Once again IBM is bringing a new version of OS/2 Warp to market.
You have to admire their doggedness. It's not an easy time to contemplate a new version of a desktop operating system. Combining innovative features with de facto standards is a terrifying challenge. Warp 4 has a lot to live up to; in fact it would have to have the magical touch of Merlin, its pre-launch code name, if it is to make any significant impact. The UK version has just hit the streets, so it's crunch time.
By comparison with Microsoft operating systems, OS/2 has always been messy to install. As usual it requires you to boot from a floppy, using three disks before starting from the CD. There was no feedback for three minutes at the start, which was disconcerting. Installation is available in easy and advanced forms. I was surprised that the easy installation did not have an option to include the OS/2 bonus pak of applications, which are most likely to be attractive to inexperienced users. These can, however, be added later using a selective install. Warp is no Kate Moss - allow 200Mb to 300Mb for a typical installation, and if you intend to use voice recognition, a Pentium with 24Mb memory is a sensible machine, though you can get away with 12Mb on a 486 otherwise.
As installation proceeds, it becomes obvious that Warp now has much improved hardware detection. It correctly identified my CD-ROM, sound card and SCSI adaptor. However, it was less effective on my PC's printer and video adaptor, both of which were supported by Windows 95 from day one. Perhaps I should say my workstation's printer and video adaptor, as Warp insists on using this doubtful term to the probable confusion of most users without IBM stamped on their foreheads. After about an hour of watching various progress indicators in several inconsistent formats, Warp restarted and was running. Each time Warp starts there is a horrible moment. For reasons best known to itself, Warp shuts down the hard disk and restarts it. The sound of the drive running down is nightmarish - I wince every time; they should include a valium in the box.
I was disappointed to see that despite my high spec video card, Warp only started in VGA. Worse still, I was unable to get the generic Super VGA driver to exceed 640x480 in 16 colours. Accompanying the main OS/2 CD are several others, including a Notes mail 4.1 client (you need a Notes server to use this, of course) and an OS/2 application sampler. Of relevance here though, is the OS/2 device driver CD. I quickly found the entry for my video card, helped by the excellent HTML-based navigator. Unfortunately, all the driver pak could tell me was that I needed to obtain a driver from the manufacturer. After downloading this and going through a messy 14 step process I was able to switch to a decent resolution - though any changes required a reboot, something of a shock to the system after the Win95 QuickRes utility.
The OS/2 user interface continues to evolve and improve. Two big steps forwards are the WarpCenter, an equivalent of the Windows 95 task bar, and the Assistance Center, providing both clumsy looking but almost useable help, and an effective hand-holding prompt utility called WarpGuide that splits up dialogs into a process, telling you at each step what you ought to be doing. The system font has been changed, looking more like the Mac equivalent, and at last there is support for TrueType fonts in OS/2 sessions.
In theory there are improved subtleties with 256 colour icons and improved settings notebooks too.
The fact remains, though, that the Warp interface looks amateurish and feels messy compared to Windows 95. Drag-and-drop functions, for example, continue to have the strange convention of using the right mouse button to perform an action. Just a few simple procedures highlights some of the shortfalls. You can't do a quick format on a diskette with a couple of clicks. Moving and copying files is stupidly complex. I know that familiarity produces a warm glow, but Windows 95 felt right from day one. Warp never has. At least, though, unlike Windows, the shadow references to files are relative rather than explicit, so you can move the original without leaving your shortcut lost.
As far as real applications go, the mass market has bypassed OS/2. Thanks to IBM's purchase of Lotus there is liable to remain one major suite, but most purchasers will need to use Windows applications. Warp's basic Windows support is good by now, but does not extend to Windows 95/NT applications - the vast majority of the programs to arrive in the last year. I have seen a true-blue observer who claims that this lack of support is not crucial because Warp 4 supports Java with a (rather slow) just-in-time compiler - frankly this is a spurious argument for a long time to come, if not for ever. The fact remains that having Warp 4 on the PC cuts you off from the vast majority of popular new desktop software. Similarly, the argument that Warp now has excellent cross-platform support because of built-in OpenDoc, misses the fact that the world is not rushing to the OpenDoc standard.
As has been the case for a while, Warp is loaded with utilities. It ships with Web Explorer, a fair second rate Web browser which lacks frames - but at least there's a "get Netscape Navigator" icon to download the real thing. Connectivity is a strong point of Warp 4, with all the stuff you'd expect from IBM and a welter of TCP/IP facilities, but you have to know your stuff to get connected to your ISP - there's no wizard equivalent.
LANs are particularly well covered, with clients for Warp Server (what a surprise), NT, Novell and LANtastic. You can also share resources with a number of peer networks, notably Windows 95 and NT. The bonus pak includes the awful IBM Works office application (frankly not a patch on other products of the same name), basic fax and communications facilities, and some administration tools, which means you can get working to some degree without splashing out on more software.
The most significant new inclusion in Warp 4 is the VoiceType dictation system. This is arguably the most advanced general purpose voice dictation system currently available. Although it requires discrete speech, it is possible to dictate with reasonable speed and accuracy after a quite lengthy training period. Some of this review has been input using the VoiceType dictation system, with something like a 95% success rate. I do have some doubts about dictation in electronic document construction, though.
One of the great advances of the word processor over the typewriter is the ability to skip around a document making changes and producing text in a non-linear manner. Dictation forces a linear approach which returns the word processor to the level of a typewriter. However, for the many people to whom a keyboard is either unfamiliar or practically difficult due to disability or occupation, this voice dictation system is extremely valuable.
As well as voice dictation, Warp 4 supports voice control, which can be useful as it enables the user to cut through a pile of windows and controls to the relevant command. Inevitably voice control is difficult in an office environment and voice dictation makes you sound barking mad, but this is an important addition. For a limited period OS/2 comes with a quite acceptable headset microphone to use VoiceType out of the box (assuming you have a sound card).
There is no doubt that Warp 4 is the best OS/2 ever. The user interface is improved, the inclusion of VoiceType is a real benefit, and this remains a powerful and stable operating system. However, realistically, OS/2 is doomed. Whenever I criticise OS/2 I get a pile of hate mail from the fan club saying that I'm in the pay of Redmond. It's not true - I'm just a realist. Corporate users are moving away from OS/2 2 to Windows 95 or Windows NT. It may be hackneyed, but it's hard not to remember the example of Betamax video.
Like OS/2, Betamax (or pre-tax, as VoiceType insists on calling it) started off as the technical leader, but was pushed aside by better marketing.
Since then, VHS has been sufficiently improved to better Betamax, and only those who keep their heads in the technical sand would now want to use the old format.
The battle is over - Warp 4 is great, but IBM would be better devoting its considerable technical expertise to another sphere.
O/S2 Warp 4 is available from the IBM Software Enquiry Desk on 01329 242728.
VERDICT: O/S2 Warp 4
- Speech dictation/control surprisingly good
- Connectivity (especially IBM) good
- User interface left behind
- Can't run 32-bit Windows apps
- A dead horse.
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