back to article OS/2 a quarter century on: Why IBM lost out and how Microsoft won

Twenty-five years ago IBM unveiled its master plan to reclaim the PC industry. In November of that year the first floppy diskettes of OS/2 version 1.0 trickled out. Microsoft had co-developed the software with Big Blue. The world would look very different if the plan succeeded. And the world was already changing significantly. …


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  1. asdf


    Corporations biggest weaknesses tend to be they are composed of a group of people. In general in most groups over the long term the group ends up being dumber than any single member of the group. People may think they are predators but in general they tend act more like herd animals.

    1. Zaphod.Beeblebrox

      Re: companies

      Over the long term? Most groups I've seen don't take long at all to be reduced to about half the IQ of the dumbest member.

      Windows User because, well, you know...

  2. banjomike
    Thumb Up

    The best thing you can say about OS/2 and PS/2... that it got IBM off the steering wheel of the PC. IBM took forever to approve or change things and when they did it was often not an improvement (what was wrong with the 25pin serial port?).

  3. Anonymous Coward

    History repeats itself

    But now with Android looking like the chippy usurper, whilst Microsoft act out the part of bumbling giant unable to accept the challenge to its cash cow (and acting it with some gusto).

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Who will save us?

    A penguin called Tux, dressed up as a green robot.

    1. Armando 123

      Re: Who will save us?

      Yeah, because if you can't trust Google with your personal data on a networked device, ... er, wait.

  5. AndrueC Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    > There was no API to speak of

    What? I dispute that. An API is just a documented collection of calls that Application Programmers can use to Interface with something - in this case the OS. Even CP/M had an API. It wasn't a protected mode OS, true, but it certainly had an API.

    1. LDS Silver badge

      Yes, but it was a really basic API with an assembler interface (fill some CPU register, call INT 21h). Moreover besides file management functions most of the DOS API where slow and mostly useless, thereby most applications bypassed them and talked to the hardware directly, especially for screen management and printing.

      1. AndrueC Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Oh I wouldn't deny that by today's standards it was basic. But to outright claim there wasn't an API is wrong.

    2. Basil Fernie

      Sort of no API

      Do not overlook the refusal of M$ to allow IBM to access the Win32 API from OS/2. The most they ever allowed was Win32s. This meant that "old" Windows applications would run happily on OS/2, but the new exciting stuff that developers were churning out for Win95 et seq wouldn't. Thus OS/2 users were denied use of newer Windows apps. Third-party efforts to work around this obstacle concentrated in a project called "Odin" which had some boff programmers but was desperately undersupported. The parallel effort in the Linux camp, "Wine", has notched up many successes and continues to thrive, allowing one to run many Windows programs almost natively on e.g. Ubuntu. This lack of extensive applications support turned many OS/2 users off the platform, yours truly included, with many regrets since OS/2 was so far ahead of anything coming out of Redmond. Even now, as I alternate between Linux and Windows 7, I hanker after what OS/2 was, and long for what the OS/2 ecosystem could have become.

      1. Michael Herlihy

        Re: Sort of no API

        A bit more detail on this, and perhaps there are similar responses to this article already - I haven't trudged through them all yet.

        I'm old enough to have been a user of OS/2 2.0 and above. The constant compatibility issue was the MS kept changing DLLs and/or APIs to make OS/2 incompatible, and unable to run "older" (Fix-pack) versions of MS Word, Excel, etc. IBM constantly had to rush out an update to re-enable compatibility. Amazingly (ha ha) there was another urgent Windows update that used a new DLL that made OS/2 fail when dealing with MS documents. Who would have guessed?

        Clearly, MS was blocking IBM from competition, and IBM being the "giant" wasn't able to complain about the upcoming MS, as it would have shown weakness. Catch-22, and we all lost out, at least back then. OS/2 was vastly superior to Windows, at the time. Whether Windows development exceeded what IBM's development might have been with OS/2 remains to be seen.

  6. 45RPM Silver badge

    Absolute rip off, but not a toy

    "The Amiga and ST made the Mac look like an overpriced toy"? Please. Do your research. Overpriced? Yes. Toy? No.

