The Solid Platform—with version 2.11, 32-bit OS/2 reached maturity
In May 1993, IBM released OS/2 version 2.1. It was an incremental improvement over 2.0 and especially at first glance OS/2 2.1 didn’t look noticeably different from its predecessor. OS/2 2.1 in fact had the same boring look of OS/2 2.0 with the same strange color scheme (no doubt determined by extensive scientific research) and the same old boring icons:
It’s difficult to tell from the screenshot whether it is showing OS/2 2.0 or 2.1. It’s also impossible to tell from the above screenshot that it’s actually OS/2 2.1 Special Edition, better known as OS/2 for Windows, released in October 1993.
The CD version of OS/2 for Windows included a total of four boot floppies—two 3½” and two 5¼” HD diskettes. What it unfortunately didn’t include was drivers for modern hardware, hardly a surprise given its vintage. The first attempt to install this version of OS/2 on a test system (a 600 MHz Pentium III with a 4GB IDE fixed disk) failed miserably. The floppies wouldn’t even boot and complained about missing A:\COUNTRY.SYS. That seemed curious because the file was decidedly present and it couldn’t have anything to do with the anticipated hard disk troubles. Disabling internal and external caches on the test system got the installation past this hurdle.
The second one followed very shortly. It is possible to create floppies from the installation CD, but the prospect of formatting and copying 20 floppies was very unappealing; in retrospect, it would have saved a lot of time. The test system had two CD-ROM drives: a newer IDE DVD-ROM and an older SCSI CD-ROM attached to an Adaptec 2940 PCI SCSI host adapter. Sadly, OS/2 2.1 had drivers for neither—both IDE CD-ROMs and Adaptec 2940s appeared on the market just a short while after OS/2 2.1. The Adaptec driver from OS/2 Warp wouldn’t even load under 2.1, apparently due to missing PCI support. OS/2 couldn’t be directly installed on this system from CD.
Fortunately, it is possible to copy the contents of the installation CD-ROM onto a hard disk and install from there (the OS2SE20.SRC file in the disk’s root directory tells the installer where to look).
The first phase of the installation process proceeded without problems. But then the partially installed OS/2 wouldn’t reboot and locked up right after the Boot Manager. This was fixed by re-enabling the L1 and L2 caches—go figure!
Then there was one last problem—disk drivers again. OS/2 still wouldn’t properly recognize the entire disk. That was solved in a very simple way, so simple that it may not have been expected to work. Simply downloading updated IDE drivers (dated June 2001) from IBM’s DDPak site [Ed. note: The site is no longer operational] and copying them on top of the OS/2 2.1 installation did the trick. In fact it turned out the drivers could have been copied to the boot floppies and the IDE CD driver added, which would have allowed installation directly from the CD. With an updated floppy driver, it was also no longer necessary to disable the CPU cache.
The Big Thing
After setting up the base OS, the next step was installing the new big thing in OS/2 2.1: Multimedia Presentation Manager/2. In OS/2 version 2.1, MMPM/2 was shipped with the OS but it was a separate component and had its own installer program. It only included drivers for Sound Blaster and Pro Audio Spectrum cards but fortunately the SB Pro 16 driver worked very well with the test system’s SB AWE64. After MMPM/2 was installed the desktop looked like this:
Yes, there were shiny new multimedia icons. And of course, there was sound! OS/2 starting up, windows opening and closing, error windows popping up, every action had an associated sound. Remember, this was 1993 software! There was even software motion video included, unfortunately it was nearly unusable with the default 16-color VGA drivers and high-resolution drivers weren’t available for the test machine’s Matrox G400. At 16 colors, Ultimotion videos looked horrible and Indeo clips didn’t play at all. The OS/2 2.1 CD included the same sample videos included later on OS/2 Warp CDs.
There were several other less visible enhancements in OS/2 2.1. It utilized the new 32-bit Graphics Engine that didn’t make it into OS/2 2.0. It included APM support, designed primarily for laptop computers. And last but not least, version 2.1 offered wider selection of printer and display drivers.
Operate at a Higher Level
The above was IBM’s advertising slogan for OS/2 2.1. The lower level was, of course, DOS and Windows. Just like version 2.0, OS/2 2.1 supported most DOS and Windows 3.x applications. But while OS/2 2.0 came with Windows 3.0, version 2.1 shipped with Windows 3.1—unless it was OS/2 for Windows. With OS/2 2.0, things had been simple. There were versions on 3½”, 5¼” or CD-ROM media and there were upgrade editions, but they were all essentially identical. With OS/2 for Windows, things started getting interesting. OS/2 for Windows did not come with Win-OS/2 and instead would use an existing Windows 3.1 installation—although that wasn’t strictly required and therefore, ironically, it was possible to use OS/2 for Windows entirely without Windows.
