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July 2001

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eComStation v1.00: First Looks

Article by Isaac Leung ©June 2001

What's eComStation?

eComStation (eCS) is the latest product from Serenity Systems. eCS is an operating system based on OS/2 technology licensed from IBM. Users looking to move beyond OS/2 Warp 4 have 3 options:

Of course, if you're happy with Warp 4 today and it does all you need, you can stay put. Some people are happily chugging along with Warp 3 Connect still. Those of you who decide that you need more, IBM's Convenience Pack has already been released and reviewed. This time, eCS has finally gone Gold, so we'll take a look at what's in eCS and if it's for you.

Getting eComStation

Now, Serenity Systems doesn't really sell eCS directly. It owns it, and it produces it, but from what I gather, they are much happier getting resellers to sell to, and deal with the end-user. I know of 3 resellers that sell eCS. In Canada, it's Jacaranda Business systems. In the US, it was Indelible Blue (now Prism Data Works) and in Europe, it is Mensys.

You'll still get exactly the same operating system, no matter who you deal with. But the packaging of services and any extras will differ between the vendors. At this point, there probably isn't too much difference, but who knows what innovative new services they will come up with in the future.

I ordered mine from Jacaranda Business Systems (JBS). As with the other vendors, there are various choices: the upgrade from Warp 4, a new license, SMP (for dual-CPU or more systems) upgrade and a 2 year service extension. I just bought the basic upgrade from Warp 4 which cost me $209CDN. Those of you interested in SMP machines (I'm waiting for the dual Athlons to show up), it'll cost you $374CDN for the SMP package. Not cheap, but far cheaper than Warp Server for e-Business (WSeB). It appears that the cost difference for eCS to eCS-SMP is exactly the same as the SMP feature upgrade for eCS, so I decided to hold off until I actually got the hardware.

What's in the box?

Box? What box? Well, as I mentioned, each vendor will probably sell you a slightly different package. In the case of JBS, I got a preview copy which was included in a nice 3-ring binder (I mean a nice business quality one, not something that I'd be ashamed to show a business client!), colour cover with the eCS and JBS logo and some printed instructions. Now, I think they need to get a new colour printer, but otherwise, it was very professionally done. I'd say "industrial grade" as opposed to "consumer grade".

Now, that was the preview. I'd expect at least as good from the v1.00 (GA) release. I don't know because I haven't received it from JBS yet. What I did manage to get my hands on was a demo copy of the v1.00 Release Candidate shipped to me. (It should be exactly the same as the normal copy, but it expires in 180 days).

The preview had just 2 CD's. In between that time and now, it seems Serenity have been busy cramming in the goodies, as the v1.00 release came on 3 CD's.

Wow! I wonder what's been packed in there! I had some clue as to what's included from news on the Internet, but there were apparently some significant inclusions and changes to the GA version, and they were a bit tight-lipped about it. Well, enough teasing, here's what I got for my $209:

Whew! There's quite a bit more, so don't be offended if I missed your favourite application. Prior to GA release, Serenity (in addition to their own work), accepted "adoptions" of users favourite applications and tools. The "adopter" merely documented the location of all necessary files, CONFIG.SYS changes and a wrote a short script. That's why there are so many!

The Test System

Well, enough rambling about! What did I throw it on? My favourite test machine!

This test rig has got Windows NT 4.0 (SP6) installed, as well as OS/2, all managed with OS/2's Boot Manager. The OS/2 partition is quite messy, due to it's duty as a test rig. It started life with OS/2 Warp 4, eventually got upgraded to FP14, then MCP. Beta quality and evaluation software has been loaded, deleted improperly, generally just abused! Not your ideal setup, but we'll see how it performs.


This was a rush shipment, so no hardcopy documentation came with it. Of course, the first thing any self-respecting engineer did was to skip all the README's and shove in the bootable CD and restart the machine. (My excuse is that I'm emulating a typical user ;). Well, it didn't work. I checked my BIOS settings. Yes, it was set to boot from floppy first, then CD, then hard disk. I try again. Still no dice. Fortunately, the HP has a "Boot Menu" option to select the boot device manually at startup time. I try that. Whew! It works! Chalk that up to slightly buggy BIOS on the HP then. (If you do not have a bootable CD-ROM, you'll have to make a set of bootable floppies, following the instructions included).