    The Amiga came closest to delivering on that claim, the ST not even close. The only area that the ST could best the Mac in was in support for colour - in terms of storage and memory, the Mac had it licked. The Amiga added pre-emptive multi-tasking but, without memory protection, that isn't much of an advantage. It just means that you crash sooner, and lose more work when you do.

    In 1987, Apple released the Mac II - and whupped the competition with much faster CPUs, more colour with support for higher resolution screens, far more memory and better support for hard disks. When A/UX came out (in 1988) it also delivered on pre-emptive multitasking with memory protection.

    How am I so certain of these facts? Well, back in the day, when I was a student and the world, Mac, Amiga, ST and all were all fresh and new, and the 286 seemed like a hot processor, I needed to get a 68000 packing machine for assembly coding. Besides, some of my friends had 286s and my 8086 powered Compaq Deskpro was looking a little tired. So I considered the ST, and I considered the Amiga, and decided that I wanted something with more power and an internal hard drive. So I sacrified colour on the altar of the 68030 powered SE/30 (very few Amigas were made with more power than that, and no Atari STs as far as I know).

    True, the Mac cost an absolute bloody fortune - but its power was undeniable. I still have it. It's got 32M RAM, and it runs the aforementioned A/UX. It still worked too, last time I tried it a couple of years ago.

    1. asdf

      Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

      >True, the Mac cost an absolute bloody fortune - but its power was undeniable. I still have it. It's got 32M RAM, and it runs the aforementioned A/UX. It still worked too, last time I tried it a couple of years ago.

      Pretty much summed up Apple for the last generation or so but I am afraid Apple will continue to cost a bloody fortune but the quality will sink until its just another manufacturer. IE it will get Sony's disease now its old guard is starting to pass.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

      For the price of an SE/30,couldn't you have had a Sun or Apollo 680x0 workstation?

    3. Epobirs

      Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

      You're certain of something but they aren't facts.

      Atari and Commodore produced models with everything up to the 68040. They were after different market segments. Because Apple was targeting a much higher price point and margins it could afford to be first out the gate with the latest from Motorola. But if it was about something you could afford and use Atari And commodore had much to offer.

      At the time the SE/30 was introduced, Amiga 2000 models with 68020s and hard drives were readily available. The Mac was the better choice if you had something like desktop publishing in mind. But I was working at game developer Cinemaware then and we had a very early Mac II unit. We naturally wanted info on details that would aid in game development for this fast and colorful machine. When I called Apple and explained what we wanted to do I was essentially told "Steve doesn't like games on his computers." My feeling was, "Screw you, too, Steve."

      I've avoided Apple products ever since and have never felt I was missing much from outside the RDF.

      1. Benito Camelas
        Big Brother

        Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

        Before trashing other people's recollections, I'd recommend you make sure your personal opinions match basic recorded history before passing them as "facts" as well:

        Steve Jobs had been long gone from Apple before the Macintosh II was even a product. If anything Apple had a proactive approach towards games during the 80s, both the Apple II and Macintosh had relatively healthy gaming ecosystems back then, or at least they did in the USA. Hell, since you claim to have worked for Cinemaware, I remember playing Defender of the Crown on my Apple II as a young wee lad. So the claim that you interacted back then with someone at Apple who talked about "Steve" like they knew him, and Apple having any official negative stance towards games being developed on/for their platform(s) seem rather... "odd."

    4. Ian Johnston Silver badge

      Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

      We used an Atari Mega ST 4 in the research group I worked for. With a Spectre GCR emulator it ran MacOS software about 20% faster than a Mac would, and on a significantly bigger screen too.

    5. lambda_beta

      Re: Absolute rip off, but not a toy

      Sorry the Mac was a toy, an expensive one at that. The Macs had task switching not a real multui-tasking OS. The Amiga would run circles in tems of performance and graphics ( it, as you may recall, had specicalized procecessors for graphics which off-loaded a lot of cycles from the main processor). The mac was a desendant from Lisa (which was way overpriced), and Lisa was a desendant from the Xerox Star. As usual, Apple was master of re-packaging, not innovation.

