eComStation: Ready for Prime Time

By Ed Hurst | Posted at 1:04 AM

The key to teaching anyone anything is having some clue what it's like not knowing. If you can't guide someone across that barrier, you can't actually teach much, because the whole process then relies entirely upon the abilities and inclinations of the learner. The best teachers don't simply put it where you can reach it, but make you want it.

The vast majority of those using computers don't have a strong techie bent. Thus, any appeal to them requires hitting that sweet spot between meeting them where they are and moving them in the direction you are going. If your market is more narrow, you have the luxury of investing more resources into the underlying design. If your resources are few, then you should hardly expect to escape the niche market. But if your product is actually good technology, those you reach will remain faithful beyond the life of the product itself.

Such is eComStation (eCS), formerly OS/2. Initial resource investment by IBM made this everything Windows should have been, but internal politics and the resulting marketing idiocy nearly killed it. I can recall, happening to reside in Europe at the time it was launched in public advertising, OS/2 was the first GUI I had ever seen. Yes, what Windows should have been, but it was the brilliant internals which gave it what foothold it did gain. Had it been easier to install when I first got my hands on a copy of Warp 3 from a government auction, I would never have bothered much with Unix, because I already disliked Windows, and could never afford Mac.

That difficulty of installation, and the difficulty in finding information for getting through it, was the major barrier preventing my adopting it. With the recent release of eComStation 2.0 GA (“gold”) that is no longer an issue. I tested it myself, and compared to our last efforts with 1.2 some two years ago (sadly the 2.0 beta was little better then), this is a whole new ballgame. If you are inclined to try it out, I would contend it has never been easier.

Indeed, there was but one minor gotcha on my Dell Inspiron 4100, and the workaround was easy to find. In this case, I got an error code “OS/2 !! SYS01720 OS/2 !! SYS02027”. A simple google brought me to the eCS buglist which explained some Dell laptops, among other systems, didn't react perfectly to the cues, so pop the CD tray, hit CTRL-ALT-DEL and let it restart. Once you see the system restarting, reinsert the CD and all is well. While the developers acknowledge that may not be the only hardware hiccup you'll face on the vast array of stuff out there, it symbolized for me the hard — and quite successful — work over the past two years in drivers. By simply accepting the defaults for most things, the rest of the installation worked just fine.

Once I had it installed, the obvious setup tasks were not all that difficult to understand. The official installation guide, which you can download with the ISOs (subscription required), is not hard to follow. I admit I wasn't thrilled with the complicated array of choices in the partition manager, but I managed well enough. It represents the market for the product, because it offers numerous fine-grained controls. I took their advice and left ACPI out of the initial installation, and found the post-installation wizard quite useful. Everything worked according to the promises made in the documentation.

This is not an OS which will appeal to those who love graphics. There are some attractive options for styling the desktop, but they are limited. The older SNAP Graphics drivers from SciTech no longer see much development, but are still available. Serenity defaults to the Panorama display, basically a highly developed VESA driver which runs on just about anything. You don't get 3D acceleration, but there isn't much demand for that on eCS.

The OS is not aimed at that market. Things like sound do work, but don't expect much in the way of entertainment software. The few bundled games are frankly ugly. Such things are simply not a priority. What matters is the functional business application environment.

In my computer ministry, I can't count the times I've seen non-profit work stations rendered useless because volunteers, and even paid staff, are seldom all that computer savvy. It's hardly better in regular businesses. We all know Windows by design simply invites the sort of meddling and fiddling and the vast array of popular junk anyone can install which serves only to break things. Changing user habits is one part of my work, but sometimes you have to accept the necessity of tying their hands with system setup. It can be done with Windows, but it's not easy. That's by design. We all know with Linux or Unix, locking down workstations and accounts is relatively easy, but not every operation can make the migration to Linux. All the more so as current distributions are simply too slow on the sort of hardware these organizations can afford. Churches suffer the most in this, but many businesses are hardly better off.

In this, eComStation shines. First, the one major difficulty with the entire OS/2 market is IBM has the kernel sources under lock and key (patent and licensing issues), and there is virtually no development. On the other hand, the existing kernel is entirely viable and still has a tiny footprint. Many fans run it on some of the newest hardware. If your system can't meet the minimum requirements of eCS, you should probably stick with some incarnation of DOS. But eCS will certainly run your DOS apps, because it's a better DOS than DOS. It can also handle most Win3 stuff, and not a few XP applications run on it. This I learned from a few close friends who are aficionados. Of course, anything ever written for OS/2 will surely fit comfortably, and there is an awful lot of that still out there. The many very big contracts requiring it is the main reason IBM hasn't killed the whole thing outright.

Personally, eCS won't do what I need a computer to do. On my aging laptop, I still run Etch, despite the lack of official support, simply because it meets my needs without dragging the thing down. I can assure you eCS did run well on it, using a lot less drive space and other resources. Everything could be made to work reasonably, if it matches your needs. Current guidebooks are few, but it's not hard to find fans of OS/2, and the majority seem to already understand the necessity of reaching out to new users, meeting them where they are. In the long run I intend to learn more about it simply because I already see where it can find a wide open market, if only people knew about it.

