What Ever Happened to OS/2?

Remember 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
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
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

Meanwhile, Windows, Microsoft’s simple add-on graphical face to DOS,
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
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,
and insurance industries. Many companies used it as a base for
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.


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

ATM Running Warp

ATM Running Warp (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Corporations with large OS/2 projects, including embedded and dedicated
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 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
, 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
to niche commercial systems like OS/2 — including many Linux and BSD
distributions. As the
moves to 64-bit computing and newer hardware, companies using
OS/2 will likely move to newer
platforms as their applications age.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
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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