In the 20 years since IBM announced the cessation of active development of OS/2, the niche OS has had a curiously long afterlife, prolonged by the needs of IBM's enterprise customers. Following the end of IBM's support in December 2006, development has continued under license by third-party organizations.
Arca Noae, a company which provides device drivers for modern hardware and other utilities for OS/2, announced a new OS/2 distribution in November 2015. The resultant product, ArcaOS 5.0 "Blue Lion" fills the vacuum left in the OS/2 community of eComStation 2.2 becoming vaporware, and was released to general availability on May 15, 2017.
Without belaboring the history of OS/2 and the neglect of the platform—and its planned successor-experienced at the hands of IBM, reviewing ArcaOS is a significant undertaking. The goal of ArcaOS is not only to patch an old operating system for use on new hardware. ArcaOS is designed to compensate for the usability shortcomings of OS/2 as it was left when IBM ceased publishing updates.
The best installer OS/2 has ever had
Foremost among the visible changes to OS/2 found in ArcaOS is the completely new installer. The historical installer that has shipped with IBM-branded OS/2 versions has been the source of extensive frustration among OS/2 users, even when IBM was actively developing the platform. To draw a comparison, the IBM installer makes installing Gentoo look easy. It does, however, have some quirks—creating a new primary partition requires a reboot, as it is necessary for the BIOS to read the new partition table for installation, according to Arca Noae. This requirement may be removed when GPT support is added in the future, though specifics are not yet known.
Bundled software, managing updates
Various developers—many of whom are independent, though still have an abstract connection to Arca Noae, given the closeness of the OS/2 community—have produced ports of various open source software for use on OS/2. Among these are the German company bww bitwise works, which supplies the port of Apache OpenOffice shipped in ArcaOS. To their credit, this is the latest version of OpenOffice. However, following the creation of LibreOffice in 2010 after a conflict with Oracle over the future of OpenOffice, development of OpenOffice has been all but abandoned. Calls for the discontinuation of OpenOffice gained traction in September 2016, with the planned security patch for Q1 2017 still unavailable at the time this article was published.
ArcaOS uses the Extended Support Release of Firefox, shipping with ESR 38.8, for which Mozilla had already ended support. A planned update to ESR 45 has been announced, though that is already near the end of the support lifecycle, as ESR 52 has been released. Despite being somewhat out of date, the browser is capable of normal activities such as playing videos on YouTube.
In a somewhat Fedora-like move, Arca Noae includes a port of the rpm package manager, including a graphical frontend, for managing software installation and updates. Ports of CUPS for printer support, and ALSA (as Uniaud) for audio interfaces are also included in ArcaOS.
OS/2, in 2017, is not well suited to being your daily-driver operating system. You certainly can use it as one, and be adequately productive in doing so, particularly with ports of software from Linux and Windows. The Workplace Shell has held up quite well from the last IBM release, and the extensions added in ArcaOS for tasks like safely removing a USB drive make it much more pleasant than in Warp 4.52. However, a 32-bit kernel design is impractical for modern, processor-intensive tasks. This criticism is not limited to OS/2, it holds true for DOS, Windows 95, and other operating systems which enjoyed varying popularity in the mid-1990s, like BeOS and AmigaOS.
The difference with OS/2 is the extensive enterprise install base which BeOS and AmigaOS never attained. While many, if not most, enterprises have migrated to Linux or Windows, a significant number persist in using OS/2 in some capacity. For these users, ArcaOS serves a practical benefit, and is a worthwhile upgrade. Though this is in part security through obscurity, an internet-facing OS/2 server poses substantially less risk than an equally old DOS or Windows system. For that reason, users with DOS or Win16 dependencies would benefit from migrating to ArcaOS as well. What it will not do easily is replace your main Windows, Linux, or OS X system—but that was not the goal to begin with.
How to get it
ArcaOS is available as a download from Arca Noae. Personal licenses are $129, with commercial licenses at $229. Personal licenses include six months of updates and technical support, commercial licenses include one year of updates and priority technical support. Personal licenses are discounted to $99 through August 15th, 2017.
Correction: ArcaOS ships with a kernel capable of supporting up to 64 cores. VirtualBox, which was used for this review, is limited to a single core. We regret the error.
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James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.