IBM's OS/2 celebrates its 25th birthday

When Biggish Blue’s next-generation operating system OS/2 appeared everything was supposed to change. While it failed, it has been darnn difficult to completely kill it off. .

OS/2 was first shown off in April 1987 and the poster boy peddling it was none other than the soon to be software King of the World, Bill Gates. The operating system had been co-developed by IBM and Microsoft and it was intended to replace DOS.

The launch was a technology triumph. IBM bought out its PS/2 line, including an $11,000 model which was seven times faster than current models. These were computers with 32-bit processors, fancy graphics, 3.5″ hardshell floppy-disk drives and optical storage.

But sadly it didn’t do much. Gates went back to DOS and used it to end IBM’s control of the PC standard. By the 1990s, IBM had given up on OS/2 and by 2005 had given up on PC hardware too.

The whole thing was a tragedy from a technology perspective. OS/2 had multitasking, and was much better at handling memory. It was a lot more stable than DOS, which managed to confirm Microsoft’s always crashing reputation.

But OS/2 was a slow, drip drip release. It also needed  four megabytes of memory to run and that was in the days when it was hard to find a PC that had even one megabyte.

Vole countered it with Windows 3.0 in 1990 which looked the same as OS/2 but required a lesser spec. It was not as good but it was good enough to have the industry standardise around it.

Microsoft then pulled the plug on its IBM relationship. Steve Ballmer declared that OS/2 was a dead end and his word was law. OS/2 3.0 was adapted so that it became Windows NT and the rest was history.

IBM showed that it really did not understand what was happening. It carried on with OS/2 at a snail’s space. Five years after the original OS/2 announcement, it released a fully-realised commercial product.

While it was pretty good, by then Windows was entrenched. Even with the big names of software such as Lotus, WordPerfect, Borland and Novell agreeing to back OS/2, it was not really going anywhere.

This was mostly because OS/2 really still needed a fast 386 computer with 6MB of memory and 15MB to 30MB of hard-disk space. It did not not do so badly. IBM shipped 1.7 million copies and by May, 1993, IBM released OS/2 2.1 and it was believed that it would give Windows a good kicking. It didnt.

By 1994 OS/2 3.0 was released and it was called OS/2 Warp. The Warp was a cunning plan by IBM suits to give the OS consumer credentials. It did not work and by then Microsoft’s Windows 95 was nearly ready.

OS/2 was also having difficulties installing and reviews of the software indicated that it was too difficult to operate. Compared to Windows 95, OS/2 was looking and feeling clunky. I managed to install it and was using it right up until the day I ran Windows 95. While OS/2 never crashed on me it was difficult to use. Like many OS/2 users I switched to Windows 95 and never looked back.

But OS/2 did not exactly go away either. It found a niche within the manufacturing industry. Although IBM knew it was on its way out, in September 1996, it introduced OS/2 Warp 4, formerly code-named “Merlin.” It improved Warp 3′s interface and added features such as built-in voice recognition. I remember the launch at the planetarium in London. It was fairly clear, despite what we were told, that IBM did not think OS/2 had legs. Already IBM pulled the software from the thriving consumer market and concentrated on its business and manufacturing clients. IBM should have given it away

Strangely, the operating system did not die, even after IBM said it would not support it. It still powers New York City’s subway system. While OS/2 is not running any visible part of the system, there are hundreds of OS/2 computers being used. Checkout systems at Safeway supermarkets still run OS/2 and some ATMs. There is a fanclub called Warpstock which holds OS/2 conferences in the US and Europe.

While OS/2 is well past its sell by date and is unsupported by IBM, it has proven difficult to kill and 25 years after it was announced, there are still computers running it. Some of which have never been turned off since it was installed. A bit like the DEC Alpha chip…