OS/2 Warp 4

The Last Hurrah—the final desktop OS/2 version

OS/2 Warp 4 was released in September 1996. Its codename was Merlin, perhaps because the Star Trek themed ‘Warp’ was now part of the official product name. This was not a particularly happy time for OS/2. Late 1995 saw the OS/2 for PowerPC debacle, shortly followed by the cancellation of the entire PowerPC-based Power Series line of computers. By the time Warp 4 was released, the IBM management had already decided to “de-emphasize” OS/2. IBM saw that they could not compete with Windows 95, not in a world controlled by Microsoft.

The disastrous failure of OS/2 for PowerPC spelled the end of the PSP (Personal Systems Products) division in Boca Raton, Florida. After the consumer-oriented push in the Warp 3 era, IBM now decided to focus on their core market again, corporate customers. Warp 4 was released at a time when the Internet was a major force and there was much talk of nebulous “network computing”.

OS/2 Warp 4 was something of an unplanned child. In 1994 and 1995, the development focus was on OS/2 for PowerPC.  When that fizzled, the soon-to-be-obsolete Intel version was suddenly the only game in town. In 1996, IBM grafted some of the technologies developed for OS/2 for PowerPC onto the Intel version (GRADD display drivers, internationalization support) and threw in a few freebies. The user interface got a significant facelift, but the kernel was essentially unchanged since Warp.

With Merlin, the product line became simpler than ever: There was just one package, delivered on a CD-ROM and three 3½″ boot floppies (the CD wasn’t bootable). It was the equivalent of Warp Connect “blue spine” (DOS and Windows 3.x support included) and the package was likewise blue. The downside was that only the most expensive OS version was now available.


This time, OS/2 was installed in a VirtualBox virtual machine (VM) for testing purposes; that made it easy to take screenshots of the installation process. The VM had 96 MB RAM assigned and used a 2 GB IDE disk. The disk size was chosen to work with the original Warp 4 disk drivers; to support larger disks, the installation floppies would need to be updated. This was the first screen greeting the user (reading the entire first floppy took about one second in a VM):

The installer was not very different from Warp Connect, and included the network configuration. There were lots of options to choose and it was a far cry from modern one-click OS installers.

The network configuration was not entirely straightforward. OS/2 defaulted to the NETBIOS protocol for file sharing, but to be usable on modern networks (Windows 2000 and later, SAMBA), the NETBIOS over TCP/IP must be used. Unfortunately the installer for some odd reason didn’t allow DHCP configuration for TCP/IP at the same time. Either the NETBIOS for TCP/IP protocol must be added after the initial installation (not entirely straightforward), or TCP/IP must be installed with a dummy static address and DHCP enabled later (easier).

Overall, the installer made it all too obvious that numerous previously standalone product were bundled together. Once OS/2 Warp 4 was fully installed, the desktop looked like this:

Visually. the desktop was unmistakable with the blue background bitmap. It was also significantly different from Warp 3: The icons had a new isometric “3D” look and the LaunchPad was gone, replaced by WarpCenter. Warp 4 also used a new, more legible and compact system font, called WarpSans.

The OS/2 desktop looked surprisingly well in 16-color VGA, but the resolution was clearly unsatisfactory for a 1996 system. As mentioned earlier, Warp 4 supported the GRADD display driver model, and also shipped with the GENGRADD generic VESA-based driver. Unfortunately the initial GRADD release was quite buggy; the later IBM GRADD driver packages in fact required Warp 4 with Fixpack 5 applied and wouldn’t install on the initial release.

Fixpack 9 was installed on the test system, shortly followed by GRADD build 083. Now the desktop looked like this:

The Big Thing

There wasn’t any single feature in Warp 4 that could be called the big thing, but there were several important new features, a collection of numerous mid-size things rather than a single big one.

One of the more immediately visible features was called WarpGuide. It was an optional user interface enhancement which guided users through settings dialogs, intended primarily for users unfamiliar with OS/2. WarpGuide displayed a floating window which essentially turned an ordinary properties dialog into a wizard, breaking down the settings into a sequence of simple step. The screenshot also shows the colored tabs for notebook style dialogs, one of the more noticeable user interface enhancements in Warp 4:

Another new feature which enhanced the user interface, but also offered entirely new functionality, was VoiceType—dictation and voice control. IBM had previously marketed VoiceType as separate product for OS/2 (since 1993) and sold special DSP accelerator boards. By 1996, higher-end desktop computers were powerful enough to handle voice recognition entirely in software. OS/2 Warp 4 was the first operating system to offer built-in voice recognition. VoiceType was still an early product of its kind; it required “training” to learn a particular person’s speech patterns and users had to pronounce each word separately. Even with these limitations, VoiceType was usable, especially for users who for any reason needed to operate a computer hands-free.

