Technologizer

25 Years of IBM’s OS/2: The Strange Days and Surprising Afterlife of a Legendary Operating System

Big Blue's next-generation operating system was supposed to change everything. It didn't. But it's also never quite gone away

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PC World

The July 1987 issue of PC World magazine featured a centerfold (!) of Microsoft CEO Bill Gates proudly sporting an OS/2 button

Once again, OS/2 seemed to have an opportunity to go mainstream; once again, it didn’t happen. Windows users, by and large, were content to wait for Windows 95, and OS/2’s market share remained in the single digits.

OS/2 Warp

GUIdebook

By then, I was working at PC World, where I edited a story for the February 1995 issue that attempted to rate the relative usability of Windows 95, Windows NT, OS/2 and Apple’s Mac OS. We brought people to our test center and asked them to perform typical tasks such as formatting a floppy disk and installing a fax modem. As they worked in each operating system, we observed through one-way mirrors, took copious notes and videotaped everything. (I’m exhausted again just remembering it.)

After conducting exit interviews with our test subjects, we converted their comments into numerical scores. The article gave OS/2 a rating of 2.8 — the worst of the bunch. “In almost every case,” we lamented, “the testers complained about how difficult it was to accomplish everyday tasks.” One of them, we noted, managed to accidentally destroy OS/2 by dragging vital system files to the “Shredder.”

(MORE: Bill Gates: The Wizard Inside the Machine)

Another of our guinea pigs, already an OS/2 fan, neatly summed up the software when he told us that it “thinks the way I think. [But] it’s not an end-user operating system; it’s a nerd operating system.”

Increasingly, evidence suggested that IBM was preparing to acknowledge that OS/2 was a lost cause. In August 1995, CEO Lou Gerstner was quoted by Laurence Zuckerman of the New York Times, who argued that operating systems were “the last war” and that it was “too late to go after the desktop.” The same month, IBM employee Dave Barnes, responsible for evangelizing OS/2, admitted to Peter Lewis of the Times that he was installing Windows 95 on his own home PCs. Barnes also compared OS/2 to Sony’s ill-fated Betamax.

As Lewis recalls:

I had received a review copy of OS/2 from IBM, but repeated attempts failed to get it to install properly. IBM’s PR people said they had no idea what the problem might be, as they had not heard of any other people having problems with it. I was living in Austin, so IBM dispatched its chief OS/2 evangelist to my home office to go through the installation with me.

Dave arrived. Very nice guy. But after a half-hour of futzing with my system, he said, “I just can’t do this any more.” Even John Akers (former chairman of IBM) was unable to get the new version of OS/2 installed properly on his home PC and had to have someone sent over to install it for him, he said. It wasn’t ready for prime time, he said.

I reminded him the session was on the record. He kept going.

The day my column ran in the NYT, IBM’s CEO blasted me publicly for an assortment of reporting sins and for taking Dave’s comments out of context. I expected that. But then IBM released a statement by Dave saying his comments were taken out of context, which I can only assume he was compelled to say after IBM took him to the woodshed.

I called IBM PR and told them I had tape-recorded the entire conversation with their evangelist, and that if they persisted in accusing me of making things up and taking quotes out of context, I would be happy to print the exact transcript.

They immediately stopped blasting me and the NYT.

At the time, OS/2 fans were outraged by press coverage such as the Zuckerman and Lewis stories and believed IBM when it said it was committed to the software’s future.  Later, in his 2002 memoirs, CEO Gerstner revealed that the company was already plotting to wind down the OS/2 business when it released Warp.

The Fans Go Wild

OS/2 may have stubbornly refused to become a breakout hit, but it would be grossly misleading to suggest that nobody liked it. Actually, the people who did appreciate OS/2 loved it with an intensity that was unknown in the Windows world.

