What Do You Mean, Hard?- by Christopher B. Wright

While OS/2 may be one of the most powerful and advanced operating systems available for the personal computer today, it hasn't exactly won the hearts and minds of the mainstream world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that OS/2 is met with out-and-out hostility by a great many people, and for one very important reason:

It's difficult to install.

OS/2 has taken quite a beating lately, most notably in trade mags like Infoworld and PC Magazine, for being somewhat impossible to coax onto a machine. Installing OS/2, they say, is like trying to put together one of those puzzles that doesn't have a picture on it. It's counter-intuitive, unwieldy, and just as liable to blow up in your face as it is to actually work.


I consider myself an expert at installing OS/2--I've managed to destroy my system so many times that installation seems like second nature to me. My parents and my fiancee are constantly assailed by stories of how I managed to accidentally delete this, or how I accidentally copied over that or, "what do you mean, I just reformatted my hard drive?" I don't know the subtle ins and outs of file placement, but I do know how to use the installation program. I've used FDISK to install Boot Manager, OS/2, Windows 95, then reinstall Boot Manager so I could run OS/2. I've installed Red Warp, Blue Warp, and Blue Warp Connect. I've helped other people install Warp, install FixPacks, and reinstall Warp and FixPacks. And I'm here to testify before God and Country that installing OS/2 ain't that hard.

On the surface, the myth that OS/2 is the mother of all installation nightmares seems very credible. I bought OS/2 Warp for Windows in January, I managed to have it running (without crashing) in March. Three months is a long time to beat your head against a monitor cursing (both the monitor and I still have scars, and my roommates still haven't stopped twitching).

First OS/2 wouldn't install from my CD-ROM drive. It was an old single-spin CD-ROM drive, from way back when multimedia meant watching TV and updating your resume at the same time. The install process suggested I make disks from the CD, which took about two hours, and then it took another two hours to install.

The problem? My CD-ROM drive used an obscure version of a Phillips device driver that wasn't included on the install diskettes because it was, well, obscure.

And then it wouldn't work. Not right, anyway. The screen kept blanking out on the third or fourth reboot. I couldn't get it to display any more than 16 colors--which is a drag for OS/2, since OS/2 is by default "plain" in 16 million.

The problem was, and many of you will sympathise, my Diamond SpeedStar Pro 16 bit, 512k video card. Until I figured out what the problem was, I was convinced OS/2 didn't "install well." How could it? It would lock up after two or three boots! Obviously something was not being done correctly.

This is a problem many different people have had with many different products--be they video cards, EIDE cards (had that one, too), SCSI cards, CD-ROM drives, Ethernet cards, or even PCMCIA cards. But I would submit before the court that the problem isn't OS/2's installation process.

The real problems, my friends, are device drivers.

Installing OS/2 is actually fairly straightforward. You turn the computer off. You put the install disk in drive a:. You turn on the computer. You do everything the computer tells you to do, switch disks when you are told to switch, hope the computer recognizes your CD-ROM drive if you're installing from CD-ROM, and hope you're disks aren't bad if you're installing from disk. You're asked if you want the Easy or the Advanced install. You're asked if you want to install on drive C. You're asked if you want to install all or only some of the extras. And by the end of the install process you're told to take the disk out of drive a: and reboot.

None of this is rocket science. The installation process for OS/2, while admittedly boring, is simple and non-life-threatening. Getting drivers provided by a third party to work under OS/2, on the other hand, is downright frightening.

Take my current CD-ROM drive, for example. I actually have two: the single spin you've already heard about, and a TEAC Quad Speed. I bought the TEAC at a computer show, and wouldn't you know it, the TEAC Drive didn't come with OS/2 drivers! Installing the drivers for my CD-ROM drive required that I track them down on the Internet, download them from an FTP site, and look through a sparse readme file to figure out how to get OS/2 to say, "Look! A TEAC!"

The first couple of steps are difficult enough, especially if you aren't comfortable with the Internet. In fact, if you aren't comfortable with the Internet, you don't have many options when you run into a device driver problem. But even if you manage to get that far, getting it recognized by your operating system is even harder.

Most drivers for OS/2 are sloppily written, especially compared to their Windows cousins. There are a few companies who have automatic install programs for their drivers, but most companies require that you make alterations to that most dreaded of all OS/2 files, the CONFIG.SYS file. The CONFIG.SYS file, a collection of path, basedev, and device statements strung haphazardly across known space, is NOT user-friendly and unless you know what you're doing you should stay as far away from it as possible. I know. I had to reinstall OS/2 because of it once.

OS/2 and hardware manufacturers aren't satisfied if you merely add a "device=crankydriver.add" statement to your config.sys file and reboot. No, they usually require that you add lots of arcane parameters to your line, like "device=crankydriver.add /a:you'll /b:never /c:get /d:this /e:to /f:work" and "device=tryagain.add /a:give /b:up /c:now".

Let's not forget that these very same drivers have a tendency to work exactly opposite the way you expect--that is, not at all. I have found that the drivers for a Diamond video or graphics card seem to have been engineered specifically NOT to work under OS/2. At one point I had a Diamond Viper that would run in anything but VGA 16 color until I changed the name of two files, copied a backed up version of another file onto the current version, and installed the generic S3 drivers provided by IBM.

The fact of the matter is that hardware manufacturers do a lousy job supporting OS/2. Barring a few major exceptions (ATI being a notable one, Miro being another), they do lazy, shoddy work when it comes to coding OS/2 drivers for their products. If hardware doesn't work on OS/2, it's probably not the fault of the operating system. More than likely it's a company that just doesn't put the effort it should into its work.

What I'm trying to say is that half of what makes OS/2 frustrating to configure is that even when a company says they support OS/2, that doesn't guarantee they actually do it well. An operating system can use hardware only as well as its drivers let it, and if those drivers don't work, the OS won't either.

Bottom line: OS/2 doesn't have to be "impossible to install." If a hardware manufacturer claims their product will run under OS/2, make it very clear that it had better, or there will be one unsatisfied customer moving on to a competing product.

Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Northern Virginia/D.C. area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is a recent member of Team OS/2.

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