This section of my website is devoted to the OS/2 operating system. Use the navigation links to access the various topics.
If you don't know what OS/2 is, or why I have webspace dedicated to it, read on...
OS/2 is a 32-bit operating system for x86 personal computers. It was jointly designed by IBM and Microsoft to be the successor to DOS. However, the two companies had a falling-out, and Microsoft left the project in the early 1990s (developing Windows NT instead). IBM has continued the product on its own since then.
In the mid-1990s, IBM decided to stop marketing it to end users, but it continued to be widely used in large businesses (especially banks and insurance companies) for many years. All the while, IBM quietly continued to release new versions as well as incremental updates at semi-regular intervals. IBM officially halted retail sales of OS/2 around the end of 2005, but even now provides contract support to existing enterprise customers. OS/2 is used, much more widely than most people think, in a number of dedicated applications. And it continues life here and there as an all-purpose computing platform, albeit for a rather limited number of end users who maintain their affection for it.
Regardless of what professional naysayers have been saying for most of its existence, OS/2 is not really "dead" — not while it remains a useful, productive platform with active users and developers, is useable on modern hardware systems, and continues to receive product updates.
For it does, in fact, continue to be developed, after a fashion. For the past several years, a licensed retail distribution of OS/2 called eComStation has been available. eComStation, produced (under OEM licence from IBM) by Serenity Systems International and Mensys BV, and in conjunction with a team of developers (both contracted and volunteer), has been steadily building improvements onto OS/2 in order to maintain it as a modern and viable computing platform.*
* In the interest of full disclosure, it should be mentioned that I am a volunteer developer for eComStation.
Characteristics of OS/2
OS/2 is a fast, efficient, and generally reliable operating system. While not as polished in terms of GUI features as the latest Windows or Macintosh offerings, it is highly functional under the hood. It is also one of the smallest, fastest, and most resource-efficient operating systems available for its feature set.
Compared to other PC operating systems, OS/2's general strengths include:
- Smooth multi-tasking and superbly efficient multi-threading.
- Possibly the best implementation of multi-processor support ever developed. (Prior to eComStation 2.0, this was only available through a paid upgrade, but is now included in the basic retail edition.)
- Relatively modest hardware requirements.
- Modular and customizable.
- Not generally vulnerable to Windows virii, worms, hacks, or spyware.
- Flexible object-oriented user interface (the critically acclaimed "Workplace Shell").
Of course, any discussion would be incomplete without a mention of OS/2's main disadvantages:
- Device driver support can be spotty, especially with respect to cutting-edge hardware, so some careful planning is generally needed before trying to install OS/2. Modern multimedia support (e.g. webcams, TV tuners, video cameras) is particularly limited – OS/2 has always been more of a business-oriented platform.
- Related to the above, OS/2 tends to lag a couple of years behind the main stream in terms of support for emerging hardware standards (for example, neither USB 3.0 nor UEFI is currently supported, although long-term plans are in the works for both).
- As a commercial product, OS/2 is not available for free; users who are accustomed to open source operating systems will probably find the price tag prohibitive. (On the other hand, the SOHO edition of eComStation, which is the current retail incarnation of OS/2, is cheaper than Windows...)
- There is less software available than on some other platforms. While it is often possible to port Linux software to OS/2, this is not universally the case. Windows software is not generally supported except through a virtual machine product like VirtualBox.
- The user interface, while superbly designed, takes new users a lot of getting used to. It is also showing its age in various ways.
Hardware and Software Support
While OS/2 admittedly showing its age in some respects, it has so far managed to stave off technical obsolescence reasonably well. As an illustration, the following software features are all available for OS/2 (in some cases through the eComStation product):
- OpenOffice.org – OS/2 port
- Firefox, Thunderbird, and SeaMonkey – OS/2 ports are available here and (for more recent versions) here
- Samba – OS/2 port
- CUPS – OS/2 port
- SANE – OS/2 port
- MySQL and PostgreSQL
- Perl and PHP
(Some of these OS/2 ports may be missing minor features, or lack highly polished graphical integration tools, but the core functionality is all present; more to the point, they are all actively maintained and developed.)
As mentioned, OS/2 has traditionally struggled to keep its hardware support up to date (although the situation right now is probably better than it has been at several times in the past). Current hardware support includes:
- ACPI support (some features such as CPU throttling and power management are still somewhat spotty on certain hardware, but support is continually being improved).
- USB 2.0
- SATA and AHCI disk controllers. AHCI support is still rather new but is undergoing active development.
- Support for all VESA-compatible video adapters. Full 2D acceleration is available on certain hardware only, but even the generic support benefits from innovative speed enhancements in the video drivers. (Hardware 3D acceleration is not generally available, but OS/2 has never been known as a gaming platform anyway.)
- All PostScript printers are supported natively. Modern non-PostScript printers may be supported via CUPS.
- Support for most sound cards/chipsets, via ALSA-based sound drivers.
- Most common network chipsets were supported until about 2008; support for more recent devices tends to be limited to a few main chipset families, but more are being added as time goes by.
Other OS/2 Resources
There are many OS/2 and eComStation resources available on the web, if you want to learn more. Some of the better ones include:
- eComStation.com, the official eComStation web site
- OS/2 World, a collection of news, articles, and links
- OS/2 Warp News and Rumors, a weekly summary of OS/2 software releases and other news
- OS/2 VOICE, an online news and community support site
- eComStation.RU, an international information site focussing on eComStation (available in English)
- OS2.JP, Japanese OS/2 news and community forum (Japanese only site, although English posts to the forum will usually be answered)
- Hobbes Archive, the pre-eminent repository for downloadable OS/2 software
- OS2 Site, another comprehensive OS/2 software directory
- Paul Smedley's OS/2 Ports, home to a large collection of open source software which has been ported to OS/2
- Mensys Software Catalogue, the official distributor of eComStation, and an excellent source for other OS/2 software
- Blonde Guy, provides OS/2 consultancy and support; the web site also includes a wealth of useful tips