  7. W.O.Frobozz

    Windows 3.0

    The first time I saw Windows 3.0 was during my first week in university. Being a long-time Amiga user, I laughed my ass off at what I saw was a ham-fisted attempt to recreate that which had already existed (and worked better) for almost a decade. Even the name, "Windows" was a about stating the obvious while missing the point, as there was more to most GUI operating systems of the day than just "windows." The nerdy business student who was showing me his new toy was exactly the kind of person Microsoft was counting on...a "person of faith" who had longsuffered through DOS and was willing to ignore the very, very frequent UAEs of Microsoft's pretend "operating system."

    But anyway, the joke was on me as the crash-ridden piece of junk actually took over the world, mostly propelled by the nerdy business types. Or was it...after C= bit the dust dragging Amiga along with it, I discovered a little upstart called Linux in 1993 and never looked back. SLS users represent!

    Speaking of journalists, during the dark days of Microsoft's rise to power i used to enjoy reading Will Zachmann, one of the few voices who dared criticize Microsoft. Wonder what ever happened to him, he was a voice in the wilderness for a time. Were it not for Will we wouldn't know about Steve "Barkto" Ballmer and his astroturfing brigade on C$.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Some things have changed, maybe not in the way everyone wanted...

    Snip from the article:

    Thirdly, the press and pundits largely wanted Microsoft to succeed, and IBM to fail. This wasn’t through any great affection for Microsoft at all. But the clones had created a thriving market and nobody wanted IBM to control both the hardware and the software industry again.



    1. LDS Silver badge

      Re: Some things have changed, maybe not in the way everyone wanted...

      "nobody wanted IBM to control both the hardware and the software"

      Yep, it was what Apple tried to achieve in the mobile market...

  9. Mage
    Big Brother

    Great last line

    My friends tell me Microsoft will save us from IBM. But who will save us from Microsoft?

    Or From Google. Microsoft is beginning to look benevolent. If they'd only kill the Ribbon and the User Interface Formerly called Metro for anything bigger than 5".

    We're doomed really.

    ... Wanders off and looks at RiscOS on PI again.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Those screenshots look so old now, although it's worth remembering that less than 20 years ago a lot of businesses were still using green screen Amstrads and dot matrix printers.

  11. Tam Lin

    Microsoft won the way they know - dishonesty and fraud.

    I was at the initial "OS/2 Developer's Conference" 1987, but it was no such thing.

    In reality it was a Ballmer and MZ-led evangelical Windows pyramid-scheme marketing Conference. Gates, who had promised to appear, was always going to be there "soon". He never deigned, of course.

    Ballmer's biggest lie was that Microsoft had written a program - always nearly finished - that would convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2. He actually had most of the attendees believing "Write for Windows today, and you're writing for the OS/2 of tomorrow." Completely unfinished API notwithstanding.

    At the conference end when they announced "free copies of Windows 1.03 for everyone!" 95% of crowd was cheering. Only the IBMers and a few of us who had dealt with Microsoft in the past knew that we'd been suckered into paying a multi-$1000 conference fee for a $100 toy program and the opportunity to help Gates become the world's richest psychopath.

    1. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge

      Re: Microsoft won the way they know - dishonesty and fraud.


      Gates is certainly not a "psychopath" and 1987, Gates and Ballmer were actually fully behind OS/2 and believed what they were saying.

    2. ThomH

      Re: Microsoft won the way they know - dishonesty and fraud.

      Didn't Micrografx Mirrors [more or less] allow Windows source to be compiled into an OS/2 application? Though I'll concede it was meant to be a stopgap emulation-ish layer rather than a tool that'd actually go in and adjust your source so that you were subsequently working on a native OS/2 application.

    3. Ramazan

      Re: Ballmer's biggest lie ... convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2

      Tam Lin - you are the biggest fraud and liar here. What you tried to talk about is, sucker

      1. Basil Fernie
        Thumb Down

        Re: Ballmer's biggest lie ... convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2

        Well, this relates only to 16-bit Windows libraries. For my remarks on Win32, see above.

    4. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      @Tarn Lin

      "Ballmer's biggest lie was that Microsoft had written a program - always nearly finished - that would convert source code written for Windows to run on OS/2"


      What developers will believe of MS *never* gets old. The did the same with the Windows 95 /NT porting process. "It's just like the Win95 API"

      " and the opportunity to help Gates become the world's richest psychopath."