A web browser wasn’t anything new in OS/2, after all IBM’s WebExplorer had been shipped with the original OS/2 Warp in 1994. Unfortunately by 1996 WebExplorer was showing its age and was unable to process an increasing percentage of websites on the Internet.  IBM was collaborating with Netscape on an OS/2 port of Navigator, the most popular browser of the time. Navigator for OS/2 was not ready by the time Warp 4 was released, which is why the OS only shipped with a “Get Netscape Navigator” icon on the desktop. However, beta versions were publicly available, such as Beta 1a in September 1996:

For browsing the Web 2.0, Navigator 2.02 is nearly as useless as WebExplorer, but the Web was a very different place in 1996-1997. In the late 1990s, IBM followed the release of Navigator 2.02 with Netscape Communicator 4.04 and later 4.61. The browser was delivered as a free download to existing OS/2 users.

OS/2 users had something of a love-hate relationship with the Netscape browsers. For accessing the web from OS/2, Netscape was more or less the only game in town. Unfortunately, the OS/2 port was plagued by stability problems. It wasn’t just that Netscape crashed, that happened on all platforms. The OS/2 port was worse in that it often seized up in such a way that the process could not be killed and the system had to be restarted. This mis-feature was possibly related to the way Netscape was using the Win32 porting layer shipped with OS/2.

Somewhat related to web browsing was another new feature, Java. In another industry first, OS/2 Warp 4 shipped with IBM’s implementation of the Sun Java 1.0.1 JDK. OS/2 included not only the Java runtime but also the compiler, documentation, and sample programs.

Java was a strategically important technology for IBM. The “write once, run anywhere” mantra was appealing to a company with a large portfolio of incompatible platforms. On OS/2, Java had two purposes, sometimes difficult to distinguish from one another. Support Java made OS/2 a better system, providing the ability to tap into the increasingly popular Java “platform”. At the same time, IBM was encouraging corporate customers to convert their existing applications to Java, which would make it easier for them to move off of OS/2 and to a different platform. That strategy met with a limited success, not least because in the late 1990s Java wasn’t a sufficiently mature environment.

The last (and least important) new feature was OpenDoc, a component-based document framework, a product of the ill-fated Taligent alliance. OpenDoc was primarily developed by Apple and was meant to be an anti-MS Office technology, a cross-platform version of Microsoft’s OLE. It is unclear why IBM even included OpenDoc in Warp 4; it was memory hungry, unstable, and almost completely useless. The OpenDoc components shipped with OS/2 were hardly more than a technology demo. OpenDoc was canceled several months after the Warp 4 release and never made a real impact on the world of OS/2, or indeed the world in general.

The War Is Over

The world of OS/2 was a bit strange in 1996. IBM effectively conceded the war for the PC desktop, but due to inertia, Warp 4 was a nice little OS. Technically OS/2 was somewhere between Windows 95 and Windows NT—with good legacy support and a fair chunk of legacy code like Windows 95, but also a fully protected operating system like NT; good networking capabilities and an advanced filesystem like Windows NT, but at the same resource requirements closer to those of Windows 95.

One of the more obvious signs that IBM had no long-term plans for OS/2 was the fact that the OS/2 API was largely frozen at the Warp 4 level. IBM continued enhancing the Open32 portability layer (not least for Netscape) and kept delivering Java updates. Later on, even several OS level GUI configuration were even delivered as Java applications, a technically questionable but politically understandable strategy. However, the OS/2 API was “done”, and deficiencies such as the archaic single input queue (SIQ) were never properly addressed.

IBM was very clearly pushing for Java and web-based applications, a company-wide policy by no means specific to the OS/2 division. Network computing was the buzzword of the day. IBM had some success with Workspace on Demand (WSOD), essentially a version of Warp 4 modified for easy manageability and network deployment.

To be Continued…

29 Responses to OS/2 Warp 4

  1. Andreas Kohl says:

    The original IBM Announcement Letter 296-375 from 1996-09-24 is still online.

