posted by Howard Fosdick on Tue 12th Feb 2013 13:51 UTC
IconRemember OS/2? Promoted as the successor to DOS in the late 1980's and early 1990's, the product wound up losing out to Windows and then slowly fading away. This article recounts what happened and summarizes OS/2 today.


In the mid-1980's, IBM and its partner Microsoft faced a challenge. While basking in the industry dominance of DOS, they knew they needed a more modern, robust operating system going forward. They wanted a system with a graphical user interface, preemptive multitasking, standardized API's, networking support, and a more robust filesystem to support larger disks. They also wanted to eliminate direct hardware calls to the BIOS by applications. The OS would control interfaces to all program services.

IBM and Microsoft signed a joint development agreement in 1985 to co-develop this DOS successor. Operating System/2 came out two years later. But all was not happy in OS/2 land. The team initially targeted the 286 processor for compatibility, but this was a mistake with the 386 coming out in 1985. This meant that OS/2 ran in 16-bit protected mode when it ideally should have used the 386's flat memory model and other advanced 386 features. The GUI, called the Presentation Manager, wasn't released until over a year after the base product. Drivers were few. You couldn't even find many printer drivers. Performance was abysmal.

Meanwhile, Windows, Microsoft's simple add-on graphical face to DOS, sold millions of copies. Windows 3.0 and 3.1 were easy to use and 100% compatible with the huge base of DOS software. Microsoft shifted its focus to Windows. By 1990 it abandoned OS/2 to IBM, throwing Windows 3.x and OS/2 into direct competition.

IBM fought back with a major OS/2 release in 1992. Version 2.0 featured a fully object-oriented interface called the Workplace Shell. It also had a 32 bit API (with some 16-bit internals). IBM marketed the new OS/2 as "A better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows," but most users didn't see why they should buy it. Windows came bundled with new PCs. OS/2 required an additional purchase. Consumers stuck with Windows.

In 1994, IBM released OS/2 3.0, called Warp. Warp had better networking, hardware, and multimedia support. It came with the IBM Works office suite. In 1996 IBM released Warp 4, with speech recognition, Java, and a personal version of Lotus Notes.
 
Computer professionals considered OS/2 Warp technically superior to Windows 3.1 -- and even to Windows 95. IBM sold millions of OS/2 licenses into large IT organizations, especially in the banking, finance, and insurance industries. Many companies used it as a base for dedicated applications. But the product never even got a toehold with the public. With new PCs bundling Windows, consumers saw no need to buy OS/2.

Warp4
Get Warped, Baby   (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

IBM Drops OS/2

With Windows 95's success, IBM knew they had lost the battle for the consumer desktop. The company laid off 95% of the OS/2 project team and announced that Warp 4 would be the final major release. Yet IBM didn't stop selling and supporting OS/2 until a decade later, in 2006. (Support continues even today for certain IT contracts.)

ATM Running Warp
ATM Running Warp  (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Corporations with large OS/2 projects, including embedded and dedicated apps, continued using OS/2 for years after IBM "stabilized" (froze) the product at Warp 4. But with desupport in 2006, users understood they needed to act.

Some asked IBM to continue OS/2 development and support. But IBM had already made the decision to write off OS/2 a decade earlier. Tens of thousands signed petitions for IBM to open source the product. IBM was unable to do so due to OS/2 code developed, owned or patented by other companies (such as Microsoft). IBM did open source OS/2's scripting language, Object Rexx. Today it's known as Open Object Rexx and is supported by the Rexx Lanuage Association. ooRexx today runs on Windows, Linux, and Unix and is a useful and competitive scripting lanuage.
 
Some users decided that if IBM could not open source OS/2, they would develop the equivalent themselves. The osFree project aimed to create an open source OS compatible with Warp 4. The project appears to have stalled out in the alpha phase.

A commercial company called Serenity Systems International stepped forward to sell a licensed and updated version of OS/2 called eComStation ("eCS"). It's been successful for them: they released their first version in 2001, and their most recent version 2.1 in May 2011. eCS offers a good stable of free applications.

eComStation
eComStation Screenshot   (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Some companies preserve their OS/2 code investment by virtualization. Virtual PC, VirtualBox, and similar products can host OS/2 or eCS as guests. (There are some complexities in virtualizing some OS/2 versions so users need to do their homework before jumping in.)

The Future

So what does the future hold? The OS/2 -- eCS community remains active. Visit it at web sites like OS/2 World, OS/2 Org, and OS2 Voice. OS/2 users have tons of free code to download from websites like the Hobbes Project and others. The annual Warpstock conference still meets as do other Warp events.

The OS/2 community supports products like those offered by Serenity Systems. Whether it can also produce an open source OS/2 like osFree is an open question but one that appears increasingly unlikely.

While OS/2 and eCS comprise a healthy niche, it's unlikely that they will expand beyond their current user base. The technology that made OS/2 cutting-edge in the mid-1990's is today mainstream. There are many popular free competitors to niche commercial systems like OS/2 -- including many Linux and BSD distributions. As the world moves to 64-bit computing and newer hardware, companies using OS/2 will likely move to newer platforms as their applications age.

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Howard Fosdick (President, FCI) is an independent consultant who supports databases and operating systems. He consults for vendors as an industry analyst. Read his other articles here.
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