  12. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Awesome article

    Really enjoyed this one, and can wholeheartedly agree.

    And even though I personally still consider OS/2 Warp (3) & Merlin (4) to be the more extensive environments at that time I also think one cannot deny that Microsoft has done one very important thing right with its Windows environment (apart from the many mishaps and other ickyness which also occurred): the strict design.

    Sure; here and there Windows can be picked up as a little bit messy, but its not as if they had to re-design the whole OS structure time and time again (although they did do a few kernel rewrites). With that I'm not referring to the GUI which has seen many changes over the years (including the most heard annoyance regarding programs and options being moved to new places) but the underlying structure.

    When Microsoft started with, for example, their management console (mmc.exe) they designed it in such a way that it could be extended, which also happened over the years. And even though it sits in the background and most end users have no clue what it is, the msc "management files" still sit in their comfy home of system32, as they have been from the start.

    Microsoft has done a lot of things wrong, and bluffed their way through several encounters, but I also think its fair to state that they managed to set up a rather solid foundation. Which I think may very have added to the eventual success of Windows.

    Although OS/2 was obviously better :-)

    Seriously though: OS/2 Warp Server (which I kinda missed in the articles) IMO really was way ahead of its time. User management? You could do that the same way you setup folders; from the templates section. Which would also give you a very easy way to pre-customize your objects before creating new ones.

    iow: check the properties of an object in the "templates" folder and customize it to your needs. For example; you could set the folder type to "pictures", thus if you created a folder by dragging its object from the templates folder it would always create a folder which view type would be set to "pictures".

    Now imagine this same functionality with user accounts. What's that? Annoying to drag an object with the mouse, then having to go to the keyboard to fill in the details, then back to the mouse again to drag in another object (if you had to create several) ?

    Indeed; that's why there were also shortcuts available. No need to have your hands leave the keyboard, at all.

    aaah, the good ole days. Sure; user management on Windows isn't bad either. But try to setup a default user profile /without/ reading the help screen. It can be found and done, but hardly as easy as "Oh, a user template amongst all the others? Lets customize it!".

    1. AndrueC Silver badge

      Re: Awesome article

      I'm not totally convinced by that. There are some pretty fugly and dark corners to the Win32 API. Then there's the backends of SharePoint and Exchange both of which have had to undergo significant changes with new versions suggesting that the Office guys at least aren't much good at forward thinking. And the probable icing on the cake from those guys has to MAPI and friends. Or the whole Exchange communication bit - one release introduces CAS arrays to solve a problem and the next release gets rid of them again.

      My thoughts on MS are that they are generally quite poor at design. They really don't seem to be much good at orthogonality.

    2. John Smith 19 Gold badge

      Re: Awesome article

      "Sure; user management on Windows isn't bad either."

      I think you need to alter the grammar a little.

      "User management *eventually* became as good as other platforms could deliver *years* earlier once MS had wiped out the competition and decided to add some of the things it had not bothered to install in the first place"

      As someone once observed "If the Devil ever beat God he would have to take over some of Gods duties."

  13. GregC
    Thumb Up

    Fascinating piece

    Especially for someone who is just a few years too young to have been aware of it all happening at the time.

    More like this (and the other historical articles that have appeared in recent times) please El Reg, the history of this industry is an interesting one.

  14. mark l 2 Silver badge

    I expect for Microsoft to survive the next 20 years they will need to do what IBM should have done years ago and offer their OS for free or see the oems either going bust or moving away from Microsoft OS to ones where they can make more money per device by using free software.

    Microsoft still has its Windows store, xbox, office software where it can make money but the OS division is on a slipper slope.

  15. Epobirs

    IBM's biggest enemy was IBM

    I remember fondly the 1995 CES in Las Vegas. Windows 95 was being heavily promoted but still eight months away from shipping and nearly everyone was making jokes about how late it was. IBM had a booth for its consumer software division. I spent some time there talking to a VP and noted that everything there was for Windows 3.x and none of it for OS/2 Warp. Not true, he said, all of it works in Warp. But only as Windows apps, not natively with any of the strengths OS/2 offers.

