and keeps much more information about when the file was used. Unlike DOS, which provides a single piece of date information (the date the file was last modified), HPFS also remembers when the file was first created and when it was last read. HPFS gives you real control over the files on your disk. Imagine the value of this last piece of information; you can identify the files that you haven't even looked at in the last year or two, as a prelude to sweeping them off to floppies.

OS/2 Objections

But what about some of the objections to OS/27

* It's too big.

* It's too slow.

* It's not compatible.

* It needs too fast a system.

Some are true; some are misconceptions. OS/2 certainly requires a powerful computer in order to work. Any multitasking graphical operating system would. But it doesn't require any more power than Windows does. A few weeks' work with Windows led me to conclude that there's never been a better excuse for buying a 486 than using Windows. If you're happy running Windows on a 16-MHz 386SX with 4MB of RAM, you'll be happy with OS/2 on such a machine. Personally, I find this level of machine a bit too slow to work with, but it's a matter of what you're used to. I recommend, as a minimum configuration for Windows or OS/2, a 25-MHz or faster 386. This is hardly an unreasonably expensive proposition these days. You need that kind of power to run some games.

The foolishness of predicting a product's failure based on its stringent hardware requirements can be illustrated by a story. I attended a meeting in 1983 wherein some other industry watchers and I saw a preview of the first version of Lotus 1-2-3. The product will never take off, some said, because few consumers have the required 256K of RAM.

The real outrage about the objections to OS/2 is the concern some writers have expressed about OSl2's disk requirements. They claim that it's ridiculous for an operating system to take up 20MB of hard disk space. That is a significant expenditure of real estate, but they forget that the operating system performs the functions of DOS and Windows--and much more. Windows 3.1 takes up about 10MB on the disk, and DOS 5.0 with all the trimmings takes up about 3MB, for a total of 13MB. For just 7MB more, OS/2 gives you all the features of DOS and Windows, plus the advantages of a full-blown 32-bit operating system. In that light, it doesn't seem like a bad trade.

Despite my personal feeling that OS/2's success would be a very positive thing for the industry, you can't have missed the somewhat defensive tone of this article. The defensiveness arises mainly because, while there are reasons to like OS/2 as well as reasons to dislike it, I fear that many won't even give it a try because of the very uninformed press this operating system has received. OS/2 2.0 is an inexpensive upgrade if you already own DOS or Windows, so give it a try. See if it isn't all it was promised to be.