The next big revolution in personal computing begins Dec. 4, when IBM releases the first of four versions of the new PC operating system, OS/2.
Most of the revolutionary developments of the past--VisiCalc, the IBM PC, Lotus 1-2-3, the Apple Macintosh, Aldus Pagemaker--took us by surprise, and only after they had been on the market for a while was their true impact realized.
But OS/2 has been awaited for so long that it won't take anybody by surprise. As for impact, it is bound to be enormous because it unlocks the potential of today's most powerful personal computers and will allow creation of software that is much more sophisticated than anything we've seen to date.
It is as if we've been living in huge mansions but weren't allowed to use more than a couple of rooms. In fact, imagining an operating system as your computer's caretaker is a pretty fair analogy of what it does.
OS/2 does two big things for computers built around the 16-bit Intel 80286 or 32-bit Intel 80386 microprocessor chips. It gives programs access to up to 16 megabytes (million characters) of random access memory (RAM) instead of the 640 kilobytes (thousand characters) they have been limited to, and it allows up to a dozen programs to run simultaneously, compared to the single program limit using PC-DOS.
The new operating system won't work with IBM's original PC and PC XT or compatible computers using the Intel 8088 or 8086 chips, which means that millions of users will have to do without or upgrade their computers with the more powerful microprocessors or buy a new computer.
All of this new power will be expensive, starting with the operating system itself. While PC-DOS currently sells for $125, the standard edition of IBM's OS/2 will cost $325, and an extended edition due late next year with IBM's built-in database and mainframe communications will sell for $795.
What's more, the first version of OS/2 needs about three megabytes of RAM to run well, while the extended edition will need at least four megabytes for satisfactory performance. That will cost users hundreds of dollars more.
Finally, users will need new software written to take advantage of OS/2, and only time will tell how publishers will decide to price that. If the software performs equal tasks whether you use the OS/2 or the PC-DOS version, it will probably cost the same as present-day packages. But it is likely that the more sophisticated applications that OS/2 will spawn will also carry more ambitious price tags.
Clearly OS/2 will have to prove itself worth all this extra cost, and that will depend on the programs that are introduced over the next several years.
William C. Lowe, president of IBM's Entry Systems Division, said he expects it to take one to three years for OS/2 to become the dominant PC operating system.
Initially, OS/2 will be available from IBM for IBM-brand computers. But shortly thereafter, Microsoft, which developed the standard edition of OS/2, will license it to other computer manufacturers. It will be up to those manufacturers to test it with their products and then provide it to their dealers.
IBM owners will get the first chance at OS/2, and the company is offering a special $200 upgrade price to existing owners of PC-DOS. You'll get to keep your PC-DOS operating system, too. There is no way of knowing whether IBM's version of OS/2 will work on IBM compatible computers because IBM tests only its machines.
If you are an IBM owner and your eventual goal is to use the forthcoming extended edition of OS/2, it is actually $50 cheaper to bypass the first version of OS/2 and wait until next July when version 1.0 of the extended edition is released.
That is because it will cost $645 to upgrade the standard edition to the extended edition and $795 to buy the extended edition outright. So if you upgrade to the standard edition now for $200 and then spend $645 to go to extended edition later, you'll have spent $845. On the other hand, $50 is not much to pay for a seven-month head start on the new system.
Both editions of OS/2 actually will have two versions, version 1.0, which doesn't let you divide your screen into various size windows when using multiple programs, and version 1.1, which does allow windows. IBM calls the windowing feature its "Presentation Manager." It is the PC answer to the ease of learning and use of Apple's Macintosh. Buyers of version 1.0 of either edition will get version 1.1 of that edition for free when it is ready.
The announced shipping schedule is as follows:
Standard Edition OS/2, version 1.0, goes out Dec. 4. Extended Edition OS/2, version 1.0, with database and communications functions will come out in July, 1988. Standard Edition 1.1, with the Presentation Manager, will ship in October, 1988, and a month later, Extended Edition 1.1 adding the Presentation Manager and the ability to connect into local area networks will be released.