The WorkPlace Shell, A Powerful Jewel of OS/2 and eComStation. Part 1: Some Background

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By Jeramie Samphere

Republish Provided by the OS2eCS Organization.

What is the Work Place Shell? The Workplace Shell is perhaps one of the most important reasons why thousands still enthusiastically use OS/2 and eComStation around the world today! It truly is unique and one of a kind, unmatched still today!

First we'll explore the beginnings of the Workplace Shell (we'll call it affectionately "WPS"). Then we'll explore the marvels of this still state-of-the-art GUI.

Prior to OS/2 v2.0, OS/2 used what was called the Program Manager, File Manager, and Print Manager. These ran on top of Presentation Manager (or "PM" for short). Program Manager, File Manager, and Printer Manager were the GUI offering of Microsoft in the joint venture with IBM to create OS/2. After a split between IBM and Microsoft, each went their own way. IBM went on to develop a 32-bit OS/2, and rewrote the majority of the ill-coded portions of the Microsoft code. Microsoft failed to follow design specifications accurately, so this necessitated a rewrite of many parts of the operating system. During this time, IBM decided to replace the Program Manager, File Manager, and Print Manager relics with a state-of-the-art GUI called the Workplace Shell.

IBM's OS/2 v2.0 ushered in a 32-bit system. V2 included Demand Paging, a portable 32-bit API, Multiple DOS sessions, Windows 3.x compatibility and most importantly the Workplace Shell. The Workplace Shell provided users with a first-of-a-kind, full-object-oriented environment, that seamlessly integrated programs and data. This provided a powerful and intuitive system that made computing easy and fun!

There is a story once told of a man at Black and Decker who remarked, "It is about holes and not about drills". What did he mean? Basically he meant that if you want to know how to make a good drill, first find out what kind of holes people need to make. So this is the approach IBM took with the development of the Workplace Shell, they discovered the many holes and problems users were having with the existing Program Manager, File Manager, and Print Manager GUI.

So what was so bad about Program Manager, File Manager, and Print Manager?

Ask yourself these questions while looking at the screen below:

  1. Which windows can you drag-n-drop too?
  2. Which icons have properties that you can change?
  3. Which window backgrounds can you change the colour or set the background image? And how do you do that?
  4. How do you start a program? Which icons do you click? How do you know or view running programs?
  5. How do you create a single window to put commonly used icons like a printer, programs and associated files?

These were just some of the many issues. One of the basic problems was that you could not perform the same actions on similar looking icons.

With the development of the Workplace Shell, IBM setup a group of User Interface specialists along with their CUA group. The solution was to turn existing models of GUI design upside down, inside-out and sideways! What did they do? Well like in the real world, they created everything using an object metaphor, that is, every icon represented an object. An object that you performed similar actions upon, just like every other object. The windows on your screen represent virtual areas to organize all similarly grouped objects. You can organize your objects however you see fit! You are not forced to use the system one way, in fact, the user is provided many ways to do the same thing! Talk about refreshing!

Personal computers, once thought to be difficult machines to master, with the Workplace Shell technology, became a tool that was just as easy to use as a real world object, like a drill! The environment is task oriented, meaning you work with objects that represent projects, groups of projects, or individual documents. So now you can focus on the task you want to accomplish, not how to find the right program to use for a specific type of file. No more dredging through long file directories or entering cryptic command line entries. You still have a powerful command shell though! The Workplace Shell did not replace the command line, only duplicated it!

With OS/2, you can perform the same actions with the WPS as on a command line - you choose what's comfortable, you're not forced into a mould! With a real life approach to user interfaces, it's no wonder Microsoft later tried to copy the WPS with their release of Windows 95. However, if you will take notice, it's just a pretty veneer on an old face, and doesn't contain true object-oriented technology like the WPS.

So now with a bit of history behind us, we'll explore this amazing technology in this series of articles!