OS/2: killed by Bill?

OS/2 logo
OS/2 logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here is a fascinating account of the rise and fall of OS/2, the operating system that was supposed to seal IBM’s (and Microsoft’s) global domination. Instead it flopped, being beaten by a poorer quality alternative in the form of Windows 3.0/3.1 after Microsoft pulled out.

I remember when Windows NT was launched in 1993 – one of its selling points was its ability to run OS/2 1.0 software natively via a dedicated subsystem (strange to remember, but then Microsoft went heavy on the modular nature of NT and its ability to run on non-Intel hardware and to support different software on top of the microkernel).

I could only ever find one free piece of native OS/2 software to run – a hex editor. A fundamentally vital workhorse for any programmer yet good implementations always seem to be in short supply (even now – last month I seriously considered writing my own so fed up was I with the basic offerings that come with Linux flavours). This one – its name escapes me – was a goodie though and I was a bit cheesed off when an NT upgrade (to 3.5) broke it. By then Microsoft plainly did not care much for software compatibility (or for NT’s ability to run on different platforms – that was scrapped too).

Still, OS/2 had its fans. As a journalist reporting on housing I went to see a public sector housing manager in rural Somerset at about this time: he was pioneering a new software system for his district housing offices and OS/2, with its revolutionary object-orientated desktop (which is what right clicking is all about) was to be at the core of that – with housing officers treating the desktop like various forms on which they could order repairs and so on. It was difficult not to share his enthusiasm because the idea, now a commonplace, that objects on the desktop could be more than just program icons was so new and exciting.

The article lists the ways in which Microsoft went all out to kill OS/2 and, in every practical sense, they succeeded. Those who doubt the need for free-as-in-freedom software should consider that. But it also lists various places where OS/2 is still in use (in the US). Anyone know of similar examples in the UK?



  1. I was employed in 1995 to write software for a large insurance company that had invested heavily in IBM OS/2 Warp, using Visual Age C++, a now dead compiler, IDE and tool set. Besides the desktop environment and its visionary “SOM” (object oriented icons) IBM did a lot of other creative things, or rather, bought them from other people, and renamed them, and then failed to market them. One of those clever things was Visual Age SMALLTALK, which is still alive as “VA Smalltalk” sold by Instantiations, Inc. Some of the original IBM smalltalk people (who came to IBM along with visual age itself) are still working on the product, which is an obscure but beautiful little thing. I played around with Smalltalk, but instead of using their lean fast “Rapid application development” I was building using the IBM VA C++ class libraries, which were (like many IBM products) good in theory, and rubbish in real world use. They had adapted a visual-programming system that actually involved “wiring up integrated-circuit-like components”, in some really interesting precursor to “dependency injection” and modern OOP. The problem was, that the system was useless in practice. You couldn’t use it to build anything more complicated than a HelloWorld demo without it turning into crap. The company I was working for folded up shop. The insurance company client kept its IBM OS/400 based solutions around for a few more years, until they were eventually scrapped, and they moved to a Windows based desktop like everybody else. At one point, the PC world was IBMs to lose, and now that they’re insignificant players in the software market, and have exited the PC hardware market completely, I’m almost sad for them. Almost. Because they were so brilliant in some ways, and so inept in other ways. OS/2 was brilliant except when it made me want to tear my hair out, scream, rant, swear, and fuss. I was an OS/2 fan, except when I was an OS/2 hater. It was a pre-emptively multitasking protected mode operating system, and I ran a bulletin board system on it for years. It was a thing of beauty, in its time. A year ago I decided to get a VirtualBox VM working with OS/2 on it. Fun stuff. But I was reminded how very long ago it was. 16 color VGA at 640×480 was the default desktop screen resolution. No PPP or TCP/IP+DHCP out of the box in OS/2 Warp until 4.0. Not much support for any hardware not manufactured by IBM, any date after 1997. Sad really.

    Once I learned to use Linux/Unix, and the BSDs, even OS/2’s better-than-windows environment doesn’t seem that useful or interesting to me. The architecture of a Linux system is far nicer to use, and so flexible and easily tailored, even without looking at any source code. And even the worst GCC and gnu stdlibc releases in all of history, were better and easier to use than the crap that came out of IBM.

    So I’m nostalgic, but not really. It was good, but bits of it were rubbish. I enjoyed Rexx programming quite a bit, too, but Python is just so nice that I can’t imagine writing anything in Rexx ever again.


  2. Thanks for your comment – really great.
    You reminded me of a few things – like the way Windows NT didn’t have a TCP/IP stack either, that I used to think 640×480 was a big screen, and that I first read about this newly fankled “object orientated programming” by reading a book about Smalltalk. Even now, everywhere you go you see references to Smalltalk – like Lisp its influence far outstrips its use.
    Never used Rexx but people did used to rave about how good it was – though perhaps that was just in contrast to DOS’s batch programming abilities.