The codename of OS/2 2.1 had been Borg. This certainly fit OS/2 for Windows well, given the situation on the market. Microsoft had OEMs under tight control and effectively prevented them from preloading anything other than MS-DOS/Windows. This was later found illegal but that did not help OS/2 in any way. With OS/2 for Windows, IBM found a way for OEMs to preload OS/2 while still honoring their agreements with Microsoft. In 1993-94, several major German retailers offered systems preloaded with OS/2.
In the OS/2 2.1 years, the number of applications available for OS/2 grew rapidly. IBM managed to convince several big-name companies to develop OS/2 versions of their products—companies like Borland, Novell, Lotus or WordPerfect. IBM subsidized the development of at least some of those OS/2 products, but the specific dollar figures are not known. Microsoft was no less active than IBM—only instead of paying those companies, it was threatening to deny them access to beta versions and information about Windows if they developed for any other platforms.
Information about Borland C++ can be found on the OS/2 2.0 history page and Novell networks was not considered sufficiently interesting. That left WordPerfect and Lotus. In 1993, WordPerfect Corp. released WordPerfect 5.2 for OS/2. Like many other ported applications, it used Micrografx Mirrors. It looked like this:
Unlike the immensely popular WordPerfect 5.1 for DOS, version 5.2 for OS/2 (and for Windows as well) was a WYSIWYG word processor. And it was a powerful word processor. It looked very much like every other word processor, but it had the wonderful “Reveal Codes” feature:
Compared to the quick and dirty job Corel did with their CorelDraw 2.5 port, WordPerfect 5.2 for OS/2 was completely different and yet very much the same. It offered comprehensive WPS integration and was in fact a model WPS enabled application:
It had document templates, supported extensive drag and drop operations on WordPerfect documents (printing etc.) and similar goodies. Unfortunately, most WP 5.2 users complained that it was also very slow (not noticeable on the relatively modern test system) and buggy. An interesting fact is that WP 5.2 was a 16-bit application and had in fact been built with Microsoft C 6.0. Many OS/2 WordPerfect users preferred the DOS versions 5.1 or 6.x to this (sort of) native product. WordPerfect Corp. was working on an OS/2 version of WordPerfect 6 for OS/2 but canned the product in December 1993, probably because WP 5.2 for OS/2 was not received very well. Whether the fault was with WordPerfect or OS/2 users is debatable.
WordPerfect had a competitor from Lotus Development Corporation: AmiPro 3.0 for OS/2, released in 1993. AmiPro was never quite as powerful as WordPerfect but it serviceable for typical office use. AmiPro was also able to work together with other Lotus products such as 1-2-3 or Notes.
Just like WordPerfect 5.2, AmiPro 3.0 was port of a Windows product. But unlike WP 5.2, AmiPro did not use Mirrors and it was a purely 32-bit program (built with Borland C++ 1.0 for OS/2).
AmiPro 3.0 for OS/2 was missing some features of its Windows counterpart (drawing and charting) but on the other hand it had several OS/2 specific features such as REXX integration. There were several updates to AmiPro 3.0 (the latest was 3.0b) and it was later followed by Lotus WordPro. It was not possible to judge how good AmiPro 3.0 for OS/2 actually was based on a short test drive, but at least some users criticized its lack of stability.
The word processor preferred by many OS/2 users was DeScribe, developed by DeScribe, Inc. It was a native application written for OS/2 from the beginning (the first versions of DeScribe ran on OS/2 1.x). The program executable had been built with IBM CSet++ compiler. DeScribe was fast and powerful—it even offered some DTP-like features such as text frames and it included a drawing package:
The above screenshot is from DeScribe version 5, released in late 1994. It would be more appropriate to present a picture of DeScribe 4 or 3, but version 5 is all that was available for testing. While many users of AmiPro 3.0 and WordPerfect 5.2 stopped using those products because of bugs and instability, DeScribe users claimed that their word processor wouldn’t buckle even under heavy load.
The OS/2 2.0 history page examines various compilers available for OS/2 2.0. In the 2.1 days there were new versions of all of those products (IBM CSet++ 2.1, Borland C++ 1.5 and 2.0, Watcom C/C++ 9.5 and 10) but with the exception of Watcom C/C++ version 10, these were not substantially different from the older versions. Instead of Watcom C/C++ version 10, a different and very OS/2 specific product of Watcom International Corp., (based in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada) was installed on the test system: VX-REXX 1.0. Version 1.0 was released in 1993, followed by versions 2.0 and 2.1 in 1994. The most advanced version was VX-REXX 2.1 Client/Server edition which supported charting and database objects that could interface with Watcom SQL (naturally) and IBM DB2/2.
