"During the next 10 years, millions of programmers and users will utilise this system," said Bill Gates of OS/2 in 1988. And there was a moment in the early-mid 1990s, before the launch of Windows 95, when IBM's OS/2 looked like it just might become the winning PC desktop operating system.
IBM has finally pulled the plug on support for the venerable OS that has spent so many long years running servers rather than desktops, which was for a brief but incandescent moment, IBM's dream. The last update to OS/2, Warp 4.52, came out in 2001.
Those with only slightly long memories may recall that for a brief few years at the start of the 1990s, Windows was struggling. It was clunky and technically inelegant. It sat uneasily on top of a single-tasking core MS-DOS -- likened by some to balancing an elephant on a pin, off which the elephant frequently fell.
As Windows 3.x crashed through largely irrelevant iterations to add workgroup support for example, IBM ground away to produce increasingly sophisticated versions of OS/2. Originally a joint development with Microsoft that kicked off in 1985, with the launch of Windows 3.0 in 1990, Redmond eventually cut OS/2 adrift, seeking all the glory rather than share it with IBM. OS/2 had reached version 1.3.
The argument centred round whether the OS should be cool and fast -- desktop-oriented in other words -- rather than robust and secure. The product outcomes of the argument were eventually Windows 95 and OS/2 3.0 -- aka Warp -- with Microsoft's Windows NT bringing up the rear as the enterprise server-oriented product.
For sure, Windows 95 offered a fresh face and it was fairly quick too. It was neither robust nor secure as it sat, as did its predecessors, on a bastardised 16-bit core, and could not protect processes from trampling over each others' memory spaces. This mattered little to most users who bought it in millions. And when you're writing drivers or applications, you didn't get fired for developing for Windows -- not true for IBM's flagship. Some also claim that, while IBM was charging for development kits, Microsoft gave them away.
OS/2 also looked pretty clunky, and driver support was hard to come by so relatively few bought it. OS/2 was also, by comparison, hard to configure. Want to update anything (and you did frequently if you used it in anger)? Then you needed to tweak your Config.sys and reboot. Prior to the arrival of a full-scale 32-bit, multi-tasking, protected memory model OS, those who used the various kludges -- Quarterdeck's DOS extender, DesqView was the best example -- were somewhat familiar with this routine but were techies to a human.
OS/2 was not a desktop OS for the masses, no matter how much money IBM threw at the marketing men, who plastered it on the sides of buses. It also did not support the new driver model that Microsoft launched with Windows 95, limiting your choice of hardware. You also could only run Windows programs under a kludged version of Windows 3.1, not 95. At a stroke, Redmond had undermined OS/2 and it was doomed.
Insider talk about IBM's OS/2 strategy has leaked onto the Web suggesting that, from 1998, IBM has looked for an exit strategy that cost the least and annoyed the fewest large customers. Unfortunately, many of those customers bought into IBM's grand vision for OS/2 back in the early to mid-1990s and used it for mission-critical applications such as ATMs and cruise missiles, where robustness and the security of a virus-free system are pre-requisites. IBM promised those OS/2 users 10 years of support -- and that runs out in 2006.
This week's confirmation that OS/2 support is being withdrawn by IBM is the last word of a brave chapter in IBM's history. It also marks the last time any software vendor came close to challenging Microsoft on its home territory -- the desktop operating system.
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