The Word On Warp: Whoops

I really wanted to like Warp, the latest version of IBM's OS/2 operating system. Advance publicity promised that it would offer many of the advantages of Windows 95 a half-year or so before the Microsoft product made it to market.

Alas, Warp is a major disappointment. Although it is easier to use and less crash-prone than today's Windows, Warp shows signs of having been rushed to market. The first copies sent to retailers were marred by a serious bug that would have aborted the installation process on most computers. Furthermore, Warp lacks the special software, called drivers, needed to use many popular accessories, such as some NEC CD-ROM drives. And there's no built-in networking software. The final insult: Warp's set-up procedure is difficult enough that I had to call technical support for each of the two installations I attempted.

BRASS TACKS. IBM plans to add networking by yearend. And given time, it can provide support for more hardware and fix the installation program. But buyers of Warp, available at software stores for $75 or less, face a much more serious long-term problem.

IBM argues, with some merit, that Warp is superior to the current Windows, and, more dubiously, that is technically better than Windows 95. But users don't care about the technical superiority of operating systems; they just want the software they need to get the job done. When Windows 95 debuts next spring, it will unleash a flood of improved word processors, spreadsheets, database managers, and other programs. None of them will run on Warp.

All versions of OS/2, including Warp, have been short on applications. IBM's OS/2 software catalog contains only three obscure word processors, one of them in Japanese. OS/2 has been able to survive because most of its 6 million or so users run software designed for MS-DOS or Windows. But OS/2's ability to run Windows programs depended on a licensing agreement between IBM and Microsoft. That agreement does not extend to Windows 95, so software for that system won't work on Warp.

Warp users can use older Windows applications, but they will miss out on many advanced features of both Windows 95 and OS/2. For example, IBM boasts that Warp allows file names of up to 254 characters. But if you're using Microsoft Word 6.0, you're stuck with eight-character names no matter what operating system you choose.

IBM has worked to persuade developers to write OS/2 programs, providing them with both financial incentives and tools to help them convert Windows software. But there have only been a trickle of OS/2 product announcements.

OUT IN THE COLD? Lotus Development, which has long been committed to the IBM operating system, is overhauling its SmartSuite for OS/2 in tandem with its development of a Windows 95 version. But the attitude of Novell's WordPerfect unit, which last year ended an unprofitable venture into the OS/2 market, is more typical. "Warp is a little too late," says Mark Calkins, general manager for business applications. "We're making a major commitment to Windows 95 and have no current plans to move to OS/2."

That's grim news for Warp. Without the promise of new and better programs, consumers have no reason to switch to the new operating system. And without a mass market, publishers have no interest in developing the programs. IBM's only alternative may be to figure out a way to make Warp run Windows 95 programs--a task everyone agrees would be long and difficult.

Consumers have reason to hope for IBM's success. Competition in the computer industry has spurred innovation, but for the time being, Microsoft has the operating- system field to itself. IBM hopes Warp will change that. Unfortunately, the odds look long indeed.

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