What is it: a desktop operating system
Applications: that's the big question ...
OS/2 is the operating system used in many high-street cash machines.
This latest version of the desktop operating system, OS/2 Warp v4.0, boasts voice recognition as its most significant new feature.
It is inevitable that OS/2 will be compared with Windows 95, though IBM claims OS/2 is more stable than Microsoft's operating system. To some extent, the fact that OS/2 is being successfully used in a commercial application is a testament to its reliability.
The technical description of the two operating systems is similar, especially with this latest release of OS/2. In particular, they both have similar multitasking and network connectivity.
Although Windows 95 is the market leader, IBM is still pushing OS/2, and it's rated highly by its users. Depending on the complexity of a configuration, OS/2's superior reliability could save you money. For example, with OS/2 you don't have to wait for machines to reboot and you don't lose work.
Despite the similarities in appearance, the two desktops work in quite different ways. Instead of files and directories or file manager programs, the OS/2 desktop uses an object hierarchy. These objects include document files and folders, but could easily be configuration settings.
When you click on an object, as it opens, its parent application is loaded if necessary. This is not a new process, but is more seamless than with Windows. That said, Windows 3.0 users will find themselves on unfamiliar ground and, should you choose to swap camps at the next upgrade, retraining your users could be an expensive process.
The desktop in OS/2 contains icons for the 'objects' on it, whether these are folders or files. A couple of steps are needed before the folders for the drives within the machine are found.
Shadows of objects can be created in other folders, similar to the shortcuts in Windows 95, but which are able to point to more types of objects.
It is useful to customise large installations. Giving alternative names to many of the system components will speed up the familiarisation process.
The Warp Centre is an application manager in the same vein as the Windows 95 task bar. As well as the familiar cascading menus, there are customisable buttons on the bar which start various system components.
Many IT managers are put off OS/2 because it doesn't have as many applications as Microsoft's operating systems. However, there are few 'types' of application available for Windows 95 that can't be found for OS/2. Word processors, spreadsheets, databases and presentation packages are all on offer for OS/2. Even some familiar names are there: Lotus applications feature heavily, with 123 and Notes both having native versions available. These were developed before IBM bought the software house, but that move should ensure that the applications get continuing support.
Web browsers have also been developed for OS/2, so it can be used on the Internet and intranets. However, if you are planning an intranet IT strategy, the level of applications available for the desktop operating system is largely irrelevant.
Since OS/2 became OS/2 Warp, the Win-OS/2 system has been included. This allows standard 16-bit Windows applications to run without modification.
Some 32-bit applications will also run, but not those with the 'designed for Windows 95' logo.
In a migration situation, this will help preserve the investment you already have in applications, whether out-of-the-box or custom-written software. Because the system can also run full-screen, users can continue to work in a familiar environment until confident with the new system.
IBM Works, an integrated application suite, is bundled with the operating system. This has the usual word processor, spreadsheet, end-user database and personal information manager. Although it doesn't have as many features as office suites for Windows, the word processor was still good enough to use for writing this review, for checking the spelling and saving in a different format to import into Business Computer World's DTP system.
Also provided with the package is Notes Mail, the slimmed-down version of the groupware package. The software and one client licence are included in the price of OS/2 Warp v4, so if you already have a Notes server, there is no extra cost. All in all, the bundled software provides a respectable level of usability straight out of the box.
You can use the speech-recognition software to move around the operating system. And, with a little more memory and processing power, you can also use the system for dictation.
The package also includes a microphone headset which plugs into the sound card. At first, this seems like a great idea because you don't need to bother with a keyboard or mouse. However, although we can speak faster than we write, it is actually easier to use a mouse to click on what we want to do than it is to describe what we're doing.
The system relies on being accurate all the time. So, if you continually have to re-issue instructions to the PC, you'll soon revert to the old-fashioned mouse or keyboard approach. The voice-recognition doesn't always work and, in a noisy office, this situation would be compounded.
To use the voice dictation feature, you need at least a Pentium 100 with 20Mb of RAM although, with more memory and a faster processor, the system will run much more effectively.
Voice dictation is particularly useful for managers who can't type or are working from home. However, for an accurate end result, you do need to speak slowly. Learning to type properly would be a better use of the time needed to configure a voice-recognition system as, until the PC can cope with the normal speed of speech, it is no better than any other method of input.
Verdict: OS/2 is strong and reliable with good network support. This latest version has some clever front-end features. But the one quantum leap - voice recognition - is limited in its application. OS/2's real advantage is, and always has been, its rock-solid operation.
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