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Which Operating System
Should You Purchase
Is OS/2 Better Than Unix?

by Lloyd Borrett
Technical Cornucopia, December 1990

In the last edition of "Technical Cornucopia" we looked at the differences between OS/2 Presentation Manager and DOS Windows operating environments. Now it's time to consider how the OS/2 operating system stacks up against the oldest of the three contenders, Unix.

Is OS/2 Better Than Unix?

The consensus today seems to be that the DOS communicating workstation marketplace will fade significantly within three to four years. In 1993, networked desktop workstations will either run Unix or OS/2. However, the dominant operating system will be OS/2.

Why? Both OS/2 and Unix are multi-tasking. Both can access large amounts of memory and are available with graphical user interfaces. Both can be used on almost any kind of local or wide area network. Both operating systems are available with lists of application program interfaces ad nauseam. Both run on hardware supplied by many manufacturers.

To assert that OS/2 is likely to dominate seems to ignore the strong advantages that Unix has going into the fight. Unix is well into its second decade, whereas OS/2 is only celebrating its third birthday. That should give Unix a significant lead in the numbers of applications available.

The Baggage Unix Carries

Ever since Unix was created by scientists at Bell Laboratory back in the early 70s, it has been an operating system that has reflected the ideas and needs of its creators. While MS-DOS is regarded by many as a user-unfriendly operating system, it is sweetness and light when compared to Unix.

The user interface of most Unix applications reflects the limitations of the character based terminals the operating system was designed to use. Unix also reflects the mind set of the early users of Unix in the laboratories and universities it was designed for. In these implementations there was no defined user interface. Users were encouraged to modify existing tools and to develop their own tools so as to create their own environments and interfaces. These were typically cryptic and impossible to use in an office environment. Unfortunately, too much of this inheritance is still evident in today's implementations of Unix.

The result is that Unix based applications rarely come close to supporting the bells and whistles of MS-DOS applications, let alone the sexy and SAA compliant graphical user interface of OS/2 Presentation Manager based programs.

The Unix operating system is available on a large number of hardware platforms. Yet each of these implementations of Unix is subtly different from the others, which often produces incompatible systems. This is ironic given that the original goal was to eliminate just such problems!

The myth of Unix is that all forms of Unix are compatible, but in practise Unix should be seen as the "Heinz 57 Varieties" operating system. Programs written to run on one variety of Unix most likely will not run on the other varieties.

Unix Standards: Take Your Pick

For many years a succession of standards groups have been trying to clean up Unix and define a widely acceptable set of standards for all implementations of Unix. Unfortunately, little real progress has been made, and even more confusion has been created in the marketplace.

An example of this confusion is the evolving standards for a common graphical user interface for Unix. The three leading contenders are Sun's Open Look, OSF/Motif and MIT's XWindows, but there are many other players. It is hoped that in time the number of competing Unix standards will be reduced, but only a dreamer would expect the result to be one all conquering Unix with the same graphical user interface.

Meanwhile, most vendors of Unix and Unix based applications are forced to support whatever is necessary to make sales into each market they target. This adds greatly to the implementation and maintenance costs of these solutions.

Many of Unix's advantages are, in fact, its Achilles' heels. It's true that Unix is older, but the larger installed base of applications belongs to OS/2.

While Unix applications can be made compatible from one hardware platform to another, it is at the source code level, not the object code level. An off-the-shelf software package for a Compaq SystemPro running SCO Unix will not necessarily run on a Sun Microsystem running SunOS4. In fact, it probably will not. There are moves to introduce binary code portability to Unix applications, but once again it is likely to be quite some time before the standards are agreed upon and implemented.

OS/2 Advantages

One of OS/2's advantages is that it evolved from DOS. It is easier to migrate a DOS application to the protected mode of OS/2 than to migrate it to Unix. Also, most DOS applications can be used on an OS/2 system already, and this feature is to be significantly improved in OS/2 V2.0.

The planned future for OS/2, already in development, is support for a wider range of computers, including RISC based systems, and binary code portability between these systems. Only a fool would believe that suddenly, after twenty odd years, the Unix world is going to settle on a complete set of standards and implement them before IBM and Microsoft ship OS/2 V3.0.


One has to think that OS/2, not Unix, is the favourite to become the dominant operating system of the networked personal workstation. IBM and Microsoft will work together and introduce the already planned and defined enhancements to OS/2 while the supporters of Unix are still arguing for a common set of standards for what already exists, let alone what Unix could become.

Last modified: Saturday, 15 October 2011


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