    He looked at me as if I'd grown horns and opened a third eye. Native OS/2 software? We have to make money at this. There isn't any money in OS/2 software.

    This was the man who lead IBM's effort to enter the market for games and educational software.

    It was even worse in other divisions. They were openly at war with the PC guys, who they perceived as directly undermining their products. Microsoft didn't have to be a very good fighter when its opponent was constantly being attacked by members of its own family.

    Another notable incident, from the Comdex about two months earlier at the same Las Vegas Convention Center. IBM proudly rolled out the latest version of its 'cheap' development package for OS/2. Only $600. The Windows SDK from Microsoft? They slipped the CD in your bag if you came within 50 feet of their booth and held still for a few seconds. By the end of that Comdex I had a dozen of those discs.

    Microsoft really wanted it, while IBM wasn't sure if they really cared.

  16. h3

    HFS was/is Apple (Still is I think - dunno why didn't use ZFS when they had the chance.)

    OS/2 was HPFS

    1. AndrueC Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      I liked HPFS. I was a data recovery engineer at the time and HPFS was one of the most damage tolerant file systems around. It was also fast without the need for a huge cache. Surprisingly it was written by Microsoft which gave rise to the joke:

      OS/2 was a gold mine. When IBM and Microsoft split MS got the gold and IBM got the shaft :)

    2. Ian Johnston Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      A pedant writes

      OS/2 Warp was HPFS. From version 4 onwards the default file system was JFS.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Probably because at the time when OSX first included some tentative ZFS functionality, Sun was in a death-spiral led by that pony haired-buffoon Schwartz. You wouldn't want to have your OS based on a filesystem that might soon end up being owned by someone else (it would have been deliciously ironic for Microsoft to have bought Sun just so they could spite Apple after the latter would have officialyy adopted ZFS as its primary FS).

      Plus, there were probably too many compatibility problems with HFS-based software to make the venture worth their while.

  17. Stephen Channell

    OS/2 was not that great

    Not quite right about [NAME] finding a way to trick DOS into running in the 286 Protected mode; the trick was finding a way to address 4Mb without entering protected mode. The 8086 processor had 16-bits to address the 64Kb in each segment plus 4-bits in the segment registers to give a total of 1Mb (10 segments for memory 640k, & six segments for adaptors/graphics).

    Although all the Intel documentation said that real mode was confided to 1Mb (bottom 4-bits of segment register) the registers were 8-bit wide and a bug meant you could set a 6-bit value.. giving 4Mb of addressable memory!

    By this time Intel was already pushing the i386 and had no plans fix the bug so Windows was safe to exploit it… Had IBM hacked around with the 286 they never would have been dumb enough to build for the 286 protected mode that required a slow processor reset to switch from protected to real mode.. It is entirely inaccurate to call OS/2 1.x solid because any interrupt fired during the P->R switch would be lost and potentially hanging.

    Not quite right about EBCDIC either (both ASCII & EBCDIC are standardised). ASCII was popular on small machines because it was a 7-bit code (1-bit for parity check) instead of 8-bit. A EBCDIC byte could either be a character, a 2-digit BCD number or a control code… BCD meant there was little space for currency codes.. hence the proliferation.. and Intel supported EBCDIC with BCD opcodes.

    Not quite right about SAA & SNA either, the best TCP/IP stack for PCs in the 80’s used 300k and would not run with Lotus 1-2-3 & OSI was a non-starter. TCP/IP only got viable with QEMM, Windows or OS/2.

    OS/2 only got viable at v2.0 on i386, but still had i286 hacks, only getting clean with OS/2 Warp (which IBM had locked MS out of).. renaming OS/2 3.0 to Windows NT was a no brainer for MS..

    It is worth noting that when NT debuted, it was one of only four multi-processor OS (MVS,VMS & SunOS being the others).. without the IBM OS/2 adventure, we’d have switched to MS Xenix in the 80’s

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: OS/2 was not that great

      And all this makes me real sad that the two giants who sadly "set the standard" for computing spent so much time hacking around with archaic junk like the x86. There were better designed processors already out there that didn't need all this bullshit. Intel should have been left on the junkheap of history (and probably would have been had they not stolen from the Alpha chip to make their overheating lumps of silicon work right).

