OS/2 is 25 Years Old

In preparing an article to note the 25th anniversary of the IBM OS/2 operating system, +Harry McCracken asked me to answer a few questions about my memories of it. After all, OS/2 paid my rent for several years. I taught corporate training classes about OS/2 for Learning Tree; I was an active member of Team OS/2; I was a sysop of the OS2APPS forums on CompuServe; I was a founder of the world's biggest OS/2 user group.

Plus, of course, I wrote books about the OS (including co-authoring Teach Yourself REXX in 21 Days) and for many years, any magazine article about an OS/2 product had a pretty darned good chance of having my byline on it. Not least of which was the cover story on OS/2 Magazine called “The Esther Utilities.” And the fact that the quote you'll find online most associated with my name is from the last issue of OS/2 Magazine in which I wrote, “Microsoft's biggest and most dangerous contribution to the software industry may be the degree to which it has lowered user expectations.”

So yeah. I had some thoughts. I got started jotting them down, and before I knew it, I had written almost 2,000 words. That was far more than Harry needed (Whaddya mean, it's not all about me?) so I decided to share my entire spilled-from-the-gut essay with you. Maybe you'll find it interesting, in a bittersweet, nostalgic sort of way.

. . .

I think of OS/2 less as an operating system than as "A Technology in Three Acts."

Act 1 was OS/2 1.0. It was a marriage of convenience between Microsoft and IBM, in which each party imagined they were getting something different than they got. For instance, IBM told Microsoft, "We know the corporate market. You know consumers. We'll sell the OS to our corporate clients, such as financial firms, and leave the consumer market and non-enterprise businesses to you." Which is exactly what IBM did - and why OS/2 did make serious inroads at banks and other big companies, particularly for custom applications. (Which left almost no room for desktop app sales.) Meanwhile Microsoft went into their business customers and said, "I'm here to sell you OS/2 1.0... but you should know that our next version of Windows is going to be really cool."

It did not exactly work out in IBM's favor.

Act 2. After the messy divorce (in which you could see the parents trying to be polite in public for the sake of the children, I mean the customers... and still managing to hiss at one another with barely controlled fury), Microsoft went its own (financially successful) way and IBM made a sincere effort to sell OS/2 to consumers as well as to enterprise IT.

The problem is that it was still IBM. Even if the salespeople put on polo shirts, they were wearing white shirts and ties underneath. It's as if a staid old couple invited everyone to a party, and several guests showed up in tie-die clothing, carrying electric guitars. Well, um, the party had plenty of people, but... these kind of people? Really? And will all those hippies offend our old friends who have been coming to our formal Tea all these years?

What was different about Act 2 - which started with OS/2 2.0 and went through OS/2 Warp - is that the community took over. Team OS/2 happened. People got together on places like CompuServe (I hereby give a shout out to Vicci Conway and +Janet Crenshaw for community management, as they were doing social media and conversational marketing 15 years before they had a name), and arranged to do things like volunteer demonstrations at CompUSA, and volunteer-organized OS/2 installation days. Vicci and Janet sent out a huge number of OS/2 t-shirts and did what they could to support the users who just plain liked the OS. I was involved in the Phoenix OS/2 Society (POSSI), the largest OS/2 user group in the world, with members in 28 countries; we published a 32-page magazine every month (which incidentally is how I learned to become an editor, under the volunteer tutelage of OS/2 Magazine editor +Alan Zeichick). POSSI sponsored events like The OS/2 Marketplace (to help OS/2 ISVs learn what they needed to succeed in business). When IBM stopped running technical conferences, we put one on - and attracted attendees from as far away as Germany and Australia.

And it confused the heck out of IBM.

For one thing, IBM had no idea how to work with software developers, especially ISVs. Their culture was based on "work with the biggest companies" and they never understood that in any OS transition (from Apple // to Mac, from DOS to Windows, from Windows to OS/2), the "big players" change. Big companies are vested in their existing user base and the design of the software that pays the bills. Very few can exploit whatever the new OS brings, whether that's a GUI, multithreading, touch interface, etc. (Think of the decline of WordPerfect from DOS to any GUI, if you need an example.)

But IBM kept trying to attract the biggest software vendors, all of whom said, "Yeah yeah pay me enough and I'll write a crappy version that meets the contractual spec and ships... eventually" instead of working with the dozens of tiny ISVs who bet their house on the success of their innovative OS/2 apps. (At one point I had every single OS/2 app ever made. I think it was about 300 apps, from the fantastic Relish appointment calendar to the awesome Golden CommPass CompuServe one-step-beyond-Tapcis to a truly multithreaded spreadsheet called Mesa/2.)

Readers who like Linux and open source, and came to it from a sense of community ("Hey, look at what we accomplish together!") would have related well to what Team OS/2 did. The difference is that we believed that IBM was supporting us in our efforts to support them. And it was true - to a point. Everyone in the OS/2 division loved what the community was doing; how could someone not respond to "I love what you built for me!"? But the PC business allied itself with Microsoft more-and-more, and while OS/2 had success it didn't have enough success. One IBM exec said to me, "We keep telling top management that we're going to knock the next ball out of the park, but we never quite do."

