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June 2001

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eComStation Preview - It's About Time

By Don Eitner ©June 2001

IBM Makes the Right Decision

IBM has finally made a good decision for OS/2. In fact, IBM made two good decisions for OS/2. The first good news is that IBM released the Merlin Convenience Pack (OS/2 Warp 4.51) and Aurora Convenience Pack (OS/2 Warp Server for eBusiness 4.51). The one significant drawback to these is that you have to be a subscriber of their rather expensive Software Choice or similar upgrade protection plans (at a cost of no less than US$249) in order to get your hands on a copy of the MCP, and I don't even know how much you'd have to pay to get a copy of the ACP, which is the only way to get symmetric multi-processing support from IBM for OS/2.

IBM's MCP release of OS/2 Warp 4.51 includes Netscape Communicator 4.61; Java 1.1.8 and 1.3; 32-bit networking (MPTN) and TCP/IP version 4.3.1; UDF (data DVD support); USB support for mice, keyboards, modems, printers and mass storage devices; plus all of the feature enhancements and bug fixes previously available in the Warp 4 fixpacks up to fixpack 15. Once you get the MCP installed there is no need (at this time) to install any fixpacks. However, features such as the Journaled File System (JFS), symmetric multi-processing (SMP) and the familiar BonusPak bundle of applications are not available in IBM's MCP.

The second piece of good news is that IBM licensed much of OS/2 to Serenity Systems to release their own branded version of the MCP under the name eComStation. eComStation costs as little as US$139 (upgrade from Warp 4 at www.indelible-blue.com) and includes the complete MCP plus many additional programs and utilities. Below is a brief list of what you get when you buy eComStation.

Serenity Systems has further stated there will be new features available throughout 2001, such as IBM's new Mozilla based web browser and potentially some new support for Linux and Win32 applications (I suspect through OS/2 Netlabs projects such as Odin, the Win32-to-OS/2 binary converter) and IBM's next MCP release which is due near the end of the year.

The future of OS/2 is no longer controlled entirely by IBM's inept management.

A Refreshingly New OS Installer

Getting into the meat of eComStation, it quickly becomes evident that Serenity Systems has a better understanding of the consumer and SOHO markets than IBM ever will. Where IBM continues to burden OS/2 (MCP and ACP) users with an outdated and cumbersome operating system installer, eComStation includes a fast and helpful WorkPlace Shell (WPS) based installer which has proven to be capable of performing a complete system install in under 10 minutes. Compare this with the hour or so it takes to install OS/2 or Windows 2000 and eComStation pulls to an early lead in user friendliness.

The full WPS installer boots right from the CD-ROM (assuming your hardware allows CD booting) so there are no floppy diskettes required. However, if necessary you can still use the floppy disk boot method you know so well from Warp 4. Because you have a full WPS running during the install, you can read and write documents with E.EXE, play Solitaire or Mahjongg, or move existing data around on your hard drives if you find you need another few megabytes free.

eComStation goes one step further and provides a simple but powerful "pre-boot" configuration screen, so that if your system has some particularly quirky hardware or if you know a certain device driver will cause a problem during install, you can enable/disable features before you begin the installation process. As an example, some people find that the new Logical Volume Manager (LVM) which comes from Warp Server For eBusiness and the new MCP release of Warp 4, tends to keep searching out their CD-ROM drive during bootup. The fix is to not use IBM's supplied OS2CDROM.DMD and instead to use the 3rd party JJSCDROM.DMD. eComStation includes this as a "pre-boot" option to cleanly avoid the hassle associated with IBM's older device driver.

Many people prefer Daniela Engert's DANIS506.ADD to IBM's IBM1S506.ADD for driving their IDE controllers. This is another option in eComStation's "pre-boot" screen. Still more people will want specific support for certain SCSI adaptors from Adaptec or Symbios, etc. With the "pre-boot" screen you can enable/disable these drivers as needed.