      But then again I've never understood why PC users were so happy to play with garbage like TSR's and segmented addressing. Masochists, I guess.

      1. asdf

        Re: OS/2 was not that great

        If you check my posts you will see I am no fan of Intel but also what has kept them around has been being a generation ahead process shrink wise of everyone else. That and banking more money than God when they were all the rage.

    2. Ramazan

      Re: one of only four multi-processor OS

      This is a lie

    3. yuhong

      Re: OS/2 was not that great

      "only getting clean with OS/2 Warp (which IBM had locked MS out of).."

      And that is where the more aggressive attacks done by MS like "Microsoft Munchkins" dates from.

    4. Steve the Cynic

      Re: OS/2 was not that great ((Re: 4MB in real mode))

      4MB in real mode??? Yes you can, but not by doing what Mr Channell says.

      In real mode, the 16-bit segment number is multiplied by 16 (left shift 4 bits) and added to the offset. On a 8086/8088, this wraps round if it overflows, so FFFF:0010 addresses the same physical address as 0000:0000.

      A bug in the 286 meant that the carry out of address line A19 was kept, so you could address the first 64KB-16B beyond the 1MB line. A hack in the keyboard controller chip squashed this to emulate the 8088/8086 behaviour, or allowed A20 to pass through to the memory for use when entering protected mode. (This is the origin of the (in)famous Gate-A20 functionality of HIMEM.SYS.)

      On a 386, you can (using undocumented features of the chip) set large (up to 4GB) limits on the in-chip segment descriptors, even in real mode, allowing you to address memory anywhere in the physical address space of the chip. This is the so-called Big Real Mode. And, of course, you have to let the A20 line go through to the memory...

      And Intel only supported the BCD-numbers part of EBCDIC. IBM mainframes directly supported EBCDIC's character encodings through mechanisms such as the EDIT instruction that formatted an integer into an EBCDIC character field...

      Red FAIL for your analysis of history. Sorry about that.

  18. J. R. Hartley

    If Commodore didn't mismanage itself to the early grave...

    We'd all be running Workbench 8 on our shiny Amigas. What a pity we aren't :/

    1. W.O.Frobozz

      Re: If Commodore didn't mismanage itself to the early grave...

      Well, as the original designers of the Amiga said (hidden inside Workbench 1.2): "We made Amiga, they f-cked it up." Amiga was too damn good for vulture capitalists like Irving Gould and Medhi Ali.

      My dream match up would have been to see Jack Tramiel at his prime take on Bill Gates.

    2. ThomH

      Re: If Commodore didn't mismanage itself to the early grave...

      It feels unlikely to me that a single vendor could have maintained a market lead over a diverse array of competitors. The competing technology catches up and the competition forces the prices down. DOS was particularly far behind, making the situation look worse than usual but I'm confident Microsoft or somebody else on the PC would have taken the crown by now.

      I guess the real shame is that OS/2 wasn't ready in about 1984. IBM's focus on supporting mainly its own hardware would have reined in the PC architecture a little and putting a proper OS between software and hardware would probably have bought us stuff like intelligent video hardware a lot earlier.

      1. yuhong

        Re: If Commodore didn't mismanage itself to the early grave...

        Yea, the Multitasking DOS 4.0 fiasco where MS focused on a *real-mode* multitasking OS.

  19. westlake

    Rear view mirror.

    The geek tends to forget that Microsoft had an early and very successful entrant in the *NIX market for the PC.

    >>In the late 1980s, Xenix was, according to The Design and Implementation of the 4.3BSD UNIX Operating System, "probably the most widespread version of the UNIX operating system, according to the number of machines on which it runs<<

    "You Can Afford A Ford"

    The MSDOS and Windows PC entered the market as an office workhorse and home appliance.

    The beige box built around a decent keyboard, an 80 column display, off-the-shelf PC hardware ---- and a price tag that wouldn't send the buyer into sticker shock.

    It's a winning formula that allows hardware and software to evolve together and expand into new markets as the installed base grows and economies of scale kick in.

