13 Million OS/2 Users & Counting

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Thirteen Million OS/2 Users & Counting...

A look back at the long history of OS/2 and its exciting future


Quick - name a computer operating system that has 13 million users. Windows NT you say? BSD Unix maybe? How about Windows 95?

The truth is that none of those operating systems can boast the number of users of IBM's OS/2 operating system, and some of them may never. Of any piece of software ever published for computers, it is doubtful that any of them have drawn more debate, more criticism, more retoric or more opinion than OS/2. In this article we will take a look back at the history of OS/2 and give you a short look at what you will see in the future.

DOS is dead. Long live DOS.


Many users of OS/2 are not aware that OS/2 actually started out as a joint project between IBM and Microsoft. For years engineers at both companies realized that DOS, which was not even to Version 3 at the time, would not be able to take advantage of the features of the new Intel 80286 microprocessor that was at the time being built into the new IBM PC AT. Specifically, the 80286 had the ability to use memory in a computer at quantities greater than 1 megabyte, which DOS could not do. OS/2 began as a project that the developers thought would result in a new release of DOS, called Version 3, that would allow the use of memory about 1 megabyte on the 80286. A major stumbling block was that this large memory model was only available when the processor was running in a special mode, called protected mode, and that once the processor was switched into that mode, it was incapable of shifting back to the DOS-compatible real mode, making it many times more difficult to design an operating system that would be compatible with DOS.

The problem was complicated by the release of the 80386 processor. The 386 had several more advanced capabilities, including the ability to switch back and forth between protected and real mode, as well as the ability to address vast more amounts of memory. A debate ensued: should the new OS/2 run only on a 386, or should it also support a 286? Most of IBM's PS/2 product line was based around the 286 and 8086, an older processor, and they believed that the 386 would not be in widespread use for several years. Unfortunately for IBM, a small competitor named Compaq introduced the world to affordable 386 computers, and within a few months it became clear that the 286 would be much more short-lived than IBM wished. Microsoft, tired of the delays in trying to put together a next-generation operating system, introduced Windows to try and capture some business from some of the vast installed base of DOS users.

At this point, a final development almost closed down OS/2 before it was even delivered. A severe shortage of memory chips, brought on by government trade policies, caused the prices of memory to skyrocket. Since OS/2 required 4 megabytes of memory to run, businesses were suddenly scared away from anything that would require them to purchase more memory.

The First OS/2

Under pressure to compete with strong sales by Apple's Macintosh computer, IBM and Microsoft introduced OS/2 1.0 on December 8, 1987, almost 3 years after it was started. Interestingly, version 1.0 didn't include a Graphical User Interface, although version 1.1, available in October of 1988 did include one that looked very similar to Microsoft's Windows product. By shipping early, IBM could show its customers it was serious about the operating system, and promise the GUI would arrive shortly.

Early sales were very disappointing, due to several factors. For one, the close ties between IBM's PS/2 hardware and the OS/2 operating system made many people believe that to use OS/2, they had to buy IBM hardware. While surely IBM would have liked this to be true, many buyers were scared away. Additionally, OS/2 did not take advantage of the enhancements in the 80386 processor very well, a situation that Microsoft, a strong proponent of a 386-only operating system, resented. There were serious architecture problems as well: the system could only run one DOS program at a time, and the user interface, while meaning to compete with Macintosh, was precieved as not being as easy to use or as simple as a Mac. While IBM and Microsoft would fix some of these problems with release of 1.2 in 1989, it became clear that a complete re-write of the operating system designed to use the power of the 80386 was needed.

IBM and Microsoft began work on OS/2 2.0, but IBM would not admit that the product was in development. IBM and Microsoft began to tell potential customers about a future product, named OS/2 3.0, that would run on multiple platforms, not just Intel based PCs. Meanwhile, Microsoft had been working on a product called Windows 3.0, which not only run Windows programs in memory above 1 megabyte, but could also multitask DOS programs, something OS/2 1.2 could not do.

Microsoft and IBM Break Apart


The release of Windows 3.0 on May 21, 1990 was a watershed event. While Windows 3.0's system requrements were the same as OS/2, users appreciated the system's ability to use the power of their 386 systems, and in the first month, Microsoft sold more copies of Windows than all of the copies of OS/2 that had been sold to date. Developers saw the popularity of the Windows product, and looking at the money they had spent on OS/2 with little return on investment, began to defect to Windows from OS/2.

Due to the success of the Windows product, Microsoft announced in 1991 that it would end OS/2 development to concentrate on Windows. The product originally talked about as OS/2 3.0 would become the beginnings of Windows NT, with Microsoft promising a shipping date at the end of 1992. Microsoft promised that NT's multi-platform architecture would include UNIX and OS/2 - a promise quickly retracted when faced with shipping a working follow-on to Windows 3.0. All IBM had to offer was version 1.3 of OS/2 that improved the user interface and offered Adobe Type Manager support.

IBM Comes Back: OS/2 2.0

Free of Microsoft's influence, IBM's development staff began planning a completely new relase of OS/2, called 2.0. IBM promised this version would run DOS programs better than DOS, and Windows programs better than Windows. Arriving in Spring of 1992, the system met most of IBM's early hype, offering a true multitasking platform that would run OS/2, DOS and Windows applications seamlessly and smoothly together. It boasted a whole new interface, called the Workplace Shell, a true object-oriented interface that in many ways is not matched even today. And, best of all, the architecture was 32 bit - which took full advantage of the 80386 processor in ways that Windows was not able to do as a 16 bit operating system.

