This was the product that promised so much and delivered so little too late at the beginning, and by the time the hardware and software caught up to deliver the promise the computing world had moved on. I remember opening a CDROM that came with a computer magazine in 1990 and installing OS/2 and been amazed and saddened at the same time because very few native apps were available. So you were running Microsoft DOS apps under emulation so the overall performance was not great and anything that used enhanced DOS forget it, this caused the take up to be poor even though this was a great product. The price of RAM was high and hard drives were small, not a great combination to run OS/2, I was lucky and had a high spec 386 when everyone else had 286 systems or Amiga’s so I could test it. I decided it was not for me at that point and moved on, after further upgrades I got OS/2 Warp 4 some years later and the install process had not been improved floppies turned me off before we even started. After completing the install the product was great, but again few native apps so back to Microsoft DOS / Windows and this new startup Linux but that’s another story. With the launch of Windows 95 and all the third party apps I made do with the blue screen of death and painful upgrades OS/2 was now history. It was a great dream which OS X pulled off and all modern OS’s now focus on the total experience from start to finish, it’s amazing to look back and think this was over 25 years ago.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.