OS/2 turns 25

OS/2 turns 25

Summary: Before Windows 3.0, Microsoft worked with IBM on another, now largely forgotten, operating system: OS/2.

SHARE:

1996's best operating system: IBM s OS/2 Warp

1996's best operating system: IBM's OS/2 Warp.

Who, like me, once used OS/2? What, you don't know OS/2? On April 2, 1987, IBM and Microsoft announced a then revolutionary, 32-bit server and desktop operating system that was going to change the world: OS/2.  Well that's what they said anyway. In reality, Bill Gates quickly decided that he'd do better by going it on his own with some operating system called Windows. You may have heard of it.

Before Linux showed up in 1991, OS/2 was Windows' main rival. It was a fun and remarkably stable and secure operating system that was a real challenger to Windows.

In its early days, OS/2 was great. Back in 1993, for example, when I was a contributing editor at Computer Shopper, we decided that OS/2 2.1 was the best operating system around over such competition as UnixWare, Windows NT, Solaris, and NeXTStep. So what happened?

On Google Plus, Esther Schindler, aka the OS/2 Goddess,, thinks "of OS/2 less as an operating system than as 'A Technology in Three Acts.'"

"Act 1 was OS/2 1.0. It was a marriage of convenience between Microsoft and IBM, in which each party imagined they were getting something different than they got. For instance, IBM told Microsoft, "We know the corporate market. You know consumers. We'll sell the OS to our corporate clients, such as financial firms, and leave the consumer market and non-enterprise businesses to you." Which is exactly what IBM did - and why OS/2 did make serious inroads at banks and other big companies, particularly for custom applications. (Which left almost no room for desktop app sales.) Meanwhile Microsoft went into their business customers and said, "I'm here to sell you OS/2 1.0... But you should know that our next version of Windows is going to be really cool."

That went over well in IBM circles.

It also didn't help any that the first version of OS/2 to show up really wasn't ready for prime time. The first version was just another character-based interface operating system. Version 1.1, with a GUI, didn't show up until October 1988. OS/2 was also, in its day, a resource hog. It needed at least 4MBs of RAM in the days when most PCs didn't have a single MB.

Act 2, OS/2 2.0 to OS/2 Warp, according to Schindler, was the "Messy divorce." Microsoft released Windows 3.0 in 1990 and paid only lip-service to OS/2. Windows 3.0 didn't work very well, but it was pretty.

Schindler remembers, "David Barnes, who for a while was IBM's OS/2 spokesman (and is the best demo-er I have ever seen, second only to Steve Jobs), once explained the difference between IBM and Microsoft. IBM was a plumbing company, David said. They knew how to design pipes that didn't leak, and how to install complex plumbing so that it never needed attention. But good plumbing is invisible. When IBM made bathroom faucets, they were designed for functionality and durability; they were not pretty. On the other hand, Microsoft was really good at making things pretty and they could design user interfaces. Someone could come into a Microsoft-designed bathroom and say, "Wow, what pretty faucets!" and be encouraged to buy the entire Microsoft package. But Microsoft didn't know plumbing (OSs) so their faucets always leaked."

Some things haven't changed. Well, except, I think Microsoft started to lose the ability to make pretty sometime around Vista and lost it entirely with Metro.

Of course, at the same time, Microsoft had enough industry clout that they'd started forcing vendors into installing only Windows on their PCs. Eventually, the Department of Justice would put an end to Microsoft's monopoly, but by that time, OS/2 was history.

Mind you, IBM, as Schindler points out, wasn't doing OS/2 any favors. OS/2, through programs like Team OS/2, developed a strong, vocal community. Any Linux fan would recognize the OS/2 fans of twenty years ago as their brothers and sisters with their passionate support online and in conferences of their operating system. Alas the IBM of twenty years ago didn't have a clue of what to do with fans or even independent software vendors (ISV)s. This was the IBM of suits and ties, not the IBM of 2000 that would embrace Linux in all its fuzzy, tie-dyed goodness.

This change of heart came too late for OS/2 though. In the third act, Schindler writes, "OS/2 Warp 4 [which appeared in September 1996] came along; the company was no longer behind it. They had publicly said they were going to do such-and-so, but at the top levels their hearts weren't in it. And one by one they dismantled what they had spent at least a decade building. … Team OS/2 fell apart, too, because how could we believe in their product if they didn't? It was a personal insult as well, because we were more committed than they were."

