OS/2 4 enters fray with Windows NT

IBM has released version 4 of OS/2 saying it is targeting the operating system at existing users and potential Windows NT sites.

Voice recognition, support for Java applications independent of a Web browser and the ability to run 32-bit Windows applications are all new features of IBM's OS/2 Warp 4, released in Auckland this week.

With a mixture of spells and sorcery, the Christchurch Wizard was on hand to bestow good fortune upon Warp 4, a product he saw fit to regard as the "new superway to the superhighway of the World Wide Web".

And though its tight integration with the Internet will become one of Warp 4's key selling points, it is actually the product's built-in Java capabilities which will determine the overall success of what has been called Big Blue's penultimate foray into the operating system market.

While recent press reports have industry analysts predicting Java's rise to industry domination within the next 18 months, with the release of Warp 4, IBM has become the leading software development house in that area. OS/2 is the first operating system on the market which has the built-in runtime code necessary for running Java applets from the desktop, independent of a Web browser--the technology other software manufacturers are currently relying upon to take advantage of Java applets.

According to IBM New Zealand's Greg Wagstaff, the ability to run Java applets directly from the desktop is a major advance towards true network computing. "The way Java is going to be deployed in the near future is from a Java application server. Today, that is currently done through a Web server, or Web client technology, so that means that all the bare core for running the instance of the Java application is in the browser. With Warp 4, if you have access to a Java server, for example, then you can run the application in a window independent of a browser. It makes sense to have commonly used applications like spreadsheets or a word processor local, so it is just like caching a Web page. You cache some Java applets that you use all the time, and if they need to be updated, you update them much like a Web page gets refreshed.

"You get a Java development toolkit with Warp 4 which includes the runtime capability. You need a Java development environment to actually create new Java applications, but Warp has everything you need to support everybody's Java applications in terms of running them as a client," says Wagstaff.

To promote Warp 4's voice recognition capabilities, IBM enlisted the help of Chris Wesselingh, a Dunedin-based counsellor disabled in a sporting accident a decade ago. Because of his disability, Wesselingh is unable to use a mouse and keyboard as repetitive tasks aggravate his damaged nervous system. In the hope of setting up his own business, Wesselingh has begun to work with OS/2, reporting it has opened up a whole new outlook for him. "Warp 4 enables me to do everything I ever wanted to do with a computer and more. One of the most important things to come out of this is the ability to communicate with friends. Up until now, I was not able to reply to their letters, but now I can," says Wesselingh.

Another key technology added to Warp 4 is the ability access Windows 95 and Windows NT applications. Thanks to a deal struck between IBM and Citrix Systems, OS/2 Warp desktop users are now able to seamlessly access 32-bit Windows NT and Windows 95 applications over a network, with the use of Citrix's Winframe/Enterprise v1.6. WinFrame lets users deploy 32-bit Windows applications across an enterprise from various locations and on different types of low-cost clients, such as IBM's AS/400 Thin Client. Winframe only supports networked users, and IBM has no intention to develop the feature for single OS/2 workstations.

"There are no plans to do that on a single workstation, and that is consistent with what (IBM's personal software general manager) John W Thompson was saying when he was out here earlier this year. IBM could do that, but the chances are the API would change, and because we are unable to license the API from Microsoft, it will always be a catch-up situation," says Wagstaff.

Wagstaff confirms that OS/2 Warp is now seen by IBM as a network server operating system, rather than a client solution, and he points out that his main objective for Warp 4 is to promote the product to current OS/2 customers. "What I would like to achieve is to get our installed base of OS/2 users to understand the benefits of upgrading to Warp 4. It's not the first version of a product, it's the penultimate version of the Warp OS. IBM is trying to target the people who need good connectivity and to support the type of applications which we are going to see rapidly come to market in the near future," says Wagstaff. "We do have an opportunity to take some of the market from Microsoft, although it's not a strong focus for us. Warp 4 is being pitched against NT rather than Windows 95. We really are positioning Warp 4 to the higher end, more demanding user, that's where OS/2 does its job best."

Other features added to Warp 4 include a Trapdoor option which allows the user to drop out to a native DOS environment, 25,000 separate device drivers, MGI Software's Photosuite and a CD-ROM with over 80 OS/2 applications and utilities. In all, Warp 4 ships on 4 CD-ROM's and fully installed will require over 300Mb of hard disk space.

Available now, OS/2 Warp 4 retails for $499 excluding GST. Upgrade pricing has yet to be set.

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