posted by Michael Reed on Thu 7th Feb 2008 17:21 UTC
IconLast month, IBM made an announcement that put an end to any hope of an open source OS/2. Responding to requests from an online community that had previously collected 11,600 signatures in support of its cause, the company confirmed that they would not be releasing the source code of their OS/2 operating system. I used OS/2 as my main operating system for about four years, and unlike some former users, my reaction to the news sits somewhere between disinterest and relief.

What was OS/2?

OS/2 was a joint project between Microsoft and IBM to create a business class operating system. Their plan was that Microsoft Windows would be the consumer and small business operating system and OS/2 the system of choice for power users.

When Windows version 3 became a huge success, Microsoft decided to ditch Microsoft-IBM OS/2 and instead create a high-end version of Windows called Windows NT. In addition to NT, they would continue a low end version of Windows in parallel to NT. From that point onwards, IBM continued the development of OS/2.

Thanks to Microsoft's genuine acumen combined with their signature ruthless business approach, Windows was soon installed as the default operating system on the majority of brand new PCs.

However, OS/2 lead the way in terms of technology. In 1992 IBM released version 2.0 of OS/2, now a full 32 bit multitasking operating system with many innovative GUI features. Windows NT arrived a year later, and when it did arrive, it was arguably inferior to OS/2.

Each new release of OS/2 brought with it new leaps in technological sophistication, but by the late 90s IBM had decided that competing in the same market space as Microsoft Windows wasn't worth bothering with and all but gave up on OS/2. As pulling the plug on OS/2 in a single move would have hurt the businesses who had invested in IBM operating system technology, IBM merely maintained OS/2 from that point onwards. For this reason, although the 1996 release of OS/2 version 4 had introduced new features such as speech recognition, native Java support and a port to the PowerPC architecture, subsequent releases were lacklustre, consisting of tweaks to the kernel and driver updates.

OS/2 still has a small but loyal enthusiast community surrounding it, and some members of that community have lobbied IBM to release the source code to OS/2. IBM have a reputation for playing nice with the open source community, and it would be difficult to attribute their decision to an unfriendly attitude to open source software development.

Why they can't release the source

At the present time, even if IBM wanted to release the OS/2 source code it would be unlawful for them to do so. This is because they are not the sole owners of every part OS/2. OS/2 started as a joint project between IBM and Microsoft; because OS/2 contains code that belongs to both parties, IBM would have to convince Microsoft to also agree to the release. Microsoft would never do this.

Also, it seems probable that other companies, such as Adobe, have some of their work embedded within OS/2.

This raises the possibility of a partial source release. Obviously, an incomplete version of the source code would be insufficient to allow programmers to build and then distribute a working version of OS/2. In such a case, programmers would have to expend effort in recreating the missing parts from scratch. This would be a lot of work.

Even a partial release would be a lot of work for IBM. There is probably almost no part of OS/2 that doesn't include at least some code that belongs to other parties. Sorting out which bits are clear for a release would involve a code audit of every single line of the huge OS/2 code base.

As much open source goodwill as IBM may have, doing it as a favour to open source community simply isn't on the cards.

Table of contents
  1. "Open source os/2, 1/2"
  2. "Open source OS/2, 1/2"
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