Microsoft

Preview: eComStation 2.2 Beta, the legacy of OS/2 lives on

Mensys BV, the developer for eComStation, is all set to launch the next major release for their operating system.

It was a cold and dreary day on September 25, 1996, and IBM had just announced their new OS/2 Warp 4 operating system. Although seen as technically superior when put up against the wildly-popular Windows 95 from Microsoft, IBM announced that this version would be the last it would ever release. It was a sad day for OS/2 fans everywhere, yet there was talk about keeping the platform alive, post-IBM.

Enter Serenity Systems and Mensys BV, two companies that decided to take the torch from IBM, in a quest to produce a solid thick-client successor to OS/2 called eComStation. This effort was kick-started around the year 2000, and has been actively supported to this day. With eComStation customers ranging from Boeing and Colgate Palmolive, to banks and even the US Postal Service, the OS/2 platform is still quite alive and well.

In a few months, Mensys BV, the developer for eComStation, will be launching the next major release for their operating system, version 2.2. I will be covering the pre-release beta that Mensys BV's own Roderick Klein issued to me for review, but to understand why OS/2 is still even around and serviceable well into the 21st Century, we need to take a step back in time to gain a better understanding of the platform.

Product Information:

  • Title: eComStation 2.2
  • Author: Mensys BV
  • Product URL: http://ecomstation.com
  • Price: $149 for Home and Student edition / $259 for Business edition
  • Bottom Line: If you are running legacy OS/2, Win16 and DOS applications, you can't go wrong with eComStation. With the multitude of improvements made to the OS, this product is most definitely worth a good look, especially once version 2.2 is released.

An abridged history

OS/2's origins as an operating system can be traced as far back as 1985, when Microsoft and IBM teamed up to begin development on was supposed to be the next step forward in operating system technology and design. Built to spec with a 16-bit protected mode kernel, support for the Microsoft-built High Performance File System (HPFS), and TCP/IP networking, OS/2 had a lot going for it. OS/2 1.3 was the definitive release between the two companies, which set a look and feel that would be later adopted by Microsoft's Windows 3.x user interface.

OS/2 1.3 - A product of the Microsoft / IBM alliance

(Credit source image to os2voice.org)

Of course, this love affair between Microsoft and IBM was to only last for a few years before Microsoft started to realize that Windows was taking the world by storm and not the much-touted OS/2 platform. To that end, the Microsoft and IBM alliance disbanded, leaving IBM as the sole entity to develop and sell OS/2 for the greater part of the 90s.

Because of IBM's vast reach in the enterprise, OS/2 did manage to secure enough of a following that a newer thick-client was a justifiable proposition. Thus, eComStation was born and continues on IBM's legacy. Not to mention, with older hardware dying out, eComStation is essential for providing OS/2 and Win16 application support while providing updated drivers to support newer hardware.

An inside look

With Mensys as the developer of their OS/2 product eComStation, new features have been slowly added in on top of IBM's latest version, such as support for a flashy VESA graphics driver called Panorama (which now supports widescreen modes out of the box), newer hardware support, and a vastly improved installer. In the upcoming eComStation 2.2 version, Roderick Klein of Mensys states how this release will bring sweeping changes to better improve usability as well as hardware compatibility.

The first and most striking thing to hit the screen with version 2.2 is the newly updated icon set for the user desktop. Unlike the old-fashioned, pixelated icons of yesteryear, Mensys has upped the ante with a refreshed high-resolution PNG icon pack, bringing the operating system into the modern era in the looks department, which isn't a bad thing honestly. With this change however, all of the same user interface interactions are preserved, such as the "right-click and drag" trick to create aliases of files on the desktop, the always present "menu bar" and of course resource forks.

The new eComStation looks quite slick and supports software, current and legacy

As mentioned earlier, Win16 applications (and to some extent Win32 applications via the ODIN compatibility layer) are supported in eComStation. It's important to point out that support for older 16-bit Windows code can actually be a boon for businesses stuck with legacy software they don't wish to rewrite. Win-OS/2, a rebranded Windows 3.1 operating environment, is the software that lends such support to OS/2 and is bundled with each copy of eComStation. A huge benefit to this arrangement is that you can run all your apps within several Win16 instances, such that if one app crashes, it won't bring down the other apps, since they are appropriately sandboxed. A shared clipboard, allowing for copy and paste between DOS textmode and GUI applications is the icing on the cake.

Compared to previous releases of eComStation, I have had much more of my hardware supported out of the box, thanks to the major improvements made to ACPI, multi-core processor, USB, sound, and network card support. For instance, the network drivers seen for newer Realtek hardware is all based on Linux source-code ported to OS/2 via GENMAC. According to Mensys, it can take an experienced developer less than two days to port any given network driver over to eComStation, using the GENMAC wrapper. Audio cards also take advantage of the OS/2 port of Linux's ALSA, giving you sound capability when a native OS/2 driver doesn't exist.

