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COMPUTER FILE / Lawrence J. Magid

IBM Operating Systems Sing Radical New Tune

November 05, 1987|Lawrence J. Magid | Lawrence J. Magid is a Silicon Valley-based computer analyst and writer

When Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A-Changin', " he was referring to the social and political upheaval in the 1960s. Today, a similar song could be sung about IBM personal computers and compatible machines.

There are two principal reasons for the tumult in the personal computer industry. To begin with, IBM and most of the companies that make IBM compatibles plan to soon offer a radically different, and advanced, operating system. The operating system is the software that manages the computer itself, controlling everything you do with your machine.

In addition, a new set of programming rules is being established for the industry that will extend the capabilities of computers equipped with the current standard for operating system software. Both developments will enable IBM-style computers to take advantage of more sophisticated and more powerful software.

There are many differences between the current operating system for IBM-style machines, MS-DOS 3.2, and the soon-to-be-released Operating System/2, or OS/2. Chief among them is that OS/2 will give PCs many of the advantages of the Apple Macintosh. For instance, you will be able to look at data from two or more programs at the same time and move the data back and forth.

The PC will also have a "graphical user interface." That means, among other things, that the text you see on the screen will look almost identical to what you get on the printer.

Another major benefit of OS/2 is that it will allow the machines to access up to 16 megabytes of random access memory, or RAM. A megabyte is about a million bytes, or characters. That much memory will enable software companies to design large and sophisticated programs that can do more and be operated more easily than today's software. Generally, the MS-DOS operating system is limited to 640K (approximately 640,000 characters) of memory.

IBM announced on Tuesday that OS/2 shipments, which originally were scheduled for the first quarter of 1988, will begin in December. All the same, the expected transition from MS-DOS to OS/2 will take at least two years. First, all the application programs--for example, word processing and database software--that run under the present operating system will have to be rewritten to run under OS/2.

Second, OS/2 does not work with the majority of PCs now in use. OS/2 requires a PC to be equipped with an Intel 80286 or an 80386 central processing unit. The IBM PC/AT and most of IBM's new Personal System/2 models qualify, but the millions of IBM PCs and XTs and compatibles would have to be replaced or modified to use the new operating system.

Several companies, including IBM, continue to make inexpensive machines that will not be compatible with OS/2. As a result, lots of people will continue to use the old MS-DOS operating system. But that might not be so bad. Recent developments have breathed new potential into the old MS-DOS.

In August, Lotus Development, Intel and Microsoft announced a new software "specification" that makes it possible for a PC to use more than 640K of memory--in theory, up to 32 megabytes--provided that the PC is equipped with the proper memory expansion card and enough memory chips.

The specification is called LIM 4.0, after the initials of its sponsors. The most practical use of the new specification is to run, with special software, several programs at a time, a practice known as multi-tasking. You could, for example, sort a database and transfer information from a company mainframe while you are writing a report. A spreadsheet program could be sitting idly in the background, ready to use at the touch of a key.

The specification, as a set of programming rules, is neither hardware nor software. To take advantage of it, you again must use application programs that have been written, or modified, to be compatible. Your current software probably isn't compatible, but future versions of Lotus 1-2-3, WordPerfect and dBase III, among others, are supposed to be. The new specification is a revision of an older LIM standard that enabled certain programs, including Lotus 1- 2-3, to access large data files.

Before you get too excited about LIM 4.0, consider the additional hardware and software you may have to buy. To use the new specification, your computer must be equipped with a compatible memory board--not all are, so be sure to check with your dealer or manufacturer.

While some users will switch to the OS/2 operating system, millions of others will be pleased that their old computers, and modified versions of their current software, will work even better.

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