  3. My perspective is a bit different. I was in the UNIX world. It did multitasking before there was an IBM PC. As soon as the PC AT came out (with the Intel 286), UNIX made sense on PCs. My home computer ran UNIX from 1982 on (on an 8086, but it wasn’t an IBM PC or clone).

    SCO and Interactive sold versions of UNIX that ran well on PC AT hardware. The SCO product, Xenix, was licensed from Microsoft itself! (My 8086-based non-PC ran an even earlier Xenix.)

    UNIX ran very well on the 32-bit 386 architecture, years before OS/2 or Windows exploited the 32-bit architecture. I think that the 386 was superceded before OS/2 or Windows were 32-bit.

    So why didn’t most PC folks adopt it? I guess there were many little reasons.

    – IBM and Microsoft each said their solutions would be better and available any day now (that lie really hurt)

    – ATT licensing was expensive and awkward (it got better)

    – ATT didn’t know how to market UNIX. The companies that gave it a try weren’t enough better. SCO had modest success.

    – evolutionary changes are easier and Microsoft and IBM each had an evolutionary story, even if it wasn’t really true.

    – the network effect: the software marketplace for UNIX programs was very different from that for OS/2 and Windows.

    – Microsoft claimed that Win NT was POSIX compliant, so it would be a better UNIX than UNIX. What a lie: NT’s compliance was really only a check off item for government procurment. It was minimal, not actually useful. It was in a hermetically sealed box — it could not intereact with other programs on the machine. It was decommitted as soon as they could (NT 3.5?).

    – UNIX ran on all suitable hardware (and more). Microsoft counteracted that by promising that NT would be on a bunch of hardware; it was, but only for microseconds: MIPS (remember the ACE consortium?), Power, SPARC, and Alpha. Alpha lasted the longest; it was sad to see DEC twisting in the wind.

    – UNIX tended to want more resources than mainstream PC operating systems. This wasn’t an absolute requirement: my 8086 Xenix box supported four users with 256KiB of RAM and a 10MB of hard disk. Typical hardware for NT was very reasonable for UNIX if I remember correctly.

    • As I understand it Microsoft used Xenix on their machines for a long time, this is where we all first heard of SCO! MS were big on Alpha support for NT when they launched NT as it was so much faster than Intel machines

      • [All this is recollection. No facts have been checked.]

        NT was originally developed on MIPS.

        MS and DEC were somehow intertwined by NT. The architect of NT, Dave Butler, came from DEC and their VMS group. I inferred that this was not poaching.

        DEC used MIPS boxes as their interim RISC offering until Alpha got off the ground. I guess that’s why NT started on MIPS.

        Although Microsoft promised to sell NT for MIPS, I’m not sure that ever happened. The ill-fated ACE consortium counted on it.

        At that time, Microsoft + Intel shared a monopoly. That meant that they shared the rent. Neither liked sharing so both looked at ways of cutting the other out. In Microsoft’s case, that meant supporting Alpha and flirting with other architectures. Perhaps their heart wasn’t in it — any sharp transition might shake loose customers since smooth migration was an important advantage over better systems such as UNIX (Solaris, Next, Ultrix, etc.) and BEOS.

        This was the era of “the only thing more risky than being a competitor of Microsoft is being an ally”.

      • NT and VMS share engineering heritage for sure. The “working set page replacement” algorithm that both use (actually a fault based algorithm and not a true working set one) is very similar – though the original paper on the fault based algorithm goes back to 1976, so nobody was “stealing” anything, just applying a well-known approach.

    • OS/2 1.0 ran on 80286, in December 1987, and in fact that might have been the single dumbest move IBM+Microsoft ever made on OS/2. OS/2 2.0 ran on 80386 and was the first decent version of OS/2, which came out 1992. Unix on PCs made very little sense, at the time. Plain old SCO Unix did not ship with an X11/GUI until much later than the OS/2 Presentation Manager. Unix system requirements (without early X11 servers) were of course reasonable, but the price of a Unix workstation (80286 or 80386 powered) with an X11 server, and enough RAM to run all that, was much higher than the cost of OS/2. OS/2 cost around $199. If I remember correctly, Unix cost about the same, without X11.

      Linux and the free-BSD variants killed my interest in most of those Unixes on PC, by about 1993. I don’t really remember being very impressed with any commercial Unix on a PC.

      While some vertical market commercial success kept SCO alive for years, it’s not very surprising to me that the battle was perceived as “OS/2 versus Windows”. Unix was never considered as interesting for corporate desktop computing, until….. Well… until never. Linux still hasn’t made significant inroads on the corporate desktop. That IS what we’re talking about here, isn’t it? (I love linux, and I use it, but go into 99 fortune 500 companies, and 98 of them will be running windows on every desktop.)


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