OS News

3 Dec 1997

The OS That Would Not Die

By Chris Wenham

It was
to be the
for MS-DOS, which at the time was only barely able to support large hard drives.
It's got all the plumbing of a fully decked-out, modern 32-bit OS packed into its guts.  
Contrary to popular opinion the OS/2 software market is alive and well  

This year marks the tenth anniversary of the death of OS/2, an operating system which for some damn reason will not quit and lay down in the coffin like it's supposed to. This has been much to the chagrin of trade journalists nationwide who routinely predict its death each year, without fail, most recently by hissing it through clenched teeth.

When it began a decade ago it was the child produced by a marriage between IBM and Microsoft. It was supposed to be the replacement for MS-DOS, which at the time was only barely able to support large hard drives. But neither company shared quite the same vision for OS/2 and as a result Microsoft abandoned the product in favor of Windows shortly after the first couple of versions were released. IBM was left to take care of its remains, something it's still doing today, once making a stab for the home/SOHO user in 1994 with the roll-out of OS/2 Warp 3.

Microsoft never completely threw away their vision for OS/2 or their half of the code either. In 1993, what was to be "Microsoft OS/2 3.0" (not to be confused with Warp 3) came back to haunt us, this time under the name Windows NT 3.1. Even today, the two operating systems share a little common heritage. The Microsoft-designed High Performance File System (HPFS) is still the primary filesystem for OS/2. And NT, still able to run 16-bit OS/2 applications (the very few which exist), has been known to generate an out-of-place looking OS/2 error once in a while too.

Today, OS/2's position (officially) is as a server, universal client and Java platform. It's employed extensively in the world's banks, where up to 42% of large financial institutions in the US alone have considerable investments, with more coming on board as quickly as IBM can issue the press releases. It also boasts the fastest Java virtual machine this side of the x86, with the latest 1.1.4 release of the JVM benchmarking 7% faster than Microsoft's Internet Explorer 4.0. Yet in the hearts of the large gathering of home and SOHO users scooped up in the heady days of OS/2 2.1 and Warp 3, it's none of these things. OS/2 feels just plain more elegant and better built. It's flexible and it's powerful, and if you can live with the fact that it isn't "Headline Compliant" it's a great alternative to Windows.

Upon examination of OS/2's features you'll see that not many of them are that unique. Pre-emptive multitasking and resource-forked filesystems can be found on other platforms too. But there's nothing serious missing from its profile either. It's got all the plumbing of a fully decked-out, modern 32-bit OS packed into its guts. 10 years of constant development from some of IBM's top engineers have also put considerable stamina into OS/2. It's to the point where the average Warp box is so stable you could "chuck it down the stairs," so to speak.

Its flexibility, though, is perhaps its most popular asset. For example, the built in scripting language, Rexx, has allowed the developers of anything from a rinky-dink 100K text editor to a full-blown database to add a rich, versatile and extendible macro/scripting language to their applications with just a few lines of code. A user can then learn just one scripting language and instantly have control over all Rexx-enabled applications, no matter what vendor they may be from.

And the Workplace Shell, OS/2's GUI and the most visible part of the OS, is deliciously configurable too. Built on IBM's SOM (System Object Model) technology, it's possible for utilities to enhance the desktop by inheriting the behaviors of existing objects and building on them - resulting in a very consistent user interface overall. Entire ".EXE-less" applications have been developed this way, as well as others that stitch themselves so well into the desktop that it's hard to tell where the shell ends and the application begins.

It's no surprise then that OS/2 has gained a large and highly energized following of users. For some wacky reason people just keep falling in love with it. My own experience has shown that many switched after suffering innumerable problems with Windows; OS/2 was like a good dose of Pepto Bismol that made all (or most) of their problems go away by actually running Windows applications better than Windows itself!

This isn't to say these are the only applications OS/2 runs, of course. Contrary to popular opinion the OS/2 software market is alive and well, with several companies such as Stardock, TrueSpectra, Sundial and StarDivision producing a regular stream of top-notch, native OS/2 stuff.

Indeed, OS/2 users are more than willing to show up in force to display their support whenever needed. When the organizers of the recent OS/2 user-conference called WarpStock in Diamond-Bar, CA. last october planned for a turnout of maybe only 200 people, they got 400 instead. Which is not bad for an event that didn't get much publicity outside of word-of-mouth. It's even more interesting to note that the entire conference was a grassroots, user-sponsored occasion with very little corporate backing (IBM sent a few reps. but this was by no means an IBM show). Vendors left the event feeling "energized" and their faith renewed in the OS/2 market. There was electricity in the air.

Where OS/2's official direction is for the future, only IBM knows. Workspace on Demand, OS/2's answer to Microsoft's Hydra (or is that the other way around?), has the potential to revolutionize the way desktops are managed in the corporate environment. But for the users, things are traveling along a different road. They've adopted OS/2 as their own and are taking it where IBM was afraid to go.

I like to think we've been having a lot of fun on the way too.

Chris Wenham is a freelance writer and Assistant Editor for the OS/2 e-Zine. He has been using OS/2 almost exclusively for the past 3 years.

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