Despite that though, OS/2 still lives on. While IBM no longer has anything directly to do with it, EcomStation is a fully compatible OS/2 clone operating system. OS/2 is also still used in the New York subway system and in some bank ATM systems. And, yes there are still OS/2 fans out there. Operating system may grow old, they may be abandoned, but they almost never truly die.

Related Stories:

UNIVAC: A look back into the birth of the computer industry

20 Years of Linux down, and the best is yet to come

Twenty Years of Linux according to Linus Torvalds

20 years of the Web

ZDNet at 9,600 bits per second (and we liked it)

Topics: IBM, Microsoft, Operating Systems, Software

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

54 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • You wish...

    quote "Before Linux showed up in 1991, OS/2 was Windows??? main rival."

    And with that comment, your credibility bottomed out again. Seems I remember
    it a bit different...there was this little company in Cupertino called Apple Computer.
    Even in its lowest of lows, MacOS held more market share than Linux does today.
    wizard57m-cnet
    • Hey foggy memory...

      Oh please. OS/2 sold many more copies than Apple back then. OS/2 WAS a legitimate challenger. Apple all but went bankrupt...before MS bailed them out. The story is accurate. Still have my Warp floppies...but no drive to read them :)
      timspublic1@...
  • I remember OS/2

    I even used OS/2 for a bit. Microsoft did not force OS/2 out of the market, IBM did that all by itself. OS/2 was significantly more expensive than Windows (and you thought Windows was overpriced?) and IBM's biggest selling point was that this was "a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows". Except it did not run Windows programs better than Windows. So everyone who bought OS/2 to run their Windows programs (since that was its biggest selling point) eventually went back to Windows which was the "best Windows for Windows" at a significantly lower price than OS/2.

    I know that you blame everything on Microsoft but the death of OS/2 was 100% IBM's fault.
    toddbottom3
    • OS/2 was a better 16 bit Windows than Windows...

      ...because it used preemptive, rather than cooperative multitasking (32 bit Windows was another matter) while running Win16 apps in their own virtual machine (this was well before virtualization was cool) and the Workplace Shell was a better GUI than either Progman or Explorer. I used OS/2 Warp 4 until right around 2002 and probably would have continued to do so if IBM had continued to support, improve, and promote it; instead, I switched to Linux (but I still have my old OS/2 box).

      But it appears that IBM was so afraid of MS that it couldn't even be persuaded to preload OS/2 on its own machines (my wife actually asked when we were in the market for a new PC in 1996), much less make much of an effort to sell copies at retail.
      John L. Ries
      • From what I remember at the time.

        Microsoft threatened that if IBM loaded any machines with OS/2 (of any flavor), they would find their Windows OEM license canceled. Since IBM knew it could not compete head to head, when Microsoft had the advantage they had. OS/2 was left to whither o the vine.
        Jumpin Jack Flash
      • JJF - it was worst than that

        MS withheld windows licenses from OEMs supporting alternate OSes. IBM received over USD775 billion as a payout to settle their grievances.

        IBM wasn't the only company to be affected. MS convinced third party developers (like Lotus) to put their development effort into OS/2, whilst moving windows / office developers between teams so a windows version of their own products was available long before the competition.

        Wonderful men were Bill Gates et al, his pre-charity history should be remembered. Satisfying watching their company's present predicament.
        Richard Flude
      • Multitasking

        Speaking of multitasking: one thing that was little known was that under Windows 3.1 DOS sessions were pre-emptively multitasked! All Windows GUI applications shared one 8086 VM but each DOS session had it's own VM running fully independently.

        I played with OS/2 2.1 then Warp for quite awhile back in '94 and '95. Thought it was very cool but just never could keep it completely stable on my machine. My fault: always fiddling with the configuration!

        I eventually settled on Win3.1 back then not because of the GUI but because of the instantaneous task-switch between the DOS sessions. Because of the pre-emptiveness of those sessions I could have a Procomm Plus download going on in the background while compiling in a foreground session. It was pretty sweet at the time. :-)
        Max Peck
    • funny

      I purchased OS/2 Warp for less than a full install of Windows. Where to you shop?