In my computer service ministry, I am confronted with a ghastly array of borked Windows systems. The average user of these systems is inundated with hoaxes (“delete this file”), cute tweaks, and junk software. Most of that software is at best poorly designed, and some is downright malevolent — Zango, anyone? None of that works on eCS any better than it does on Linux. Further, just the incidental cruft of forgotten files and adjustments seem unable to affect its performance. Not only are there precious few attacks on eCS, but it is inherently more secure and stable than that other OS which displaced it early in life. An average user can quickly find the applications they would need for institutional operations, but most everything they might do to break it would take persistent effort from serious tweakers. Stupid dangerous tricks and tips are not thickly scattered across the Net, nor emailed to everyone with an account, nor are there many in the first place. Even then, any administrator could easily reinstall a backup desktop configuration — one of the more excellent features of eCS — and immediately wipe away all tears.

Most non-profits operate with little or no budget for new hardware. Most OSes which still run on such hardware aren't supported, even in the Linux/Unix field. If there is any money available at all, I highly recommend many consider investing in eCS licenses for those who need what it offers. Managers who have the time to learn how to administer eCS workstations will be richly rewarded in far less breakage at the hands of highly varied users common in such operations.

Best of all, you can try it before you buy it. There is a demo CD of version 1.2 available, with requirements only slightly higher than for an installed system. Also, note that the older release won't work well with SATA, but there should be a demo of 2.0 soon. You'll get a taste of the way it looks and operates, but more importantly, how well it works with your hardware. Be aware, there are a large number of third party drivers and software packages not included in the installer, so do some research before you reject it. Yes, it comes with OpenOffice.org (3.1 now, 3.2 soon). For Unix heads, a rather large number of ports to eCS are created and update every day. With the recent porting of QT 4, lots of goodies are now possible, such as Scribus (Serenity Systems, $149, www.ecomstation.com).


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Re: eComStation: Ready for Prime Time

Good review. Though I wouldn't suggest eComStation for the average computer user because of the lack of support for games and cutting edge video, it has come a long way from the days of Warp 4 when IBM abandoned it because they couldn't figure out how to market it and they had sunk a huge amount of assets into a failed attempt to create a new personal computer platform based on the PowerPC and OS/2.

You talk about the fact that it is good for minimal hardware but didn't list the requirements. According to the Quick Install Guide, those are a Pentium 133 or higher, 96MB of RAM and at least 600MB of disk space. Though I'm not sure what you would do on such a low powered machine today.

eCS has current versions of the Mozilla based FireFox web browser and Thunderbird email client so an older pc that may not be useful any longer can be used by the grandparents or other less demanding folks for basic internet access. Though these applications (along with the OpenOffice suite) will require quite a bit more RAM and CPU speed then the minimums required to install eCS, but that seems to be the nature of all modern applications today.

Mark

Posted by Mark Dodel - Jun 01, 2010 | 10:39 AM

Re: eComStation: Ready for Prime Time

Thanks, Mark, but those requirements were linked in the article at the words “the minimum requirements of eCS”. I had specifically asked Serenity to update the page for this article.

You mention the PowerPC. As I understand it, there was a single beta for that architecture, and it was panned broadly as the worst of all OS/2 releases. That part of it died quickly.

Posted by Ed Hurst - Jun 01, 2010 | 4:52 PM

Re: eComStation: Ready for Prime Time

OS/2 PPC was officially released, but very quietly, and ran on only 4 IBM models(2 desktops and 2 laptops, AFAIK the only CHRP (Common Hardware Reference Platform) machines ever released which could run OS/2 PPC, WindowsNT PPC and AIX). OS/2 PPC had no networking and was very unstable. It was more like a beta level product, but IBM supposedly had contracts that required it's official release. I don't think they ever actually released it for marketing, as I know of no one who could find a way to buy it. A couple years before that both Apple and Motorola had abandoned the project for a common platform based on the PowerPPC CPU and their joint venture Taligent was absorbed into IBM.

The concept of a microkernel with different flavors of GUI on top never saw fruition (anyone remember Apple's “Pink”?) Supposedly a few of the concepts developed were rolled into Warp4, but I have no idea what those were. Rumour was that IBM had sunk 500 Million dollars into the entire project, back when that was a lot of money, and the complete failure of the project killed off interest in competing in the PC operating system market. OS/2 Warp 4 was released in 1996 with no clear direction and very little fanfare if any from IBM.

When I was looking for a copy a few years a go, someone at IBM told me they had sent what stock they had to a landfill. I did get a copy from an IBMer who had worked on the project and have it installed on an IBM Power Series 830 PC. It looks just like OS/2 Warp 3.

Mark

Posted by Mark Dodel - Jun 02, 2010 | 8:25 AM

Re: eComStation: Ready for Prime Time

Have been using it for a month now and I have to admit…I hate it. Really, I wanted to like it but basically it sucks. Sorry to be so crude but it is the way I feel. Maybe if the help system was better and not such a mish-mash of topics haphazardly organized. Objects, associations, and types…an OS doesn't need to be this abstract. It just should work and work INTUITIVELY! :evil:

Posted by Jeff N. - Oct 19, 2010 | 5:43 PM

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