VX-REXX conceptually resembled products like Delphi or Visual Basic. The user created windows and placed GUI controls (objects) on them. Each object had an extensive set of properties, neatly presented in a notebook control. Objects could receive events and each event could be associated with REXX code. Simple yet powerful.
Watcom VX-REXX was a popular tool thanks to its ease of use, power, and flexibility. Creating simple GUI applets was very easy with VX-REXX and several nice sample programs were included.
It’s worth mentioning that Watcom VX-REXX 1.0 was shipped on a single 3½” HD floppy and included extensive online documentation (identical to the printed manual). Products like that just don’t seem to happen anymore. VX-REXX’s closest competitor was VisPro REXX.
OS/2 2.11 SMP
An important milestone in OS/2 history was OS/2 2.11 SMP. It was released in July 1994 and it was the first version that supported symmetric multiprocessing (SMP for short). It was one of the first mass market SMP enabled PC operating systems, released a year after Windows NT 3.1. It was unfortunate that until Warp Server for e-Business (1999), the SMP versions of OS/2 were always one release behind the uniprocessor version. This, together with relative scarcity and high cost of SMP hardware, prevented more widespread use of SMP on desktop systems. It’s worth mentioning that IBM was building asymmetric MP machines in the early 90s (OS/2 1.3 ran on those). OS/2 2.11 SMP at first glance looked no different from the single-processor OS/2 2.11:
It’s immediately clear that it wasn’t OS/2 2.1—the color scheme made a big difference. On closer examination, it is clear that the desktop layout and all the icons were unchanged, but the color scheme was about the same used later in OS/2 Warp. It looked much more pleasant than the OS/2 2.0/2.1 color scheme, too. Technically, OS/2 2.11 SMP was a strange beast. Its authors took OS/2 2.11 (which had not really been designed with SMP in mind), and performed surgery on several key components (the kernel, loader and DOSCALL1.DLL) and ended up with a surprisingly scalable SMP operating system. Not only could different processes run on different CPUs but threads within a single process could as well. Thus even applications not specifically designed for SMP could take advantage of it, as long as they were multithreaded.
The SMP test system was an IBM IntelliStation M Pro equipped with two 300 MHz Pentium II CPUs. On this system, OS/2 2.11 SMP would just lock up early in the boot process. That wasn’t too surprising because OS/2 2.11 SMP had a reputation for being very picky about the hardware it would run on and the test system had been built at a time when 2.11 SMP was not supported anymore. Luckily, the OS2APIC.PSD module (the SMP Platform Specific Driver) borrowed from Warp Server for e-Business worked.
Above is a screenshot of the multiprocessor CPU monitor utility which shows processor utilization and also allows individual CPUs to be turned on or off. It is one of the very few visible differences between the SMP and regular version of OS/2 2.11.
Thanks to the flexibility and extensibility of the Workplace Shell, numerous “enhancers” were developed. The most complete and most popular of them was Object Desktop from Stardock Systems. It was released at the end of 1995 which was technically not the OS/2 2.1/2.11 era anymore, but at that time OS/2 2.11 was still widely used and was supported by Object Desktop.
Object Desktop doesn’t really look its best in VGA resolution, which prompted a search for some kind of SVGA solution for the OS/2 2.11 test system. The drivers for the Matrox G400 should have worked with OS/2 2.11 in theory, but didn’t in practice. After some searching, an old S3 928 graphics card turned out to work with the drivers which shipped with OS/2. Unlike Windows NT 3.1 which supported VGA fallback, with OS/2 2.11 it was all too easy to end up with an unusable system after installing unsuitable or broken display drivers. That was remedied later with OS/2 Warp.
Behold the wonders of Object Desktop 1.0—Enhanced Folders, Tab LaunchPad (there was no LaunchPad in OS/2 2.1 yet) and the Control Center with perhaps the single most valuable feature of Object Desktop: virtual desktops. Also, a close button was added to every window. But Object Desktop didn’t stop there:
This is the Object Navigator and Enhanced Data Object with a nice little text viewer. Looking at the Control Center again, there are widgets monitoring CPU utilization, RAM, swap space and disk space (there’s also a time monitor, also known as a clock), plus shadows of the Desktop and important folders. Installing Object Desktop was almost like upgrading to a new version of the OS.
Compared to OS/2 2.0, version 2.1 and 2.11 wasn’t all that interesting. There was a number of enhancements but most of them weren’t very visible (which didn’t necessarily make them any less important). Nevertheless, OS/2 2.1 had substantially wider selection of available applications and attracted a number of new users frustrated by the inherent instability of Windows 3.1 and looking for something better than DOS.
Thanks to Lewis G. Rosenthal for providing the OS/2 2.11 SMP CD.
Thanks to Kris Kwilas for a copy of Object Desktop 1.0.