David Strom


By David Strom

Is it really time to consider OS/2 Warp, the latest version of IBM's [Armonk, NY]

operating system, or should you wait until later this year for Microsoft [Redmond, Wash.] to

finish its next-greatest graphical operating system, called Windows 95? You would think such

a simple question would have a simple answer, but picking the right platform for your

desktop computers has lots of shades of gray. 

First, some history. IBM and Microsoft once shared the same vision, and birthed OS/2 to the

world in 1987. This was a very different world from that of today: Windows was still a minor

curiosity, DOS was king, and Unix was a still four-letter word for most corporate IS


This first version of OS/2 was notable for three things: it didn't sport any graphical user

interface or GUI (that would come later), it ran multiple programs concurrently (what is

called multitasking), and it required lots of memory and machine resources to run. 

Then the divorce came: IBM and Microsoft went their separate ways, and the war over the

desktop began. Windows took off like a rocket, while IBM plodded along with OS/2.

Last fall, IBM announced their third major version of OS/2, called by its code name Warp.

Microsoft has yet to ship its response, although it should show up sometime this summer,

according to industry gurus.

So how to decide? Here's our guide.

1. First off, who should use OS/2? Most of our contacts agreed that OS/2 is not for everyone,

and has its best match with the "power user" crowd, those busy folks who need to do more

than one thing at a time on their computers and where their time is highly valued.

Foremost, OS/2 gets high marks from software developers and other in-house programmers.

"You can have sessions open for coding, compiling, and testing all at the same time," says

Jeff Mayer, a systems consultant for Hewitt Associates, Lincolnshire, Ill. (708 883 4524, fax

295 9127). Meyer supports over 1400 OS/2 desktops in his benefits and compensation

consulting firm.

"OS/2 is used strictly for people who really need to multitask," says Katherine Epps, a

consultant with an international financial institution headquarters in Washington, DC (202 473

9144, fax: 334 0537). Epps has six percent of her desktops running OS/2. "Our developers

and accounting folks need to run multiple mainframe and minicomputer sessions."

But developers aren't the only ones that need to run several programs at once. "The main

users are clerical support personnel with multi-departmental responsibilities as well as system

administrators and developers. In each case, the need is for multiple open tasks that run

reliability for long periods of time," says Dwight Scott Miller, president of his own consulting

firm in Bryan, TX (409 778 8614) and a long-time user of OS/2. His clients have about 20%

of their machines running OS/2. 

And even the less techno-saavy can benefit from OS/2 as well: "Our newest OS/2 users tend

to be in the marketing and support areas. They can perform housekeeping and troubleshooting

functions on one client's database while getting records of another client. With DOS, these

diagnostic tasks would tie up the machine for up to half an hour," says Bruce Wells, VP of

development for Radio Computing Services, Scarsdale, NY (914 723 8567, fax 723-6651)

who supports more than half of his 35 users running OS/2. "Our latest OS/2 users are in

records management group, which are implementing a system to store and retrieve images,"

says Meyer.

Another big benefit from OS/2 is what IBM calls crash protection. Windows is notorious for

frequent system crashes, and OS/2 offers a way around this. Again, software developers were

the first to figure this out: "Developers can test applications at the same time as they are

running multiple code editors, and be secure that nearly all ill-behaved code will kill only

itself instead of the whole system," says Miller. "My machine came up in April 1993 and has

not been down since unless I deliberately turned it off. It just runs and runs and runs."

Keeping machines up and running saves money over the long haul: "Users are primarily still

running Windows applications under OS/2, and they appreciate not having to reboot the

system when it hangs," says Jerry Stuckle, president of JDS & Associates, Raleigh NC (919

870 7005, fax 870 7567). His clients have a cumulative total of several thousand OS/2

desktops, and Stuckle has had lots of experience with OS/2. "If I install an environment that

is more reliable than the one it replaced, then my time at the help desk is recovered to offset

the installation and training time," says Miller. 

