Wait for OS/2-Windows smoke to clear

IT'S TIME TO CALL A SOFTWARE TIMEOUT

April 27, 1992|By PETER H. LEWIS

Windows. OS/2. Windows. OS/2. The promotional cannons are firing salvos over the newest versions of these two personal computer operating systems, and shell-shocked customers are asking, "Which side do I choose?"

The best answer may be both, or neither.

Billions of dollars are at stake for businesses trying to plan their information systems for the coming years. Those costs include purchases of hardware, and massive expenditures on software, training, maintenance, system integration and trouble-shooting.

The Microsoft Corp. of Redmond, Wash., wants every personal computer to be operated through Windows, a graphical user interface that makes DOS computers easier to use. It introduced its latest version, Windows 3.1, on April 6. And Microsoft stocked the stores with so many copies that some rivals complained of a brief worldwide shortage of 3.5-inch diskettes.

If there were any extra diskettes around, they were probably gobbled up by the International Business Machines Corp., which sent version 2.0 of its OS/2 operating system to the manufacturing plants at about the same time. IBM wants every personal computer user to move to OS/2, a more powerful operating system than Windows or DOS that also makes computers easier to use. OS/2 version 2.0 should be reaching stores now.

Both companies say they want to own America's business desktops.

Suggestions that IBM was resigned to playing a secondary role to Windows have brought a strenuous denial from Armonk, N.Y., where IBM has its headquarters. Executives there vowed that OS/2 2.0 would be a "better Windows than Windows," eliminating the need for most people to buy Windows at all.

Next week, Windows 3.1 and OS/2 2.0 can be compared, side by side, feature by feature. For now, let's take up the question of whether the trouble and expense of moving to either one are worth it.

Both systems offer significant advantages over DOS, which is now 10 years old and was never meant to run on machines as powerful as today's desktops. But are the advantages significant enough to warrant the pain and cost of transition? Executives would be prudent to think things over, especially in these unsettled economic times.

The issue is simple enough for executives who already use Windows 3.0. The new version is simply better and there is minimal pain in upgrading. But trouble and expense aplenty await businesses that change from one operating system to another.

Most personal computers continue to hum along using DOS, producing useful output, and most of the machines could not move to Windows or OS/2 even if their owners wanted them to. Both new programs require more processing power, hard disk space and system memory than one would find in the typical office desktop computer today.

Of course, that will change as older machines die and are replaced by newer ones.

But market researchers say the average configuration of a desktop PC these days is a 386SX microprocessor, with 2 megabytes of system memory, a color VGA monitor, and a 40-megabyte hard disk drive.

Such a machine can be found next to the garden tractors and washing machines at a Sears store for about $1,500, regardless of how much a company paid a couple of years ago (probably about $3,000). Those machines are barely able to run Windows effectively and cannot handle OS/2 at all.

To be sure, Microsoft recommends at least a 386SX microprocessor, 2 megabytes of extended system memory beyond the basic 640 kilobytes, a high-density diskette drive, 10 megabytes of open hard disk space, a color VGA graphics adapter and monitor, a mouse, and DOS 5.0. But many Windows users say 4 megabytes of system memory is a more realistic minimum.

OS/2 is even more demanding. Version 2.0 requires no less than 4 megabytes of system memory and 31 megabytes of open hard disk space, as well as a 386SX or higher processor. That's as it should be, since OS/2 is much more powerful, really a competitor for the NT operating system that Microsoft is promising this year.

OS/2 and NT are designed to run on so-called 32-bit microprocessors, like the Intel Corp.'s 386 and 486 (and soon, 586) chips. Windows, in contrast, is designed to appeal to owners of older computers, even 16-bit 286 models.

OS/2's hard disk requirement can be pared to as "little" as 18 megabytes, by selectively installing OS/2 features -- OS/2 has a very nice checklist installation system. But the one-button installation process needs 31MB.

A production copy of OS/2 2.0 was tested in this office on a borrowed Compaq 486-33 with 8MB of system memory and a 40MB hard disk.

(Granted, this is an odd configuration, sort of like a jet fighter with a 40-gallon fuel tank. If you need the power of a 486, you probably need a minimum of 100MB of storage.)

Even on this system, with its 8MB, OS/2 several times hit the ceiling as it tried to juggle several applications at once. In other words, the machine is brand new, and it is already time for an upgrade.

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