Booting from CD-ROM only about a second or two, and I got a blank screen with a very simple menu at top left:

Okay, right away I have ideas for some improvements here, because that's all that's on the screen. For me, it's almost obvious what to do. Press a key for the option. But suppose it's a computer novice? What now? Is that really a menu? Or maybe it's telling you the sequence of steps that's about to happen. I think they should explicitly add a line here saying something like "Press [1,2 or 3] for a choice. If you don't press a key within 10 seconds, it will boot from your hard disk". Which brings me to my second point. 10 seconds isn't enough for a new user to read the options and decide what to do from here.

If you select the Advanced installation, it boots up to an initial setup screen. It all happens quite quickly, maybe just a couple of seconds. For a computer novice, it looks really daunting. It looks like the computer BIOS setup screen. Mind you, speaking as an experienced computer user, I have little to gripe about. There's options for just about everything, from screen depth and resolution, to SCSI boot device, magneto-optic disks, etc, so I think that will make all the advanced users quite happy. But for computer novices, it could be arranged a bit better. (I suppose instead of complaining, I should whip up a mockup explaining my ideas). On the other hand, new users should've probably booted up with the Default settings.

Once you continue past this screen, it proceeds to boot to the eCS Desktop. If you had chosen the Default installation, it would've skipped the advanced setup screen and booted directly to the desktop. My advice even for advanced users? Unless you have really odd hardware, just use the Default installation. It works nicely.

The boot process will look familiar to experienced OS/2 users. It's nearly the same, but the Warp 4 screen has been replaced by a stylish eCS logo. At the bottom, the drivers being loaded are displayed, as if you'd pressed ALT-F2 during OS/2 bootup. For new users, there's no evidence of OS/2's genes yet. I found the initial boot time to the graphical GUI install to be fairly fast, quicker than my normal Warp 4 boot time to desktop.

The eCS Installation Desktop

And here, even before you start any real installation, you get your first taste of the new eCS desktop. At this stage, there is still no obvious indication that OS/2 is under the hood, unless you are already an OS/2 user. Oh, and by the way, it is nice. Really nice. If you haven't seen it before, you will be impressed, I can almost guarantee it. It even pops up a short video clip of the eCS logo for your view pleasure while it's busy initializing the scripts or something. (Note: the video didn't seem to pop up during Default installation, but showed up on Advanced installation. I don't know if that's considered a bug or not).

Let me pause a bit, not to brag, but to put into perspective the amount of work Serenity has put into the initial install experience. I've installed just about every Microsoft operating system from DOS 3.30 on up to Windows 2000, I've done MacOS up to 9.1, I've done OS/2 from 1.3EE on up to MCP, I've done RedHat Linux, even BeOS R5 and QNX. This initial setup is arguably the easiest, slickest and nicest looking one I've seen. (And much, much faster than WinNT or Win2000). Only Mac OS X might give it a good run for its money. Nearly all the icons have been re-done. The title bar sports a nice gradient and the close button is re-done, as are all the checkboxes and dialog buttons. Too bad the only thing missing is anti-alias fonts.

The install screen takes up most of the desktop, it is very well laid out, with several items on the left hand side, including "Welcome", "CD contents", "Installation planning", "Installationg procedure", "Volume Management" and "Install eComStation". The info is shown in a large pane just to the right. The WarpCenter (or rather, the eCS center now) is put on the bottom by default. Unless you are very familiar with OS/2, you will not recognize this as OS/2. There are no obvious clues. For first impressions, it is nice! Serenity and their gang have really done their homework here. If initial impressions count for anything, I'd have to give pretty much full marks right away. Don't believe me? Have a look at the picture.

eCS Install

eCS Install HelpThe left pane in the setup window does more than show pretty pictures. Clicking on each of the options on the left can bring up useful information, as well as buttons to launch other tasks. In the example below, clicking on the "Planning Guide" will bring up a .PDF Acrobat Reader and a copy of the WSeB Planning Guide. Come on! Be honest now, if it weren't for the Warp Sans font, would you ever know OS/2 was under the hood?

eCS Install Major ComponentsBeing in a bit of a rush (and still trying to emulate the typical user ;), I skipped reading all the instructions and clicked on the last option "Install eComStation"! My impatience was rewarded with another new screen:

If you want to be safe, I suppose you could select Classic VGA for the video mode. But I've been there, done that. Tried IBM GENGRADD too, so might as well give the SciTech drivers a shot and see how well that turns out. One thing to note, you are warned not to install select the SMP installation unless you have the hardware for it right now. Don't install it "just in case"!

eCS Select VolumeNext up, is choosing the destination volume. Now, I've got it easy. I've already applied MCP, had my volumes converted and it's already active. Users who use a second operating system and did not partition their hard drive in anticipation of eCS may be in for a bit more of a headache. (Now fortunately, Serenity is planning demo CD's which have a fully bootable and useable system so you can preview eCS without having to change your hard drive at all. It should be coming shortly).