Not everybody agrees with OS/2's reliability, however. "Our experience with OS/2 has been

that it is cumbersome, slow and unreliable," says Epps. Her firm has standardized on

Microsoft Windows. "We are not planning on upgrading or expanding our OS/2 base at this


2. Okay, so what about Windows? Microsoft's current version 3 undeniably has the lion's

share of the desktops and developers' mind share as well. Why buck the trend? "My

customers don't want to wait to be able to run strong business applications well, quickly, and

reliability," says Miller. Since the next version of Windows isn't yet shipping, his clients are

sticking with OS/2.

"Each user decides on the operating system they want to run, rather than a dictate of company

policy," says Wells, who has a mixture of DOS, Windows, and OS/2 machines. However, he

has found that "OS/2 creeps through the organization. One user will start with it, and then

their neighbors will see what it can do."

Many people feel comfortable with Windows, mainly because the vast majority of

applications have a similar look and feel. "We've standardized on Windows because its

graphical interface is a better working environment for spreadsheets and word processing,"

says Peter Shulkin, director of MIS for Dragon Systems, Inc. in Newton Mass. (617 965

5200, fax 332-9575). Shulkin has a small percentage of OS/2 desktops [CHECK: HOW

MANY?], and has standardized mainly on Windows. "If you put two machines next to each

other, one running Windows and one running OS/2, most users would take a peek at the OS/2

machine but most would sit down at the Windows machine to work," Shulkin.

And for some applications, Windows offers better compatibility: "Applications that require

Windows' virtual device drivers (called VxDs), such as Microsoft's Visual C++, don't run

under OS/2," says Stuckle. "This means that many developers are switching back to Windows

for developing their Windows applications."

"The original attempt to convert many of our groups to OS/2 didn't work because the

operating system was more than they needed. Most of our users want multiple windows and

not necessarily multitasking," says Epps.

Wells agrees. "If the user does only one thing, stick with DOS and Windows. If the user

needs performance from the machine, then OS/2 is the way to go."

When it comes to relative reliability of Windows versus OS/2, OS/2 is the hands-down

winner: "We think OS/2 is much more stable than Windows. You have to go out of your way

to hog the system or bring it down, while with Windows you have to go out of your way

NOT to do these things," says Matt Gray, president of Hilgraeve in Monroe, Mich., (313 243

0576) and a long-time developer of OS/2-based communications products. "All our years

supporting OS/2 have not been that lean. About 40 percent of our revenue comes from

OS/2-based products."

Many corporate IS managers are worried about Microsoft's shifting loyalties as it brings out

newer and newer versions of Windows. "I am tired of yet another Microsoft Windows

applications programming interface," says Wells. 

Microsoft has also been slower to release upgrades than IBM: "IBM has shipped seven

revisions of OS/2 in the time that Microsoft has released just two for Windows," says Wells.

"To me, this shows a commitment to OS/2 from IBM. I don't see the same commitment from


3. What about Warp itself? Since its release last fall, IBM has managed to grab some

attention. Warp is easier to install than earlier versions. "Our users find that OS/2 much easier

to use and configure than Windows itself," says Stuckle. 

IBM claims that Warp will run "comfortably" in a four megabyte machine, but most of our

contacts were running it in machines with at least eight megabytes of memory. "The hardware

upgrade needed to run OS/2 is not minor," says Stuckle. "The extra memory translates to at

least $200-$700 per machine. However, the typical payback is on the order of a few months,

due to the higher availability of the OS/2 systems."  

Many early users were highly impressed with the product: "I think Warp is a well-crafted

product and I highly recommend it," says Miller. "I find Warp to be an excellent product,"

says Stuckle. 

4. Is anybody writing native OS/2 applications? IBM is in a bit of quandary: because OS/2

runs ordinary Windows applications well, there is little incentive for software developers to

write their own native OS/2 applications. "Oddly enough, Lotus Notes runs better in a

Window under OS/2 than in the native OS/2 version," says Epps. 