      It also ran all the Windows programs that existed when it was released. MS quickly "fixed" that by changing their OS.
      timspublic1@...
    • Lies

      toddbottom lies. I used OS/2 for years as a Windows development platform, with the Borland compiler (which at the time ruled that space). It absolutely was "a better Windows than Windows" for two reasons: IBM had the source code for Windows and compiled with (IIRC) the Symantec compiler -- not the Microsoft one -- which made the Windows code run faster under OS/2 than it did natively. Secondly, Windows crashed constantly back in those days (especially if you had an app under development) and life with Windows was one reboot after another. Unless you had OS/2, in which case you just closed the virtual machine containing the crashed Windows, and fired up another one... much faster than the Windows 3.1 boot process.

      However much fun OS/2 was to have around, I think that the bigger brains in IBM were already envisioning IBM's exit from the client side by the time Warp 4 came out. Truth be told, in the days of Windows 3.1 and 3.11, IBM could have squashed Microsoft like a bug, had they chosen to. Softies have an inflated view of how "mighty" Microsoft was in those days. Prior to Windows 95, it wouldn't have been that hard to knock Microsoft off the tracks with OS/2 Warp. It just would have taken more money than it was worth to an IBM that was already planning its move to The Cloud.
      Robert Hahn
      • I think you're forgetting a LOT of history here...

        "Softies have an inflated view of how "mighty" Microsoft was in those days."

        Doesn't seem like the "softies" are alone, since it seems most of the "anti-MS" crowd in this blog blame OS/2's failure on Microsoft's manipulation of the market, rather than IBM's incompetence.

        "However much fun OS/2 was to have around, I think that the bigger brains in IBM were already envisioning IBM's exit from the client side by the time Warp 4 came out. Truth be told, in the days of Windows 3.1 and 3.11, IBM could have squashed Microsoft like a bug, had they chosen to."

        Do you not remember the old "We've been waiting to upgrade to the new Operating system - Chicago..." commercials that were on the air for quite a while back then? IBM *DID* want to squash Microsoft like a bug - and they were pursuing a very aggressive strategy in trying to do so.

        IBM tried hard and failed, even though they had the better product at the time. They simply didn't have the backing of other major software developers. You can either say that it's because IBM was incompetent, or you can say it's because Microsoft was underhanded, but you can't say it's because IBM didn't try or didn't want to succeed - that's simply not true.
        daftkey
  • And one more thing

    "1996's best operating system: IBM's OS/2 Warp."

    Nope, that honor would go to Windows 95 for home users and Windows NT for business.
    toddbottom3
    • It's easy to blame failure of a person/product/company you're backing

      on "dirty underhanded tricks by a lesser competitor" as it lets you claim that "your hands are clean", you actually backed "a winner".

      Typical for this blogger.
      William Farrel
      • Agreed

        He would say that black was white if it made an anti Microsoft slant.
        Blogsworth
    • can't agree at all

      OS/2 was a much more stable and powerful OS. Win 95 was just purdy.
      timspublic1@...
    • OS/2 Warp

      was light years ahead of Windows in 1996. Even with the source code to OS/2 Warp Microsoft was not able to improve upon it. Windows 95 wasn't even on the same level as the original Mac OS (circa 1985) s it was still a file manager that ran on top on DOS. Did you even use Windows 95? You had to quit it before shutting down the computer
      Jumpin Jack Flash
      • Did you run Mac or OS/2 systems back then...?

        "Did you even use Windows 95? You had to quit it before shutting down the computer "

        And how is this different from the Mac OS or OS/2 in the same era, exactly?
        daftkey
  • So when did ZDNet get a fiction section?

    as not much to date from this blogger has been any other than fiction, IMHO.
    William Farrel
    • About the same time

      As when you started responding to yourself. Where's your other alias" Stephen B"?
      Jumpin Jack Flash
      • I would rather have

        I would rather view a 100 of Will Farrel's than wade though one of yours.
        Blogsworth
    • Believe it or not

      Jumpin Jack Flash, Stephen B was actually "Rick_K", from what others had pointed out.

      But you knew that, as you seem to have appeared at the same time Stephen B was booted from the boards, Rick
      William Farrel