One mental picture comes back to me now. David Barnes, who for a while was IBM's OS/2 spokesman (and is the best demo-er I have ever seen, second only to Steve Jobs), once explained the difference between IBM and Microsoft. IBM was a plumbing company, David said. They knew how to design pipes that didn't leak, and how to install complex plumbing so that it never needed attention. But good plumbing is invisible. When IBM made bathroom faucets, they were designed for functionality and durability; they were not pretty. On the other hand, Microsoft was really good at making things pretty and they could design user interfaces. Someone could come into a Microsoft-designed bathroom and say, "Wow, what pretty faucets!" and be encouraged to buy the entire Microsoft package. But Microsoft didn't know plumbing (OSs) so their faucets always leaked.

I always thought that was a rather brilliant observation on his part.

So: Act 3. By the time OS/2 Warp 4 came along, the company was no longer behind it. They had publicly said they were going to do such-and-so, but at the top levels their hearts weren't in it. And one by one they dismantled what they had spent at least a decade building. (I knew it was all over when IBM stopped writing speech recognition software for OS/2; it cause me to throw a very loud hissy fit. Though it was probably really done when, in a budget purge, Vicci and Janet's Team OS/2 jobs were eliminated.)

Team OS/2 fell apart, too, because how could we believe in their product if they didn't? It was a personal insult as well, because we were more committed than they were, and we felt we were paying their salaries.

Most OS/2 users went to Linux. Some (like me) turned to Mac. Very few users stayed loyal to IBM as a company... and sad to say I doubt they ever noticed.

But I do want you to note that eComStation is still around, supporting those who continue to use the OS and ensuring that it works with current hardware. I confess that I can go months without peeking at the mailing list. However, OS/2 is not gone from my heart. I do have my last OS/2 computer sitting right here. It hasn't been booted in a few years, and I don't think it knows how to talk to my network anymore, but no amount of office cleanup has caused me to consider moving that computer out of my office.

...So what was the big deal, in the first place?

I happened to be working at Lotus as a contractor 25 years ago, on the day OS/2 1.0 was announced. A couple of guys had been locked in a room in the basement with several PS/2s and OS/2 1.0 (and they were very happy to get out; there wasn't much air conditioning in that room) and emerged to show up the marvelous capabilities of the new hardware (Wow! It supports 8MB of RAM!) OS/2 promised multitasking, not just task switching. It knew how to handle memory. (Desqview was wonderful, but it still needed DOS memory management and could hang up.) It did a heck of a lot of cool things... but you really and truly needed to spend $1,600 on 8MB of RAM on top of the fastest 386 machine. The only three people I knew who spent that kind of money in the CompuServe Consultants Forum were +David Moskowitz, +Larry Finkelstein, and +Noel Bergman (it's scary: I'm still in touch with them) all of whom worked for the kind of financial firms that IBM targeted at the time.

I don't think it's easy for young whippersnappers to grasp how big a deal the PS/2 and OS/2 were at the time. We were certain, absolutely certain, that nothing would be the same again. The closest I can come to it was the reaction after the first iPhone was released: the sense that It's all different now. As it turns out, the PS/2 and OS/2 1.0 didn't have the impact everyone expected - because only large corporations could afford to buy them, and the developer kit was $2500 in 1986 - but we thought it would.

With OS/2 2.0... it was different. The OS/2 could run on the hardware I owned. It had a large, vibrant, accessible community on CompuServe and in computer user groups. (And this was the heyday of user groups.) The IBM techies got online, too, and interacted with users - in just the same way that open source Big Names are accessible online today. Everyone felt that his contribution mattered.

Unlike Windows, OS/2 didn't crash, and it wasn't from a company that had an obnoxious sense of entitlement. Unlike the Mac pre-OSX, OS/2 really did multithreading, so I could download messages from CompuServe while I did my accounting reports while I used a word processor. I could run my DOS and Windows apps if I had to... but more and more native apps were written for OS/2 and even more were promised Real Soon Now. Some of those never came to fruition, but we didn't know that then.

An aside: The interim WordPerfect 5.2 for OS/2 - while they worked on a native 6.0 - did things that Word has never done. For instance it integrated with the OS/2 extended attributes, letting me use the command line to find all documents written by a specific author. WordPerfect killed the 6.0 version... and only a few months later, when the company was sold to Novell (before being sold to Corel shortly thereafter), did it become obvious that WordPerfect Corporate was busy canceling projects to make their financials look better to a suitor. Probably had nothing to do with market predictions. Stupid nonetheless.

And oh, oh, the community was so wonderful. We felt as though we were making a difference. We were keeping people from automatically moving to the always-late, over-promised-and-under-delivered Windows 95. We had the strength of ten because our hearts were pure!

And, eventually, our hearts were broken.
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