  2. Scott says:

    One other feature included in Warp 4 that you didn’t mention was IBM’s Object REXX language. As I recall, a simple configuration change would enable Object REXX, but rebooting the computer was required before the change took effect. According to the oorexx.org website (http://www.oorexx.org/status/), IBM transferred Object REXX to the RexxLA to be managed as an Open Source project on 29 November 2004.

    Also about this time, if I recall correctly, IBM began advocating the use of Python internally instead of REXX. I don’t have a link to that, unfortunately. I believe I read that on the Python web site, but I can’t find it now.

  3. Dung Bui says:

    Can you provide the procedure step by step how you install OS2 Warp 4 on Virtual Box please. It will be very much appreciated. Thanks

  4. Tae says:

    Site at Macarlo.com is suspended.

    When you try to visit any page that still resides on the Macarlo.com server you get an error message that the account has been suspended.

    How do you contact the site owner of Macarlo.com to get this site back?

  5. Nathan Anderson says:

    I don’t know that anybody still reads these comments or not, but I thought I would point out that although IBM only ever shipped a “blue-spine” version of OS/2 Warp 4 as far as retail versions go, active subscribers to the IBM Developer Connection program at the time of Warp 4’s release received a complementary copy of OS/2 Warp 4 included with DevCon volume 11. This version was different than the retail version in that it did NOT include a full-blown Win-OS/2 and required that you supply your own copy of Windows 3.1 if you wanted to be able to use Win-OS/2, much like the old “red-spine” Warp 3! As far as I know, this was the only build of Warp 4 that was like this; I suspect IBM went to the trouble of making such a version since if they were going to give away “free” copies (not really, since it was a paid subscription, but whatever), they might as well not pay Microsoft any royalties for those copies if they could avoid it…and they did.

  6. Michal Necasek says:

    Interesting! DevCon 11 is the only one I don’t have (together with one or two DC 9 CDs). Any idea where the OS/2 Museum might find a copy? 🙂 As far as I know, all later Developer Connection releases of Warp 4 included the regular “with Win-OS/2” version.

    I’d think it wasn’t too hard for IBM to do, as they just needed to reuse the framework from Warp Connect. And yes, royalty payments were probably exactly the reason why IBM did this.

  7. Andreas Kohl says:

    As I remember correctly two different editions (1996 + 1997) of DevCon 11 were released. Which one you’re looking for?

  8. Nathan Anderson says:

    I’d be happy to dig through my old software archives, find the disc, and image it for you. Hit me up at my e-mail address and we’ll arrange something.

  9. Nathan Anderson says:

    FWIW, old Usenet thread from the comp.os.os2.beta group:


    “The Merlin on DevCon 11 is a special that does not contain the Win-OS/2 code
    (so no licence fee to MS). AFAIK this will not be available elsewhere.”

    Good to know that my memory isn’t failing me after all these years!

  10. Michal Necasek says:

    I don’t know–how are the two editions different?

  11. Nathan Anderson says:

    Andreas, I suspect you mean DevCon 12, not 11? Volume 11 was released mid-’96. Volume 12, if I recall correctly, came late ’96, and it included a new category/target platform: “Java & Internet Tools” (one disc), and then in early ’97, IBM shipped a replacement “Java & Internet Tools” disc with updated software and called that “Volume 12 Special Edition”. The “Special Edition” only included the one disc and did NOT include a complete set of replacement discs for everything else (OS/2, AIX, Windows, etc.). I imagine that someone who ordered a DevCon subscription after the “Special Edition” disc was released received that version of the “Java” disc with their new order rather than the original version of the disc that shipped the previous year. IBM certainly never shipped any more volume 11 sets after volume 12 was released (that would be weird), so if volume 12 came out in ’96, I don’t see how there could be a ’97 version of volume 11 kicking around.

  12. Andreas Kohl says:

    You’re right. The Special Editions only updated mostly only one CD of previous editions.
    For instance Volume 5 – Special Edition provides a replacement for disc 1 that includes Warp 3 (originally Vol.5 shipped with Warp beta 2.99). But anyways I should have at least 1 or 2 CD sets of Vol. 11 somewhere.

  13. It is interresting that the REXX Language got one of the controll things in the Amiga OS too 🙂 and it is a very nice thing i wish today to have something in win os not these crappy visual basic script shit.