Once you choose the volume, you have the option of keeping all previous files on that volume (if that applies) or doing a short or long format. I first tried keeping the volume, to see if that worked. Afterwards, I also did the quick format to finally cleanse my system of all old "junk". If you are installing over an existing OS/2 installation, it also gives you the option of overwriting all files with newer time stamps, don't overwrite any of them, or prompting you for a choice each time it encounters one.

eCS InstallingFinally, a couple of steps later, it starts the install. Nice work here too! There's a pie chart indicating the approximate percentage complete, as well as text labels. This part is really cool (at least I thought so) because the text auto centers itself around its share of the pie slice as it changes so it looks like it's orbiting the chart. Well, you'll just have to see it for yourself.

Once it's done, it pops up a credits screen listing all the contributors. I believe it's a hacked up version of OS/2's original AAAAA.EXE. I guess I appreciate the effort, but my is it ever ugly compared to the screens that came before it. After you've had enough, the system reboots.

Phase 2 Installation

Once it reboots, you get another installation screen with a list of steps to do:

eCS Phase 2

Pretty straightforward to follow, each of the buttons is highlighted in turn as you finish the previous step. Now, unfortunately, here's the first "letdown". Okay, I shouldn't put it that way. This is where all the customizations start to come to an end, at least for this first release of eCS. Selecting "Verify video resolution" just brings up the Display section of the OS/2 "System" object under System Setup. Jumping to "Install multimedia support device and other system components" brings up the standard OS/2 Warp 4 "Selective Install". Even the background bitmap still says OS/2. Esthetics aside, it's a bit of a problem, because you have to not touch the video or CD-ROM settings (unless you have a 2nd CD-ROM). You are explicitly warned of this, but still a bit of a hassle. I understand this is not an oversight, but due to a bit of a problem working replacing OS/2's Selective Install. I'm sure they'll figure it out sooner or later.

eCS MPTSNow, I think, the Networking install gets a bit weird here (mind you, it is so much faster than Warp 4's networking installation though). First, you configure TCP/IP, which, if you are hooked up via LAN, usually just involves clicking on the "use DHCP" button on the standard Java TCP/IP 4.3 booklet. Then when you finish, it reboots, and then you use the good ol' MPTS to actually install your network interface card (NIC). Apparently the new install assigns a dummy NIC so that your networking can be configured first. And then following, you change it to your actual NIC. Or at least that's what I figured out the process to be. It worked anyways. (Pretty good for not reading the manual, huh? :). The MPTS configuration screen has been nicely updated too to be more clear.

End of Installation

eCS FinalAt this reboot, the installation is basically complete and you're down to adding applications, utilities and customizing. Yes, for this, Serenity has provided yet another slick little procedure.

You can go through to set the eCS Clock (this is no ordinary clock!), and change the look and feel. Unfortunately, those "Start" buttons never seemed to launch anything for me. Yes, I tried it once with the Default installation over the messy old OS/2 installation, and a 2nd time with the Advanced install, on a clean formatted partition. Still no good. The hard disk seem to chug a bit, but nothing ever came up.

Oh well, despite that minor glitch, I charged on. The following tabs allow you to install extra applications such as SmartSuite, the old IBM Bonus Pak, and others. Some of them simply call up the standard OS/2 installer, some use the Serenity's WiseMachine to do the installation. Either way, all of them installed just fine.

What's new?

Obviously there are a few cosmetic changes from the buttons, to the window titles and frame controls. Dialog boxes and configuration screens have received quite a few updates and even the shutdown sequence sports a new dialog with 2 options now (Shutdown and Restart). In addition, there are some extra utilities and programs included from the base Warp 4. The applications are already listed above. Other little goodies include a simple calculator:

eCS Calc

As well as the eCS clock. Although it didn't start with the "End of eCS Installation" dialog, you can always access it from the "System Setup" folder.

eCS Clock1

Not only does it look better, it's also packed with more functions. eCS Clock2

You can have it automatically update the system clock for Daylight Savings Time, or synchronize itself with some atomic clock service on the Internet. Good stuff!

eCS TaskNext up, there is also a Task Planner to shedule reminders and tasks in conjunction with the Task Scheduler (which is automatically put in the Startup folder).

eCS StylerIt's not all work for eCS! In the "System Setup" folder, you'll find configuration panels for changing eCS' look too. Included in eCS is a special version of Alessandro Cantatore's Styler/2 utility.