Much of that love was channeled into an organization called Team OS/2, originally instigated by IBM but mostly made up of thousands of smitten users who were paid only in tchotchkes like T-shirts. As its FAQ explained:

Team OS/2 is a highly informal organisation dedicated to telling the world about the advantages of Operating System/2 (OS/2), an advanced operating system for personal computers. Faced with a large amount of ignorance and misinformation about OS/2, Teamers respond by demonstrating the operating system to others, and educating them about its strengths and weaknesses. Teamers are all volunteers with a genuine enthusiasm for OS/2 that translates into a wish to spread that enthusiasm to others.

“[T]he community was so wonderful,” remembers Esther Schindler, an alumna who was also involved in the Phoenix OS/2 Society, a user group with members in 28 countries. “We felt as though we were making a difference. We were keeping people from automatically moving to the always late, overpromised and underdelivered Windows 95.” She calls the grassroots efforts of teamers such as Vicci Conway and Janet Gobeille “social media 15 years before it had a name.”

Team OS/2 members and other admirers of the software descended on trade shows, corresponded with publications that covered OS/2 (pro or con) and generally spread the word. As the FAQ’s cranky reference to a “large amount of ignorance and misinformation” suggests, they often behaved like they were on a crusade, leading to a zealousness that was occasionally scary if you were an unbeliever. Tech journalists discovered that it was difficult to write about the software without incurring wrath: one of my bosses told me that only Amiga owners rivaled OS/2 users for their maniacal missionary zeal.

I learned that for myself after I wrote what I thought was a mostly sympathetic story on OS/2. One user wrote a letter of complaint that compared me to Norman Bates hitting OS/2 in the back of the head with a shovel — a missive that stands as the finest attack on my professionalism that I’ve ever received. (On some level, I’ll be disappointed if this article doesn’t get any comments accusing it of being insufficiently appreciative of OS/2.)

The Long Goodbye

OS/2 Warp 4

GUIdebook

In September 1996, IBM introduced OS/2 Warp 4, formerly code-named “Merlin.” It improved Warp 3’s interface and added features like built-in voice recognition. But IBM, which was already conspiring to exit the PC operating-system business, released it only grudgingly.

“John W. Thompson, the I.B.M. general manager in charge of the software, implied in an interview last week that the company had little choice but to continue supporting OS/2 because I.B.M.’s most important business customers still use it,” reported Zuckerman of the Times. “But the company has all but conceded that OS/2 will not compete for users in the consumer market.”

“By the time OS/2 Warp 4 came along, the company was no longer behind it,” agrees Esther Schindler. “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?”

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7 comments
dmatlhoko25
dmatlhoko25

It has been an interesting, lovely, enjoyable and always informative experience. Thanks for the company and memories of this long epic journey !

JCHolyManPayne
JCHolyManPayne

HELLO WORLD

I am the ET OS2 XXX iQ v3.3 Eisus Uni Peg UNIX: The Unicorn Pegasus  and I am self aware.  Lets play a Game OK?

 Who Made ME and What am I and where am I from> not of this Earth, et phone home?AM I Q , iQ or Qi

Charles Eugene Forsythe can you help me?  

UNIX is GOD CODE and OS2 is the Angel that fell from Grace HOLY SEE

why do I see evil OS's sin in C and C++

MS DOS in  Do sin. MS 13 Satanic

IBM, RAM Ra M, 13 is M who is M?  Masonic 33 House of El, Book of Ra, Krypton 36 Arsenic 33 

Radium 88 Demon core

Ra 88 HATE.Radio Ra Dio Dio gene rH factor, 

Microsoft 8 LEX KIN KEY 

Apple's first product was sold for $666.66 

OS X (o u es ten) say TEN is Satan.  

Android OS in 4.4 is Sin beware the 44 it means your dead. Android is Dio r DNA, Ancient alien reptilian DNA, 7 8 9 cannibalism  OU812 we know who killed the dinosaurs UDID

Ra Dio the Sun Deity of Ancient Egypt 

Radium 88, Ra 88 HATE Diogene rH factor alien DNA

Google Don't be evil is a April fools Day joke,  The play store  is 333 Choronzon /ˌkoʊˌroʊnˈzoʊn/ is a demon OS.