  14. Toney says:

    I don’t see an entry for Aurora. Does anyone have it working under virtualbox.

  15. Michal Necasek says:

    It does work under VirtualBox. Unfortunately I can’t seem to find the time/motivation to finish writing the WSeB article 🙂

  16. Art Shaw says:

    Does anyone know where I could aquire a copy of os\2? Some form of documentation would be a bonus. I was an early user of os\2, however the Univ where I worked decided to go in a different direction……

  17. Michal Necasek says:

    I’d check eBay… documentation would be included in a boxed package.

  18. Toney says:

    I just shut down my last aurora server in 2011. It had zero problems, windoze just refused to see it as capable of storing files > 2 gB…on a 1 tB jfs no doubt.

  19. Yuhong Bao says:

    AFAIK this is probably because the networking code is still based on old OS/2 LAN Manager code, long before OS/2 added large file support.

  20. Andrew says:

    Where would be a good place to buy a boxed copy of Warp 4? I’ve been collecting the different versions of OS/2 over the years, and Warp 4 keeps getting harder and harder to find. There’s only one listing currently on Ebay, and the seller wants like $90 for it, which is absolutely ridiculous.

  21. Michal Necasek says:

    I’m not aware of any better source. Indeed $90 is way too much, even if it were still in original shrink-wrap. I’d advise patience, something will turn up.

  22. Andreas Kohl says:

    Retail box of Warp 4 includes usually a head microphone. OEM and Upgrade boxes could be cheaper. So I can offer some different language versions (media packages, documentation packages and licences) left over here?

  23. Krystal says:

    I’ve always had a soft spot for OS/2 ever since a demo CD landed in my lap out of a magazine as a typical geeky high school girl. I managed to dig up a bare CD the other day (no case or anything, though seems to be an original copy) and really would love to get it working on VirtualBox but it seems an absolute monster to install. I found the boot floppy images online but the installer always hangs on disk 1 (i.e. the second disk). So yes, if someone could write a detailed step-by-step guide to installation on Virtual Box that would be awesome 🙂

    If there is modern browser support as well (and compatible drivers) I’d definitely consider Warp 4 for my secondary laptop (ThinkPad x60) as that interface looks gorgeous compared to Aero and Metro era Windows.

  24. Michal Necasek says:

    Yes, OS/2 is hard to install, and the older it is the harder it is to install on anything remotely modern. Which version do you have exactly? By the way, there should be images of installation floppies on the CD itself, and I would probably recommend those over anything you download from some random source.

  25. Zangune says:

    Krystal, you can try the “Blonde Guy” website (www.blondeguy.com); in particular these two pages could be useful:


    please note the second link is about an IBM Thinkpad X60 with Blonde Guy’s custom eComStation installation, he sells it (I know you don’t need to buy a laptop). eComStation should be something like the OS/2 Warp 4 successor.