With the improved networking stack, the support for the modern Web couldn't be any better for this breed of operating system. Instead of using the ancient Netscape Navigator, you now have the option of using a native OS/2 port of Firefox, which from what I can tell keeps in lockstep with Mozilla's ESR or extended service release schedule. What this means is that you can expect a relatively modern web experience while taking advantage of browser codebase consistency. Despite only having version 10 of Firefox at this time, it is anticipated that Mozilla 17.x.x ESR will be ready to go right around eComStation's 2.2 release. Even Adobe's latest version of Flash 11 is available and bundled on the install disc, so you can have a fuller Web-surfing experience.

Look Ma! No missing Flash plugin!

eComStation also does away with HPFS as the default file system in favor of the IBM-developed JFS, which is arguably a far superior file system for hard disks, by offering journaling and support for partition sizes up to two terabytes (versus a 64 gigabyte max for HPFS). As recently as version 2.1, JFS boot was also incorporated, removing the need for an HPFS boot partition. Just a fair warning though, the Win16 mode on eComStation doesn't take too kindly to the newer JFS and partitions sizes past two gigabytes. For my test install, I opted for a 2GB HPFS C: drive while partitioning the remaining 198GB as a secondary data partition, formatted in JFS so as to mitigate this concern.

Want to find software to download and install? Typically, most OS/2 veterans descend upon the Hobbes OS/2 archive, which is run by New Mexico State University, even to this day. On the other hand, newcomers to eComStation might want to give the eCoMarket a spin. This feature acts as an app store or central download repository for popular OS/2 applications, making it easy to find whatever you are looking for in any particular category. As of this writing, there aren't too many applications listed yet, but that number will continue to grow and look healthier by launch.

Finally, despite being tagged as a beta release, I have suffered nary a lockup or a crash on my test installation. The operating system is quite stable and, because of the esoteric codebase, there aren't any viruses and malware out in the wild that could affect your system. Even Mac OS X can't really say that anymore, given to the rise in popularity of Apple hardware.

Conclusion

To wrap this all up nicely, eComStation is an excellent business solution for those stuck in legacy land, all the while providing a relatively modern environment that compares well against the likes of Windows and Linux. eComStation is offered in two flavors, Home and Student as well as Business editions. The only real difference between the two is the pricing, with Home and Student clocking in at $149 per license for up to five machines and Business raking in $259 per license. Both editions are functionally the same and feature-complete.

Pricing like this can be somewhat off-putting to operating system hobbyists and enthusiasts, but for businesses that rely on OS/2 and Win16 apps for day to day use, the price is pretty spot on, and you can get up to one year of support included for additional software and updates. Thankfully, the base installation contains everything you really need to get started and all of IBM's fixpacks from years gone by that you would normally have to pay for are all rolled in as well.

If you prefer, eComStation can be installed in a VirtualBox VM, using VT-x technology to deliver bare-metal access to the CPU. This mode is required for OS/2 and eComStation, due to the complex nature of the system kernel and resource handling. If you don't have a VT-x capable processor, your only means of using eComStation is through installation on real hardware.

In the coming months, Mensys is expected to have a brand spanking new live demo CD, based on the latest 2.2 release, which will allow you to give eComStation a spin for free. You won't be able to install the OS to your hard disk, but it will give you enough of an idea as to whether or not eComStation is right for you.

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About

An avid technology writer and an IT guru, Matthew is here to help bring the best in software, hardware and the web to the collective consciousness of TechRepublic's readership. In addition to writing for TechRepublic, Matthew currently works as a Cus...

4 comments
emgub
emgub

Among the many things that you didn't mention is the fact that there is NO support for any sort of modern wireless. It's 2013 and there is nothing available, with STILL no timetable for a driver, and Mensys apparently doesn't have the resources to develope or port one. In an era where the vast majority of modern computers sold are laptops (and have been for years now), your laptop is chained to a desk somewhere. Worse, if that's possible, there is a dearth (and I MEAN a dearth) of applications of ANY importance beyond a slew of 18 (some a bit newer, with even fewer that are recent) year old utilities, other than a very small group of ported text mode (no GUI) Linux apps without much hope for front ends. There are virtually no multimedia apps of any consequence, unless you count the very few in that same ported Linux group, none of which can compare to those available (even several years old) for Windows, Mac, or even Linux OS's. The Flash driver that you refer to is unstable to say the least. A visit to the OS news groups will convince you of that. OpenOffice (Libre Office is not, and apparently will not be ported) is NOT freely available without purchasing the OS, or having to compile it yourself, and the available version is not current, or stable for users of some configurations, and there is no word of a fix for that. Even if you could compile the available code, the code that would integrate the OS with eComStation is not included. It's ONLY available if you buy eComStation, since Mensys has not in the years it's been available, and apparently will not contribute the code. Again, a trip to the OS newsgroups, or OS/2 World will verify all of that. Better still, if you want verification of the situation with Open Office, contact Mensys. A trip to the review mentioned Hobbes, or worse, not better, eCo Software will definitely confirm the situation with applications. The eCo Software apps the review mentions, are nearly all (and there are in reality very few) simply for the benefit of dressing up the OS, and a few simple games. With only a few remaining developers left, there is very little hope for eComStation, which is possibly the most misnamed OS available. Originally named with the hope of being identified with then new term "eCommerce", there are virtually no ecommerce applications available, and certainly none of a modern era. If Mensys had, or has any ability to develope a modern OS, with modern apps, and yes, even so much as wireless drivers in all the years that they have had responsibility for the OS, there has been no sign of it.