  20. LDS Silver badge

    IBM bought Lotus - and never had it work hard to deliver a real OS/2 office suite

    I bought OS/2 Warp in 1994 - didn't want to wait for Windows 95 to take advantage of the 32 bits of my new shiny Pentium 90 processor. It worked well and was very fast, especially with DOS apps but with Windows 3.1 ones too (although the single input queue was a bad design decision really, a hung Windows app could hung the whole system, or the shredder, with its command-line only recover utility). HPFS was really a winner, compared to FAT.

    But I was waiting for native OS/2 apps. I bought Lotus WordPro for Windows, waiting for the native OS/2 version, and it was really buggy. Meanwhile IBM instead of stopping development of the Windows version where it had already lost to Microsoft Office, wasted resources in the Windows 3.1 and Windows 95 versions, instead of focusing the whole Lotus on OS/2 applications. The only real ready office suite for OS/2 was StarOffice (now OpenOffice...). Once again IBM didn't support its own products.

    After a couple of years, when it was clear OS/2 would have not go anywhere, and new Windows applications where 32 bit only (which OS/2 never supported, although IBM said it had the rights), I switched to Windows as well. But it wasn't until I could run NT4 that I didn't complain too much I had to ditch OS/2.

    1. PhilipN Silver badge

      Re: IBM bought Lotus - and never had it work hard to deliver a real OS/2 office suite

      There was eventually a Lotus Smartsuite for OS/2 which I still use today. Frankly it is a nice package. The contacts/address book was derived from an even smaller package from Arcadia which I bet those who used it will have fond memories of. Also had a nifty word processor. And, if memory serves, FREE!

  21. Ian Johnston Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    The nicest thing of all about Warp

    was the browser, WebExplorer and in particular the "map" feature, which gave you, at a click, a tree view of all the websites you had visited in that session. Infinitely better than the linear forward/back navigation ever other browser still uses, and I am really, really surprised that no-one else has adopted it.

  22. Herby

    Our consolation prize..

    Most PC's after about 1988 or so started to have a PS/2 port for the keyboard, or mouse. Nice that there were 6 pins in the connector, and IBM only used 4 of them. They could have used the "other two" for the other device (mouse) and made the connectors not care about what was plugged into them. Oh, so close, but no cigar!

    Life goes on, and now we have USB in its 3rd big version (after the 3 previous versions 1.0, 1.1, 2.0) and even greater speeds, where it might have been simplified by using a nicer keyboard/mouse interface like the Mac's ADB (which was meant for only low speed devices). Combine that with firewire (IEEE 1394) and it would have been a simpler universe.

    Of course it all goes back to IBM's decision to use a X86 processor in the beginning. If they had chosen a proper chip (Motorola's 68000) instead, I suspect that Intel would be a bunch of silicon dust right now, and we would be using 68080's or better that run at GHz speeds.

    Life goes on, and we are doomed by the compatibility with the past. (*SIGH*)

    1. Colin Bull 1

      Re: Our consolation prize..

      I would have said VGA was a bigger consolation. How many people are not reading this on a VGA based monitor?

      1. /dev/null

        Re: Our consolation prize..

        Plus 1.4MB 3.5in floppies, 1024x768 resolution (IBM 8514), 72-pin SIMMs and power switches on the front of the box...

  23. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "But an intern at Redmond [NAME]"

    Excellent article - but did you mean ${NAME} - that would've caused text expansion by the appropriate sub-editor process.

    AC, because well, no one likes a smartarse.

  24. Doug 3

    Microsoft and IBM legally had to play two different marketing games

    Microsoft could and did use illegal and ruthless means to get not only the OEM's locked into Dos/Windows then Win95 but also the press. Microsoft fed the press misinformation about what Chicago / Win95 would have and also had their fingers on who articles were written. One author once wrote how his article was edited so what the name OS/2 as left off the cover page and only bits about Microsoft's OS was covered on page one. Then there was the physical/paper press of the time where as inaccuracies were corrected over a month later in little comments pushed to the back of the magazines. Damage done won the day.

