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After playing a bit with the OS, a question sparked my interest:

Could it entirely replace DOS and Windows ?

Let's restrict the scope of this question a bit since it's fairly broad,

Was it compatible with:

  • Windows 3.0 and above, up to 95 ?
  • Win32s programs ?
  • protected mode DOS programs, e.g. games

In other terms, how was the compatibility with DOS and Windows programs from the second half of the nineties ?

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    Not an Answer, but personal experiance: OS/2 2.0 was an excelet OS, and in itself teh ultimate Killer-Application for Windows users, as it was the more stable and more reliable and more capable Windows of the time. I did switch to OS/2 because of that. Finally a way to run Windows without crashes and problems. Even if a Windows application crashed, the rest of the system did continue to run smooth. Similar for DOS. Also, later on, I realy got hooked to OS/2 itself, as it was the first OS since Viewpoint (Xerox) that realy did offer a true OO Desktop/Environment. – Raffzahn Mar 7 '18 at 11:52
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    I used OS/2 as the primary OS on my home computer for perhaps 3 years. It was well ahead of the Windows versions available at that time and very reliable. There was a glitch having to do with interrupts and tasking, but that was not usually a problem. OS/2 failed because IBM upper management lost interest in it, at least in part because they didn't want to offend BG. – Hot Licks Mar 7 '18 at 18:57
  • I probably would have used OS/2 (Warp 3.0) except for the fact that half of my hardware (and especially my video card) didn't have drivers for the operating system. It was stable enough, but I wanted to have 1024x768x32, not 640x480x4 resolution and my printer! – ErikF Mar 7 '18 at 19:28
  • I also stopped using it because of lack of drivers and up to date compilers. It was fine as long as you bought the IBM PS/2s. If you switched hardware, nothing was guaranteed to work. – cup Mar 9 '18 at 12:56
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The short answer is yes, starting with version 2.0 and even more so with Warp, OS/2 was a viable alternative for daily DOS and Windows tasks, up to and including Windows 3.x.

Starting with OS/2 2.0, the first 32-bit version, OS/2 included very, very good support for DOS programs, including protected-mode and some measure of direct hardware access. This allowed it to run Windows 3 itself (with some modifications), and most real-mode and DPMI protected-mode DOS software.

It was thus compatible with most protected-mode DOS programs (an early demo involved running Doom in a window), most Windows 3 programs, and even Win32s-compatible 32-bit Windows programs (at least on OS/2 Warp 4). Odin, released in 1999 and continually in development since then, is supposed to provide more general Win32 binary translation, but I haven’t used it much. I don’t think Windows 95/98/NT compatibility was ever all that good in practice, and it certainly wasn’t when OS/2 was still relevant — the industry’s switch to Win32 was the nail in the coffin for OS/2.

Note that OS/2 does require more resources for basic use than DOS and Windows, so when it first came out, many potential users would have been frustrated if they’d tried it — it really needs at least 8MiB of RAM (which was still unusual in early 1992) and a decent amount of disk space. However on a system with enough resources to run it well, it really is very fast, and perhaps more efficient than DOS and Windows.

Some consider that this excellent compatibility contributed to OS/2’s demise: since it was so good at running DOS and Windows programs, there wasn’t much incentive for developers to provide OS/2-specific applications. There were a few, but no big killer app sufficient to carry the platform and allow it to compete with Windows. The requirement for Windows compatibility, which was always based on running a dynamically-modified version of Windows inside OS/2, meant that users needed either a Windows license, or a version of OS/2 with its own Windows license, which meant Microsoft made money off of OS/2 sales anyway (above and beyond any remaining licensing agreement from the joint IBM/Microsoft days)...

This episode of LGR Tech Tales gives a decent summary of the life and non-death of OS/2 (which lives on as ArcaOS).

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    I once heard the comment "OS/2 is the next best way to run Win32s programs beyond Windows NT" - Which I found true, better than Win95. I liked it a lot. To some ends, it was the best DOS and Win32 emulator for a PC you could get back in the days (Which is somewhat ironic). – tofro Mar 7 '18 at 9:54
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    For good or bad, OS/2 never made it on the traditional desktop. It was used in a variety of "black box" desktops, such as ATMs and PBXs. – Keltari Mar 7 '18 at 10:13
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    @Keltari Probably depends on where you look - It very definitely made it to my traditional desktop, and to a lot of my friends' and colleagues' desktops (and one of mine still hosts an eComStation machine). – tofro Mar 7 '18 at 12:49
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    @Keltari it ended up being quite popular in France after IBM shipped an OS/2 Warp 3 "demo" CD on magazine covers, that turned out to be the full OS... – Stephen Kitt Mar 7 '18 at 12:51
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    I used it on my desktop. With my first IBM-compatible being a 486 that came with Windows 3.1, it was all very disappointing coming from my background as an Amiga user. First time I saw OS/2 on the store shelf and saw the words "preemptive multitasking" on the box, I was sold. Wasn't disappointed either, it ran Windows apps better than Windows did. – mnem Mar 7 '18 at 19:34
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I recently installed OS/2 Warp on a vintage (late-90s) IBM PC 350 with a 200 MHz Pentium MMX CPU and 96MB of RAM. I found that OS/2 Warp works very well for running virtually any DOS or Windows 3.x productivity application, and provides excellent stability, performance, and access to all that glorious RAM and CPU "power" in my vintage PC.

However, DOS gaming is another matter. Many of the games from the period will run, but it is difficult to get them to work with the peripherals, like sound cards and input devices, when running under OS/2 Warp's DOS mode. My most frequent problem was simply no sound output, but that kills it for gaming. My first attempt was with a ProAudio Spectrum 16 sound card, and it was only able to work with a few of my games. I switched to a more compatible (at least on plain DOS) SoundBlaster 16, but still had plenty of problems getting the OS/2 driver system to work with many games.

Since my main usage for the vintage PC is gaming, I ended up replacing OS/2 Warp with DOS 6.22. This OS with the SoundBlaster 16 provides the best gaming compatibility for late 90s games that don't require Windows 9x.

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    To run DOS games well under OS/2, you often need to tweak the DOS box settings; in particular, HW_TIMER usually needs to be enabled. For the PAS16, you need to load MVSOUND.SYS. See the OS/2 DOS games settings FAQ part 1 and part 2. – Stephen Kitt Mar 7 '18 at 15:28
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    Indeed, tweaking a OS/2 configuration to get a game to run correctly can be a fun game in itself. I burned out by the time I got to Epic Pinball, which was maybe number 5 on my list. – Brian H Mar 7 '18 at 16:08
  • Right, it’s much easier to reboot to DOS and run games there (and even then, there’s “fun” to be had getting some games to run). And once you’re in DOS, you need a good reason to reboot to OS/2... Epic Pinball is rather hard to get running correctly. – Stephen Kitt Mar 7 '18 at 16:12
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    I find a dual-boot setup to be an interesting option, but never got around to it. I didn't have a good enough "reason to reboot to OS/2". – Brian H Mar 7 '18 at 16:17
  • From OS/2 Warp3 and up (not sure about earlier versions), you don't need to bother with a boot manager. You can just use the "DualBoot" feature to reboot to your DOS partition by double-clicking the icon on the OS/2 desktop and then use the "BOOT /OS2" command in DOS to boot back into OS/2. – mnem Mar 7 '18 at 19:30

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