A few software developers have done well with OS/2, including Hilgraeve. "Our OS/2

customers buy in quantity directly from us, so our cost of selling is much lower and our

margins are higher. Plus, most corporate customers have in-house support, so we don't have

to do as much support," says Gray. 

However, most software developers have concentrated on where the market is, and that means

Windows. Corporate IS managers see this as a potential weakness of IBM's long-term


"IBM needs to support independent software developers better -- these are the people that can

make or break OS/2. So many times I have heard 'there aren't any OS/2 applications

available.'" says Stuckle. Miller feels otherwise: " Counting the development tools, there are

over 2300 products available.  There are full featured business applications in nearly every

theatre as well."

"If I were IBM, I would be building better relationships with the application vendors," says

Meyer. "IBM needs to be more accessible and provide application developers with total

continuous commitment." 

Even IBM's own software development efforts have shifted to Windows. "IBM is spending

more efforts to develop for Windows than for OS/2," says Shulkin. Indeed, last year OS/2

Professional magazine took it upon itself to market and sell one OS/2 product that had been

originally developed, then neglected by IBM.

Some developers are coming around, though: "Developers have suddenly woken up to the fact

that Windows 3.1 is a kludge, while OS/2 Warp is a mature 32 bit OS," says Miller.

5. What about networking? IBM took several months to deliver its network client software for

Warp. Despite this delay, many corporate IS managers see networking as OS/2's true strength:

"Networking, in my case as an OS/2 client going to NetWare 3.x servers, has been flawless

from the get-go," says Miller.

"I've seen that Windows for Workgroups has had an impact on many users, as they want an

inexpensive network for sharing files," says Stuckle. "However, I would recommend OS/2 for

anyone that needs network access."

"IBM has really improved OS/2 to the point where you just have to install the network and

configure your desktop. No memory management issues, no device driver and resident

software conflicts. It really is a lot simpler," says Wells.

Not everyone is totally happy with OS/2's networking capabilities, however. "The most

troubling component of our OS/2 installations has been the Novell client software. We've

played the role of mediator between Novell and IBM on more than one occasion. And we

have run into some compatibility issues with Windows and networking applications on OS/2,"

says Meyer.

6. Does IBM have a chance at getting any mind share? IBM has never been very proactive at

marketing OS/2, especially compared to all the resources that Microsoft has thrown at

Windows. Will they continue to repeat the past with Warp? Opinion is divided:

"OS/2 has lots of potential, if only it were marketed by someone other than IBM," says

Shulkin. "IBM also needs to price OS/2 competitively and get more hardware manufacturers

to offer it pre-installed. "IBM should do everything they can to sell to the home market," says


IBM marketing is starting to have some effect, however: "OS/2 is just beginning to show a

small guerrilla presence at one company I work with," says Miller. 

Perhaps part of the problem is that OS/2 is seen as an upper-end operating system, while

Windows (to borrow a page from Apple's [Cupertino, Calif.] playbook) is the operating

system for the rest of us. 

"I think IBM's biggest mistake is that they don't know how to market in a consumer

environment," says Stuckle. "If OS/2 can be seen as a home system it has a much better

chance of succeeding." Wells agrees: "IBM needs to explain the benefits of OS/2 to the

masses. A Windows user does not understand what pre-emptive multitasking is all about."

One good sign with Warp is that IBM is including a second "bonus" CD ROM that has a

variety of applications, including a word processor, several games, and communications. "I

think the Bonus Pak contains sufficient value to outweigh OS/2 itself for many users,

particularly for the non-power users.  There is enough application quantity and quality in

there to run many small businesses without any additional software purchases at all," says


The final analysis is still to be written, and largely depends on what features will be present

in Windows 95. "Any analysis of OS/2 really depends on the operating system being

compared," says Stuckle. "When compared to Windows, OS/2 is much more stable. Compared

to DOS or Unix, it has a better user interface. Compared to Windows NT, OS/2 requires

fewer system resources."


David Strom is a frequent contributor to Forbes ASAP and runs his own consulting firm in

Port Washington, NY. He can be reached via the Internet at david@strom.com

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407