The Real Beauty of Serenity

The additional components which Serenity Systems is bundling into eComStation will make it all worth while. One of the most promising tools is their WiseMachine applications installer. This could very well replace the ages old IBM install.exe which is currently used for installing everything from Netscape Navigator to PMView. There are two reasons why WiseMachine shines over the tried and true install.exe. First, it is only installed once on the system rather than each application having its own version of the program. Second, WiseMachine maintains a database of your installed software (anything which you install through WiseMachine, that is) so that rebuilding a corrupted desktop or rebuilding an entire system onto a new partition can be as simple as a few mouse clicks.

WiseMachine is still a bit rough around the edges as of the eComStation preview releases, but progress is being made. The major hindrance to WiseMachine's success is encouraging applications developers to embrace the new installer, which could potentially come at the expense of being compatible with existing Warp 4 and MCP systems, since WiseMachine is not available for IBM's version of OS/2. On the other hand, at some point the OS/2 community will need to throw off the shackles of IBM's decade old technology and launch into the twenty-first century. WiseMachine is one quick way to do that.

Of course, WiseMachine still has to compete with the open-source WarpIn installer (which also only needs to be installed once and maintains a database of your installed applications) and PillarSoft's SFX installer. But I think the OS/2 applications market might be just big enough to keep all three of these great installers alive.

My Personal eCS Experiences

I have been running eComStation since preview 1 was released for public beta testing in late 2000. Initially I installed it onto a 400MHz K6-2 with 128MB of PC100 memory, an 8MB Matrox Millennium G200 AGP video card, and a 4.3GB UDMA hard drive, Symbios 875 UltraWide SCSI adaptor with a Teac 532S CD-ROM and Yamaha 6416 CD-RW drive. The worst problem I experienced was during partitioning with the Logical Volume Manager (IBM's replacement to FDISK, which supports out of order drive letters, disk spanning, and the Journaled File System). As mentioned earlier, the problem was that OS2CDROM.DMD continually searched my SCSI CD-ROM drives which made the process very long. After maybe 15 minutes just to create one partition and assign a volume to it, I pulled the power plug on my CD-RW drive and the process went smoothly from that point forward.

After the install of preview 1, I replaced OS2CDROM.DMD on my hard drive with JJSCDROM.DMD (a freeware device driver available on hobbes.nmsu.edu) and have had no problems accessing my CD-ROM or CD-RW, even when running LVM again to create new partitions.

A few months later I installed preview 2 of eComStation, which for the first time was built on the GA (general availability) release of IBM's MCP. Preview 1 had been based on a preview release of the MCP. Not much else was different in eCS preview 1, but this time I was installing to a totally new system. I took care to use the boot floppy method of installation so as to avoid the OS2CDROM.DMD fiasco, replacing that driver on the boot floppies with JJSCDROM.DMD.

My current system specs, which have been running eCS preview 2 as my one and only working PC for the past three months, include 800MHz Athlon Thunderbird (on an Asus A7V motherboard), 256MB of PC133 memory, a 16MB Matrox Millennium G450 AGP video card, IBM 30GB ATA-100 hard drive, and the same SCSI controller and CD-ROM and CD-RW drives as before. I also now use a Logitech Trackman Marble+ optical trackball mouse with a scroll wheel.

Because the new GUI enhancements for eComStation were not available as of preview 2, I took the liberty of installing my favorite WPS enhancers, XWorkPlace and Styler/2. Both work as well if not slightly better than they did under OS/2 Warp 4.

I briefly installed eComStation preview 3 (the first to include the full WorkPlace Shell based installation process) but because it was an incomplete preview release at the time, I went back to preview 2. Nonetheless, the "pre-boot" screen allowed me to select the JJSCDROM.DMD driver and the DaniS506.ADD driver for use during installation without the need for a separate boot floppy. I was able to perform the entire system installation directly from my 32X SCSI CD-ROM drive in under 7 minutes! Even my once vaunted BeOS took 10 full minutes to install, so this is quite an achievement by Serenity Systems. I shudder to think how long a Windows 2000 or Linux install takes these days.

Article references:
http://www.ecomstation.com ?

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