A whole new wave of users started to take a strong look at the shortcomings of Windows, specifically that it was still based on DOS as the fundamental operating system. OS/2, on the other hand, offered a stable, 32-bit system where they could run almost any program made for an Intel-based PC. IBM improved on OS/2 with Version 2.1 in May, 1993, with support of Windows 3.1 and the introduction of a new 32-bit graphics system. Meanwhile, Microsoft's Windows NT was shipped over a year late, and by this time, because of its extremely high system resource requrements, it had been repositioned primarily as a server solution.

OS/2 Warp

IBM set out to eliminate the remaining criticisms of OS/2. While IBM had shipped over 5 million licenses of OS/2 making it the world's most popular 32-bit operating system, it still had only a fraction of the licenses of Windows. IBM introduced OS/2 Warp Version 3.0 in October, 1994. Inside was support for the latest releases of Windows, as well as an improved interface, new driver support, and a Bonus Pack contanining a full featured integrated program suite. Also included was the IBM Internet Connection, a package designed to get users connected to the exploding Internet scene. With this release IBM quickly doubled the number of users of OS/2.

Windows customers would have to wait until late in 1995 before seeing a follow-on to their Windows 3.X systems with Windows 95. Even with the release of Windows 95 it was clear that Microsoft had cut several corners to release the system: the OS still relied on the DOS memory model, had the DOS file system inside essentially unchanged, and many portions of the system still relied on 16-bit code.

Microsoft's Windows NT has been less than a success as well. Once repositioned as a server system, the dominant player in that market, Novell, began an all-out assault on NT's business. Along with pressure from IBM's LAN Server and the new OS/2 Warp Server, NT has shipped fewer than one tenth the total shippments of OS/2 and vastly fewer than their own DOS-based Windows 3.X products.

The Future

At no point in the short history of PC operating systems has the future path been as cloudy as it is now. Even with all the fanfare and hype surrounding Windows 95, it has been clear to all, including Microsoft, that Windows 95 did not meet the expectations of the corporate world. To try and save this market Microsoft has been promoting NT as the ultimate corporate solution. Unfortunately for Microsoft, while NT is very versitile, it has difficulty doing any one thing well, allowing IBM, Novell and others to play their products to Microsoft's weaknesses. Recently Dataquest, a leading PC research firm, published a report showing that even 5 years from now, according to their sales projections, NT will not overtake OS/2 as an operating system. Microsoft also announced in the past few weeks that its long-anticipated object-oriented operating system, code named Cairo, has been delayed for months again.

The question is, why did IBM choose not to follow Windows 3.0 as its operating system and take over OS/2? In order to run at peak performance, Windows 3.0 required users to repurchase or re-write their software. Thousands of businesses had relied on OS/2 as thier platform, and IBM did not wish to abandon them or force them to repurchase their applications. Indeed, most software written for OS/2 1.0 will run unmodified on the latest OS/2 Warp Connect. While needing to repurchase all of their software when they switched to 3.0 didn't seem to hurt Microsoft's sales, the installed base of pre-3.0 users is vastly smaller than the current base of 3.X users. Many corporate users cite the need to repurchase all their applications as one of the key reasons why they won't upgrade their systems to Windows 95, especially in light of the probability they will need to do it again if they move to NT or to Cairo.

IBM has begun hyping the next release of OS/2, code named Merlin. Amid continued reassurance of IBM's commitment to OS/2 from no one less than the chairman of the company, Microsoft's stumbles on Windows 95 and NT, and the incredible sales figures posted in the last few months, IBMers surely have a new excitement as they prepare for the next release of OS/2.

Preparing for Merlin


The basic Merlin system will likely keep the same structure that Warp has, as it has been proven to be solid and bug free. Many of the changes are probably already available in the form of FixPack 17 for OS/2 Warp, which gives you enhanced printing, the Developers Extensions or DAX system, as well as some enhancements to the message-handling system. The biggest changes might come in the interface. IBM has been showing some interesting ideas to help answer problems about ease of learning and intuitiveness in the Workplace Shell.

Will it run Windows 95 applications? Maybe. IBM has put a lot of effort into promoting the Developer Extensions modules for OS/2 that will allow Windows programmers easy conversion of their programs to make them native OS/2 applications. The first example of this system, Lotus Word Pro for OS/2, will be shipping in a couple of weeks. This program represents the first in what IBM hopes will be a stream of direct program ports from Windows to OS/2. But privately, key IBM customers have been telling IBM that they must be able to run some key Windows applications under OS/2, so stay tuned.

IBM has proven in the past that they will stand by their users and answer problems they have with the operating system. It is likely your applications will run quite well under Merlin with little or no modification. IBM at the minimum will probably continue to improve the Win32s support for OS/2, so those applications that are billed as running both under Windows 3.X and Windows 95 will run under Warp. The possiblity of new advances in the user interface mean that the Workplace Shell, already a strong and stable interface, will become easier to use and more exciting.

IBM's committment to the product has never seemed to be stronger or more clear. OS/2 has a bright future ahead, and you will be a part of that future.