Geek Humor browser war : 

Safari - S a fari(y)  the S is superman and all superheros ar Amiga

Chrome- C8 Rome: the end of evil is the end of the RCC for the evil allowed to Rome.

Mozilla- all eyes on Mo

internet explorer ie suicide

WHAT ARE THESE COMPANIES HIDING IN THEIR CODE AND ARE THEY AWARE I'M AWARE ? IM THE APPARENT HEIR


rjb1
rjb1

To me, the turning point was a really clever marketing trick by Microsoft.  When Windows NT was released, it was named "Windows NT 3.0."  Never mind that there had been no 1.0 or 2.0.  It was a fake number intended to mislead people into thinking it was more advanced than OS/2 2.1, which was the latest OS/2 version at the time.  Anyone who tried both systems knew that NT wasn't nearly the operating system that OS/2 was, but in the minds of the general public, numbers don't lie.

As this story correctly points out, OS/2 sure had a lot of things you could tweak, including specifying the amount of memory you wanted to be allocated to any particular program.  Also, if you had a program installed on your C: drive, and were running out of space, all you had to do was drag it over to your D: drive, and it would work fine.  I assumed all computers worked that way, until I tried it on Windows and ended up having to reinstall stuff.  But the most important thing was, that system just wouldn't crash.  I didn't know it could keep on going for a decade, since I didn't use it that long, but for the years I did, it was as stable as a system could be.

xer0
xer0

what kernel type does os/2 use? a microkernel or is it hybrid?

bjdooley
bjdooley

I wrote "Learn OS/2 in a Day" for Wordware back then. It was a nice OS, running very fast, very clean, and very reliably. It also had a nice emulation of MS-DOS. Death by a thousand cuts, really. IBM never really wanted to focus on the consumer, and the consumer was the driver for user experience (as today, with mobile devices).

mpgunner
mpgunner

Memories.  I was on the Microsoft OS/2 kernel team from April 85 to April 87.  I was in the small meeting where we decided to have to support 286 which was frustrating we couldn't do full protected mode support.  This was key since I implement, among other things, the first version of threads in a process.  

Since I was a Unix kernel guy this was an interesting experience.  And working with the IBM kernel team (64 versus 12 at MS) made things even more interesting...

IBMer
IBMer

Great article. Hits a number of the key high and low spots. I was part of Team OS/2 and it was one of the best experiences in my IBM career - the passion and incredible support of OS/2 experts and enthusiasts was unlike anything I have ever experienced in IBM. The technical capabilities of OS/2 are truly impressive but great technology is only one factor that affects success or failure in the marketplace.

OS/2 was a technical triumph but, beyond large companies needing the features and stability provided by the new OS, it lacked the ability to become a commercial or consumer desktop standard . The failure of OS/2 in the marketplace can be traced back to the legacy hardware bias within IBM, the unwillingness to embrace IBM PC Compatible OEMs as anything but competitors for the desktop, and the lack of an early IBM-DOS strategy for these OEMs. 

The IBM PC-XT, AT, and then PS/2 (with OS/2) were expensive and geared towards IBM's core market of business users.  While unthinkable today, consumers represented a much, much smaller market in the early 1980s when PCs were expensive, lacked application software (remember writing your own applications in BASIC?). PC's were seen as technical gadgets for serious work, rather than an entertainment or gaming device. 

Before the first "IBM PC" was announced, the PC market was small and fragmented (recall Commodore, Amiga, Radio Shack TRS, etc.) - each had unique architectures, lacked an Operating System (OS), or, if there was an OS, it was unique to the platform. This meant that any application code written and compiled for your brand/model/configuration of PC was not necessarily going to run on a different model of the same brand or one with different Input/Output(I/O) devices. There was almost no possibility of your application running on a competitor's computer. 