Go ahead, play with it! There are so many options. You can also change the frame control and button styles with frame control themes. There's no shaped windows yet, but it's a start! eCS Themes

eCS WiseMachineA Serenity special is the WiseMachine installation utility. In a way, I guess it's a bit like Red Hat's RPM manager, if you're familiar with that. (Though I gather WiseMachine is much more powerful, although you may not realize it if you're using it on a local machine only. I've heard you'll really have to see it demo'd as a system administrator on a large LAN to be well and truly impressed). On a local machine, you can use it to install any package that's available, just by selecting it and pointing to a destination. WiseMachine takes care of all modifications to CONFIG.SYS and anything else that's required.

As you can see, there are a lot of software represented in WiseMachine's "database". Wait, before you get too excited, no, Watcom C and VxRexx are not included in the eCS distribution. If you try to install non-existent packages, nothing will happen.

You can use options in WiseMachine to install Odin and Realplayer painlessly too. It's a simple matter of just clicking buttons and letting the computer do its work. I'd never thought I'd see RealPlayer 8 being installed from the WPS! eCS RealPlayer

It's an impressive trick, not only because Odin got it to work, but because Serenity has made it so easy to install. You don't have to be a hard-core hacker typing away at the command-line to get it to work.


Well, there's always gripes, isn't there? Nothing's ever perfect, but I think (so far) I haven't got a lot to complain about. There seemed to be a few glitches in the final installation phase, as I noted previously, but nothing killer. These features are accessible from elsewhere in the system. More problematic is the OS/2 Selective Installation routine which hasn't been replaced yet. I hope Serenity figure out a way to get around that, which is the only sore spot in an otherwise very slick installation routine.

There were a couple of pieces of software "included" in the GA Release Candidate release that weren't actually included, which is a bit of a shame. I think everyone would prefer to have it on CD rather than having to download it, but I guess Serenity just ran out of time. The official eComStation Web Site still isn't fully live, so I couldn't download those missing applications. I hope that it does get fully up and running by the time people receive their GA copies.

Finally, I have some personal, subjective complaints (which I'm sure I'll get over). One of which is that the layout of the system is somewhat like the default OS/2,but not quite. I guess I'm used to looking for things in certain locations and looking for "OS/2" on the command prompt icons, which no longer have that now. It'll slow me down a bit until I get used to it. And also, I think MCP and eCS are guilty of this, the Warpcenter or eCS-Center now default to the bottom of the screen. Great for Windows migrants I suppose, but not the best user-interface choice. It should have defaulted to the top of the screen like it used to be. Like how MacOS has it. Like how research has shown that's where it's supposed to be. Sorry! I'm grasping for problems here!


Serenity Systems has licensed OS/2 from IBM, given it quite a major facelift and added a few goodies to make their own baby, eComStation. It looks much prettier on top, but still sports OS/2's powerful underpinnings. The best part is that this is only the first release! Things can only go uphill from here. I think they extent and quality of the work that has been put into eComStation shows that Serenity Systems is serious about making eCS a success. The release date slipped a bit from initial projections, but that time seems to have been used wisely to make this a pretty solid release.

Extra support for eComStation can be purchased, but most users will make do with the free support from the eCS Newsgroups or the eComStation web site.

Given the amount of changes and enhancements that eCS has on top of OS/2, and the bundle of included software, eComStation seems like a good value for your money. If you like Lotus Smartsuite, the inclusion of this alone is nearly enough to justify purchasing eComStation. On top of that, if you didn't purchase Stellar Frontier (quite an addictive game, the subject for another review), this is the only way to get the full version for OS/2. The quality of this first release is of a very good level, at least as good as the MCP that IBM released. If you decide that you need to move beyond your current OS/2 needs, I think eComStation is one very good alternative.

Article References:
Official eComStation Web Site: http://www.ecomstation.com
Where to get eComStation:
Jacaranda Business systems: http://www.jbs.ca/
Prism Data Works: http://www.prismdataworks.com/
Mensys: http://www.mensys.nl

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