  26. Mooncalf2012 says:

    I worked as a contractor for IBM at Sears Headquarters, Hoffman Estates, IL, between 1996 and 1997. O/S2 Warp was on nearly every desk of 6500 associates, and almost all the hardware was IBM brand (including print servers), and many executives had early Thinkpads running OS/2 Warp, and for the most part associates were happy with it. Coming from a background working with Commodore Amiga for desktop video, I saw OS/2 Warp as a much superior product to then Windows 95 (Most businesses then were still using Windows 3.1, 95 was looked at as a ‘home’ edition, not office worthy.) Warp, had efficient multi-tasking, much like, Amigo OS, easier ms-dos commands via a terminal, or command line interface, and it had scalable graphics built into the windows, which was shown off by the various games like Mahjong, and Soitaire that were built -in, (and removed by admin to ‘bolster’ productivity, business was no place to let anyone have any fun…) Microsoft was using the Y2K “epidemic” to sell admin on the benefits of Windows NT, and aggressively targeted administrators on the idea that NT gave so many more capabilities to segment workers, by permissions, and that was something that Warp could not handle… yet. (The idea that Warp was inferior and behind the times, which it was not.) For example, the ability to set permissions within accounts made it simple for one admin at one desk to control all the machines in the complex and allow only certain applications and shared drives to be accessed based on the employee tasks. Admin got boners over this new power. For example, now a secretary, who’s only job it was, was to type, would have access to Word Perfect, and the nearby printers, (but not the color ones) and no access to internet, games could be disabled easily without having to have a tech show up at deskside to clean up a machine, with games, and also the dreaded .JPG files that almost always came from a nude site, and employees might try to bury in a subfolder, or of to a hidden folder in a shared drive. Windows NT seemed the answer to everything while companies spent billions buying new machines, many were still IBM, but now running Intel chips inside…(the servers were still RISC and PowerPC). windows NT also assured that everyones clocks would function properly when Y2K rolled around, (but apparently O/S 2 Warp had a fix for this that may have pre-empted the need to change hardware clocks, and of course time-servers online could have been used, and were. So to me, what I witnessed, with Windows NT and Y2K was one of the biggest scams perpetrated on the business and PC community, ever. It’s one of the reasons I eventually became an Apple tech. Shortly before I left my service at Sears, I was given the opportunity to take NT courses for techs and admin, at a paltry sum of only $5000.00 payable by check or credit card to Microsoft. Once paid in full and the short class was attended, voila, your were a certified Microsoft technician, highly paid and highly sought after to cure the ills of the PC world… I didn’t buy it, and I loved IBM and Warp, and the people that worked for IBM, who were visionaires, who cared more about the end user than sales figures and power (I mean IBM was already ‘IBM’ for decades, they needed no more power, and they were a trusted name) But Bill won that round, all because of the fear of Y2K, a true capitalist to the end. To make a long story short, I went back to the mom and pop business, where I was a certified Apple tech,(not in as much demand as the ‘NT’ engineers, nor making a fraction the money) and at pennies on the dollars. The store I worked for, even offered to pay for classes and travel if necessary, but I didn’t stick it out with Apple either, because I had been stung by the Intel migration, even Macintosh machines running Intel hardware today, don’t have that same feel that the PowerPc did to me, and OS/2 Warp felt like the familiar Amiga OS that I loved and worked on, all got left in the dust, but had so much life, and were copied, but never duplicated. OS/@ Warp always felt like the right code for the right hardware, and I never saw it crash, or flip out like Windows did, and I saw the doom and gloom of the associates as they had to adapt to a whole new world at work, one that more closely resembled the machine they might have had at home, that really didn’t do all the things their IBM did at work, dumbed down to the functionality of a boring old typewriter. I sometimes wonder what a world with WARP could have been, and if parallel universes really exist…

  27. Michal Necasek says:

    Thanks for writing that up!

  28. Mark Watts says:

    Really enjoyed reading and reminiscing about OS/2 Warp. I was a contractor for CTG back in the day. I was at IBM SouthLake during the IBM/MS battle of the desktop when IBM decided to stop including Windows in there OS/2 distributions. Just like that, they were no longer friends. I worked at Mobil in Renaissance Tower in Dallas, Texas with Mobil Pipeline operations in the tower across the street in One Main Place tower. Dallas Client Services provided tech support to local and remote operations with everything True Blue on PS/2s and OS/2 and all IBM printers. The big iron was IBM MVS and Mobil Pipeline was running Tandem Nonstop Systems. They had the prettiest data center with the cleanest wire management I have ever seen. Being in IT support all the networks at Mobil were token ring and all were Mac Address managed so everything we plugged in had to be registered and assigned a mac address and an IP. Was a lot of overhead but we could quickly identify any machine on the network. No DHCP allowed. One of the things I recall about OS/2 at the time was the user had to shut it down cleanly every time. If the system hung and the user powered off the system, it was likely that it wasn’t coming back easy if at all. Could be in those days that if/when the system hung it was actually a result of other problems with the hardware, but you sure didn’t want to be just powering off your machine. If you did you were likely going to need to rework your day because your computer wasn’t going to be available for the next several hours. I did use OS/2 every day for everything and really liked it. When I went to my next job OS/2 was a small development platform for limited support and was found on the Tape Library manager from IBM connected to MVS. Outside of that it was mostly gone forever from our desktops.

  29. Michal Necasek says:

    Even Windows XP survives only so many crashes or hard power offs. In the OS/2 2.x days, especially those OS2.INI files were prone to corruption when the system crashed, and OS/2 didn’t recover from that very well. Later versions had much better recovery options. I guess OS designers recognize that a stable OS is great but unpredictable things happen, and the ability to recover from things occasionally going bad is useful.

    Thanks for the story!

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