Could OS/2 come back from the grave?

Hands up: who, like me, was a one-time IBM OS/2 user? What, you don't know OS/2? It was IBM and (briefly) Microsoft's 32-bit server and desktop operating system that was going to change the world. Then Bill Gates decided that he'd do better by going it on his own with some operating system called Windows. We all know what the result of that decision was, even if you've never heard of OS/2.

If you did miss OS/2, that's something of a pity, since it was a fun and remarkably stable and secure operating system that was a real challenger to Windows. Now, after years of soldiering on as obscure spin-off EcomStation, there are rumors that IBM might bring OS/2 back from the dead. Could they? Should they?

In its day, OS/2 was great. Back in 1993, for example, when I was a contributing editor at Computer Shopper, we decided that OS/2 2.1 was the best operating system over such competition as the newly minted UnixWare, Windows NT, Solaris, and NeXTStep. So what happened?

First, Microsoft strong-armed vendors from installing anything except Windows on desktops. While Microsoft eventually received a rap on the knuckles for their monopolistic, bullying ways, the company wasn't really punished. In the meantime, competitors such as OS/2 as a desktop operating system and Netscape as a Web browser had all but withered and died.

Perversely, though, I'd argue that by defeating its proprietary rivals in the business arena, Microsoft inadvertently helped open the door to current open-source rivals such as Linux and Firefox. Microsoft had made it quite clear that, regardless of what the courts might have wanted, it was too big to be taken down by a traditional business rival. The only alternative was to go rogue, which at the time, meant open source. In the long run, open source has proven to be more of a challenge to Microsoft than any single company.

Looking back, I find it fascinating that one of open-source's strongest points, it sense of community, was foreshadowed by OS/2's community: Team OS/2. Esther Schindler, journalist and then known as the 'OS/2 Goddess' for her ceaseless OS/2 efforts, recalled, "OS/2 users adored the OS. Team OS/2 was an early 'social network' in which enthusiastic users went out of their way to show off how cool the software was. Those too young to remember Team OS/2 may not realize that ordinary folks volunteered to demo OS/2 at their local CompUSA, and IBM hosted all sorts of Team OS/2 events at Comdex under the brilliant direction of Vicci Conway and Janet Gobeille."

Passion alone wasn't enough. As William Zachmann, CEO of Canopus Research Inc. and a long time OS/2 user in its day, told me on LinkedIn: "IBM dropped the ball so badly with OS/2 that I'm not sure they could even find it at this point, let alone pick it up, dribble it, and shoot even a two-pointer with it at this point. Still, it would be fun to see 'em try!"

What did he mean that IBM "dropped the ball?" If you listen to old OS/2 hands, you'll get an earful. You'll hear about IBM's off-again/on-again marketing support; it's lack of technical support, and on and on. It boils down OS/2 supporters felt that IBM never gave them, or their favorite operating system, the kind of backing it needed to make OS/2 a success.

Paolo Pignatelli, president of The Corner Store, at one time a major OS/2 reseller, told me he "switched to Windows for business reasons, mainly to do with the way IBM was marketing OS/2." not because he disliked the operating system. Even at this late date, Pignatelli would like to see IBM try to revive it. An "IBM move would be possible and welcome, possibly providing the spark that could make our industry exciting again."

Technically speaking, OS/2 should have been a success. The Windows 3.1 desktop was, in a word, 'bad' when OS/2 was hitting its stride; Windows 95, which was just arriving, wasn't much better. On top of that, as Schindler put it, "I loved OS/2 and so did a lot of businesses. OS/2 was. and is, in its eComStation incarnation, built like a tank and it was secure."

In the early and mid-90s, the only other truly powerful 32-bit desktop operating system was NeXTStep, the forerunner of today's Mac OS X. As much as I liked NeXTStep in 1993, it required tens of thousands of dollars of hardware to really show to advantage, while OS/2 worked well on the ordinary PCs of the day.

But that was a long time ago. Could IBM bring OS/2 back from the dead? I doubt it. From what I can tell, much of the source code is long gone. There are some features, such as the SOM (System Object Model, a very handy object-oriented shared library) that I'd liked to see revived and put into Linux, but when I inquired about it, I was told that the code wasn't available.

Besides, while Team OS/2 members loved OS/2, IBM was never that happy about its market performance. Schindler said, "You have no idea how much of an embarrassment OS/2 was, inside IBM. As one then-IBM-exec told me, 'We keep promising Corporate that we're going to hit the ball out of the park. And we keep striking out.'"

So, as Steve Mastrianni, a senior software engineer at IBM Research today, observed, "The odds of OS/2 returning are about the same as shaking hands with Elvis." For better or worst, he's right.

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