After years of hype, IBM Corp.'s OS/2 operating system for personal computers has arrived. OS/2 has caused quite a stir because switching to a new OS on your computer is like putting a new engine in the car. Not only does performance increase or decrease, but the car's feel, its personality, changes as well.
At the moment, most non-Apple PCs use Microsoft Corp.'s Disk Operating System to run their machines, or DOS derivatives made by other manufacturers. Users can also buy Windows 3.1, which adds a graphical user interface to DOS.
Big Blue wants some of that Windows action. The company boasts that OS/2 is more powerful and easier to use than Windows. But its biggest claim is that OS/2 runs Windows applications, such as word processors and spreadsheets, better than even Windows itself.
In essence, we found OS/2 to be technically superior to Windows in many ways. But the software is still buggy, and, despite claims, not all Windows programs run flawlessly under OS/2. Buyer beware.
OS/2 and Windows share several attributes. Both are graphical user interfaces, meaning they employ icons, on-screen menus and other visual features to make computing easier. And each requires the use of an electronic mouse pointing device to execute commands.
IBM is right in at least one claim: OS/2 is easier to use and understand than Windows. The user interface is much closer to what Apple Computer Inc. has accomplished with the Macintosh.
For example, programs and files can be placed on a "desktop" for easy access and organization, only one or two mouse clicks away. Under Windows, file organization is more laborious and getting to data takes longer.
OS/2 also outperforms Windows in a feature called multitasking: the ability to run several programs simultaneously.
Protection of data after a computer crash is also an OS/2 advantage. Windows warns you that a crash has occurred, but is not much help in protecting work that has not been saved to your hard disk.
Because OS/2 is a 32-bit operating system, it is ready to run a new generation of advanced software that will be hitting the market over the next three years. In essence, a 32-bit system can handle more data -- perform more functions -- than the 16-bit Windows/DOS combination.
But there are also plenty of reasons not to replace Windows with OS/2, at least not yet.
The first issue is compatibility. Most of my Windows and DOS programs worked fine under OS/2, but not all. My computer froze up repeatedly when I logged on to the CompuServe information service using the Microphone for Windows telecommunications program. And I was unable to use America ZTC Online, another popular information service, with OS/2.
There are ways around incompatibility problems, the best being to load both OS/2 and DOS/Windows on your system. But even that solution won't help if OS/2 has an argument with your PC's BIOS, or Basic Input Output System. The BIOS is "firmware" coded on a computer chip that sets up the operating parameters the machine when it's started. My 386 clone, which is made by a reputable manufacturer, would not run OS/2, apparently because of a BIOS conflict. Some PC makers will give you or sell you a BIOS upgrade.
The moral: Before you buy, try. Test drive OS/2 with the same type of machine and software you use.