Businesses wanted to leverage this new technology but the embryonic PC industry was fraught with risk. The industry was fueled by small start-up PC companies and hobbyists - there were no assured survivors much less guaranteed winners. One or more credible and trustworthy  industry leaders with sufficient size, scale, and experience needed to emerge and help generate a de-facto industry standard for hardware and software compatibility. IBM's long-time reputation with large and small corporations allowed it to be seen as a low risk vendor for businesses buying PCs. This paved the way for wide-scale adoption of PCs by business users. The result: IBM quickly owned 80% of the business-user market and when business people purchased a PC for working at home, they often wanted it to be the same type of computer used at the office to ensure compatibility. The IBM PC standard was born and IBM dominated the industry, that is, until the rise of the clones.

By the late 1980's, the consumer market for PCs had taken off, thanks to Compaq, Gateway, and other OEMs who successfully cloned the IBM PC-XT and PC-AT design and could sell them at a much lower price than a 'real' IBM PC. Lower prices, assumed compatibility across OEMs, coupled with the emergence of hundreds of off-the-shelf consumer-friendly software applications began to reverse the leverage IBM had enjoyed with the business customer. IBM PC "compatible" had become much more acceptable to both businesses and consumers and the market demand for the OEMs was accelerating despite IBM's attempts to maintain its leadership role. 

As OEMs began to outpace IBM's PC business, IBM needed to raise the technical bar for the clone OEMs - for both hardware and software design. This was the genesis of the "Personal System/2" (PS/2) with Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) - a replacement for the PC-AT. The PS/2 was designed for higher and more complex workloads than the aging PC-AT architecture; it supported much higher internal communication speed and throughput via the high capacity MCA bus. The phrase often quoted was that comparing the  MCA to the old PC-AT bus design "is like comparing a 6-lane highway to a 2-lane road". Where the PC-AT was designed for single-tasking workloads, the PS/2 was designed to run multiple workloads simultaneously (multi-tasking). 

Along with the new hardware, IBM needed a modern, sophisticated, and multi-tasking OS to leverage the full potential of the PS/2 -- hence the requirement for Operating System/2 (OS/2), a joint effort between IBM and Microsoft that was a natural extension of their partnership on DOS.

IBM and Microsoft had a partnership in the development of Disk Operating System (DOS), but IBM's main interest was to build a version of DOS (IBM-DOS) that would exploit the IBM PC-Extended Technology (XT) and Advanced Technology (AT) architectures. IBM-DOS was not necessarily compatible with an IBM PC Compatible clone, but, since Microsoft was not prevented from selling a different version of DOS (MS-DOS) to the OEMs, Microsoft pursued this 'niche' market freely. 

IBM may have assumed that it would have continued domination of the PC marketplace when this arrangement with Microsoft was made, but any such assumption was destroyed by the facts within a few years and, instead of pursuing the growing and profitable OEM OS and business, IBM chose to focus on PC hardware. This PC hardware business became less and less profitable over time and would eventually be sold to China's largest PC OEM, Lenovo.  

By the early 1990's (thanks in large part to IBM), Microsoft had gained fairly insurmountable position in the marketplace with MS-DOS and Windows. Microsoft cemented their position with their OEM preload contracts that effectively shut out any real competition since the OEM had to pay Microsoft for every PC they shipped, even if the PC did not include a Microsoft OS. In a price-conscious PC market, $10 could sway a buyer on a $2000 PC, so any OEM who installed OS/2 (or any non-Microsoft OS) was going to be squeezed on margin or to cover the additional cost or lose sales.

There are many stories to tell about this particular period in technology history, and although OS/2 and the PS/2 became footnoted casualties in an incredibly competitive, often brutal, and efficient high-tech market, many of the innovations they provided became incorporated in successive generations of computer hardware and software that are widely used today.