Long Live OS/2. Why should you try ArcaOS?

ArcaOS running in a Virtual Machine

Brief History

OS/2. The first time I’ve heard about this Operating System was somewhere in the late 1990s. I was a kid back in Russia and I’ve always had an eye on exploring different operating systems, including OS/2 and Linux. OS/2 was a stable and customizable alternative to Windows.

There is more to it and learning more about it gives a broader perspective on the market of operating systems in the 1990s. Initial versions of OS/2 were developed by both Microsoft and IBM. The “breakup” has happened around 1990 and between Windows 3.0 and OS/2 1.3 release. IBM continued to develop OS/2 until 1996 when Warp 4 was released. Afterward, it was clear that Microsoft took a lead and OS/2 can’t compete with it anymore. Only patches were released up until 2001 when it all stopped.

I was interested in learning more about it back in those days. There were some specific problems with it. It was much harder to obtain, it had more limited driver support and fewer applications worked there comparing to Windows. Much less.

Eventually, those were the primary reasons why the Operating System battle was lost in the favor of Microsoft and Windows. Oh, marketing was also not that great on the IBM side.

The idea of obtaining OS/2 never came to life to me until 2020. Since I’ve had more free time (and just returning from a trip visiting 16 countries) I’ve decided to give it another try.

Well… I thought I knew where to start from, but after getting OS/2 I’ve realized that the technology behind it is so old that I need to have multiple floppy disk images to boot into OS/2 Warp 4 (last version). While this could be emulated using a virtual drive in a Virtual Machine I was not particularly interested in it and thought there is a better solution in place.

I’ve researched more and realized that there are two Operating Systems available if you want to run OS/2 in the 21st century with more or less modern applications:

  1. eComStation
  2. ArcaOS

What are those, exactly? Well, at its core it’s just repackaged OS/2 with support for modern drivers and applications. Consider this as a distribution of OS/2 with additions and fixes. How does it look like? Well, it’s similar to trying to upgrade Windows 98 with 20 years of fixes to run it on modern hardware. Underneath it all, it’s still the same core with the same limitations.

However, OS/2 was an innovative Operating System during the short time frame that it existed. It had some advantages over Windows that we would talk about.

What is the difference between eComStation and ArcaOS? The main difference is the support lifecycle. Active development of eComStation halted in 2011 and ArcaOS is an active project with a goal of bringing OS/2 legacy into 2021 and beyond. However, the main problem that stops more users from trying is the fact that ArcaOS is not free, and license for it costs 129$ for a single user. I’ve compared and discussed those points (as well as showing an actual OS) in my OS/2 and eComStation video.

Ok, back to the main point. Why would you want to learn more about ArcaOS and try it yourself? Let’s discuss it.

Running DOS and Windows 3.1 Applications

Running Virtual Pascal in ArcaOS. Brings good old memories, isn’t it?

OS/2 slogan was “A better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows”. ArcaOS continues that idea and you can run your favorite DOS and 16 bit Windows applications there.

What’s even more interesting is that ArcaOS includes a customized version of Windows 3.1 and you can just open this whole environment in a separate window (or full screen) and run both OS/2 and Windows applications there.

The stability of the OS/2 environment combined with real DOS and Windows 3.1 sessions makes wonders.

Windows 3.1 window alongside DOS in ArcaOS

Vendors are still using it

If you explore the eComStation website on the main page you will see that there are still vendors who are using OS/2 for their specific purposes, such as:

  • Fujitsu
  • VMware
  • Siemens AG
  • Michelin

There are more and you can see for yourself. The reason why they use it is mostly because that the software that was developed in the 20th century is still perfectly valid and functions as promised. It just does the job. There is not always a need for “glancy” features, constant Internet connection, or anything like this. Some software is not intended to be constantly updated.

OS/2 in some form is also still used in some ATM machines around the world. Yes, you might not be even aware of it, but you used OS/2 at some point in your life even if you didn’t know.

This software needs a solid environment to run this software. OS/2 in the form of eComStation or ArcaOS is a good option.

You are a Nerd

ArcaNoae Package Manager along with Registry Editor in ArcaOS

Let’s be real. Paying more than 100$ for an operating system that is more than 20 years old means you care about it. Or it probably means that you are interested in learning more about the vintage technology behind it.

I purchased the ArcaOS license because I wanted to explore it and show my YouTube audience how interesting exploring old operating systems might be. I made two videos about ArcaOS as well. One was about installing the operating system itself and the other one was about installing and using applications on it.

Modern usage is still possible

Using Medium on ArcaOS in 2021

ArcaOS can handle network connections pretty well. It also includes Firefox and Thunderbird by default and you can browse the internet as usual. That expands the usability of an operating system by a lot. Imagine installing it on a ThinkPad and running your favorite DOS and 16 bit Windows games in a nice environment where some limited modern usage is still possible.

There is also a project called Odin which has a goal of limited usage of Win 32 applications on OS/2 environment. It’s also included in ArcaOS by default.

The 1990s Look and Feel

Running Odin help documentation and DOS session window

I’m a 90s kid and there is a chance you might be too if you are reading this. This kind of interface is very familiar to us. Some of us love that simplicity and speed.

My personal favorite is the amount of offline Help documentation. There is no need to “google” anything if it’s all available through a nice help system. It’s all there for you to explore.

Community

Os2world website running in Firefox on ArcaOS

There is nothing better than a community of nerds like you who enjoys trying out different operating systems and environments. OS/2 is all about that. It has a great community of enthusiasts where you feel welcome. There are websites, Facebook groups, Webinars, and anything in between.

Conclusion

There are two ways of looking at OS/2 and its vintage status.

First way:

It might be far away from re-resurrection in the eyes of some people. Sure, it’s a 32-bit operating system and has all limitations related to it. It will never be a truly modern operating system that supports all the latest devices. It should be just retired and we should be done with it.

It failed. For many reasons.

Second way:

OS/2 was a great operating system of the time. It was innovative, customizable, and interesting. It was made for users. Modern Windows has roots in OS/2 and that should be admitted.

We love having operating systems that old still maintained and available for us. It’s also the only way of obtaining a legal copy of the Windows 3.1 environment to run your legacy software. It has everything you need to run legacy software.

It will never have the bells and whistles of a modern operating system. But you know what? Maybe it doesn’t even need it. It’s a beast for those who appreciate it.

It’s up to you to decide how you look at it…

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Nomad lifestyle writer. Passionate about breaking software— QA Engineer. My Travel & Tech YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/c/nomadicdmitry

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