eric_s
eric_s

Take a look at Win 8 on your desktop/tower - Almost as much fun as Polio

Mark W. Kaelin
Mark W. Kaelin

Do you have a need for an alternative operating system like eComStation?

mjbq53
mjbq53

No one is forcing you to use eComStation but it is wrong to bash something that you know nothing about and try to make it seem like it's a horrible product. Let me fix the erroneous comments that emgub has made. To back up my credibility I do own eComStation 2.0, 2.1, and will own 2.2 as soon as it's made available in mid-April 2013. This is running on a Lenovo Thinkpad T420 (very modern system). First, let me address the issue of wireless. Currently wireless is limited to older Intel products when running on actual hardware. But, keep in mind before this upcoming 2.2 release they focused on running this in a virtual machine. This means that wireless was not a top priority. However, for 2.2 they have been working very hard to get more hardware supported and wireless IS a top priority. Through the use of Multimac by SVN wireless will support a wide range of devices including newer NICs. (http://svn.ecomstation.nl/multimac) Second, the issue of apps. This is a major error by emgub. Obviously he has not used eComStation and therefore does not know where to find apps or know all of the options available. First any DOS program will work and plenty of these do a remarkable job of getting what you want done. Next, just about any Windows 16 bit program will work, this expands upon the DOS part adding the ability to run more GUI friendly apps. Next, there is ODIN which provides Windows 32 bit support, this is a work in progress but is moving along very quickly with new releases about once a month adding additional program support, currently identifies itself as Windows 2000 SP4 although I have had success in running many Windows XP programs (also note ODIN is used to provide Flash support). Next, we have OS/2 (and eComStation) specific programs available, there are many of these available and new ones coming out all of the time you just have to know where to look which in reality is not hard to find if you just take 5-10 minutes to look which apparently was too much time for emgub to do (but could write out a long winded hate comment with support for his "evidence"). What this all boils down to is a huge unlimited number of apps that do work and will easily fulfill any need. Btw on a side note Firefox runs quite well and there will be a new version released with 2.2. Third, Flash support. I have no idea what emgub is talking about, other than to apparently read his own words. Flash works great with Firefox. I can watch youtube videos and use sites that require Flash with no problem whatsoever. Again I wonder if emgub has even used the product or if he's just viewing these "news groups" (which btw are actually very informative and are there to help each other, not be used as evidence to hate a product) and saying that he knows everything. No software is perfect but that's why these news groups (or user groups) were created to help find the bugs and get them worked out. Fourth, OpenOffice. Okay so first, we have emgub saying "is NOT freely available without purchasing the OS"... hmmmm, odd, last I knew you couldn't use an OS without purchasing it... So I am just going to put it bluntly: invalid argument. So in conclusion here is how it works: First you purchase the OS (you know so you can legally use it and actually know what you are talking about). Second this purchase comes with either a 6 or 12 month subscription service (which you can renew and get each new OS without having to re-purchase it and is fairly cheap $48 for 12 months for me). Along with this subscription service you get access to all of the beta products as well which is rather nice. Third, OpenOffice is available to you for download immediately so therefore can either be considered free or included with the price of the OS. Another note on this 2.2 will ship with a newer version but I have never had any problem with the version currently available. Fifth, little hope. Okay this is the biggest error that emgub made and is very irritating. eComStation only has "little hope" if you view it through the eyes of a narcissism and hatred. Instead of belittling, bashing, hating, etc on a product, you can become active with it and help (obviously emgub has no time for this). By helping with the product you help everyone else and help further the project. Sixth, no Mensys ability. Let's see OS/2 was developed by IBM and they dropped support and Mensys took it up and began releasing this new product eComStation since 2001. So they have been supporting it for 12 years so far (actually more but 12 solely on their own) and in that time have released a total of 12 updates (odd, on average once year and each time adding more support, totally sounds like Mensys has no ability doesn't it? (sarcasm, labeling it in case emgub didn't get it)). With these releases they have added support for: ACPI support. A new generic graphic card driver called Panorama. A bootable version of JFS. A 'universal' sound card driver based on ALSA. AHCI support (introduced in version 2.1). On-the-fly resizing of hard drive partitions. A new client to access CIFS/SMB (Windows-style) LAN resources (supporting both files and printers) based upon Samba. Ports of current Mozilla Firefox and Mozilla Thunderbird for browsing and email. A port of the OpenOffice.org office suite. and much much more but this comment is getting very very long so will stop with this here. In short Mensys has provided incredible support for an OS that IBM dropped. Mensys recently moved to a bigger location because they are growing and to allow even more enhancements to be achieved. While I realize this is a long comment it was necessary to provide accurate statements and to try and un-spread the false rumors and lies that emgub would have you believe. I hope that this comment is informative and will help those users interested in an alternative OS that is moving along very well and is incredible considering what all has been done with it since IBM left.

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