    IBM, they were under anti-trust obligations and couldn't do things like false advertising or even pre-announce software capabilities etc. They had already lawyered up and had lots of layers looking over all the marketing.

    So what you had was a boxing match with IBM having to play fair and cautiously against a ghost which could apparently do everything, be everything and the press made it looks like it was everything.

  25. yuhong

    Microsoft Munchkins

    Don't forget "Microsoft Munchkins" and other unethical attacks on OS/2 that MS did while Chicago was delayed.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    One year at Comdex IBM was selling developer kits at their booth, you had to fill out a long form, and pay some pretty good cash. Over at the Microsoft booth, they gave out developer kits like free candy. Everyone had a Microsoft bag and the free developer kit when they left.

  27. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    OS/2 was wrong product for the time!

    The success of MS Windows lies with the fact that they gave the customer the right OS at the right time.

    I still remember Win NT and Win 2000, they were slow in comparison to Win 3.0 and Win 95. It wasn't until Win XP that the NT line had speed on its side.

    I remember trying to install Win NT/2000 on the hardware that I could just about afford and it was pathetically slow. So I had to go back to Win 3.0 and Win 95. Obviously corporates could afford fast expensive computers but much of the home market probably could not.

    Windows XP will run on a 300 MHZ system with 128MB ram, whereas the latest Linux distros require at least 700 MHZ and 256 MB ram. Whats worse the latest Linux distros still cant match Windows XP for features. Sure you can run something like Fluxbox but that just makes the features on offer worse still. Fortunate for Linux cheap fast CPU'S are in plentiful supply.

    In short you have to offer the customer the right OS for the right time.

    1. enerider

      Re: OS/2 was wrong product for the time!

      Er, what?

      "Windows XP will run on a 300 MHZ system with 128MB ram, whereas the latest Linux distros require at least 700 MHZ and 256 MB ram. Whats worse the latest Linux distros still cant match Windows XP for features."

      So the *latest* Linux distributions require more horsepower to run versus an 11 year old OS on 11 year old hardware?

      You do realise the apples to oranges comparison being applied here, right?

      Sure Windows XP will run on a 300MHz system with 128MB of RAM - if you added no service packs or demanding applications. Otherwise it quickly becomes an epic pagefile thrashing of the hard drive to Alt + Tab.

      It ran horribly slowly after 3 Service packs and numerous updates later on any amount of RAM less than 512MB (service packs adding abilities to see larger hard drives for one thing). 1GB of RAM was regarded as the "sweet spot" for running XP initially - later having 2GB was not uncommon as applications demanded more breathing room.

      As for features - what features are specifically missing?

    2. Ian Johnston Silver badge
      Thumb Down

      Re: OS/2 was wrong product for the time!

      Windows XP will run on a 300 MHZ system with 128MB ram, whereas the latest Linux distros require at least 700 MHZ and 256 MB ram.

      It's perhaps a wee bit unfair to compare an eleven year old incarnation of Windows with "the latest Linux distros". What resources did Linux need in 2001? What resources does Windows 8 need now? And have you considered modern lightweight Linux distros like Puppy or Damn Small Linux?

      1. Basil Fernie

        Re: OS/2 was wrong product for the time!

        I have standardised on Edubuntu 12.04 for my household PCs, spanning a variety of (ancient) desktops for the juniors up to a dual-core 64-bit AMD-powered Lenovo laptop. By replacing the much-disputed Unity desktop with the well-proven, feature-rich LXDE, I have an extremely slick system idling at below 140MB (that's with several optional resident application processes), no use of swap memory, 3% of CPU time on one core and 0% on the other. For comparison, I give you the Win7 installed on the Lenovo at purchase - at idle using 736MB RAM, 14-17% total CPU usage, slow as the La Brea tarpits.

        Puppy Linux I carry with me to boot onto almost anything that's in trouble. The Lupu version is based on Ubuntu, comes with LXDE, gives access to the full range of Ubuntu application repositories. TinyCore Linux runs in 18MB RAM, but needs some judicious adding of apps to be useful.

  28. Neoc

    Ahhh, the memorex

    I remember these Halcyon days. Windows didn't really become useful until Windows 3.11, and I somehow managed to get my hands on a commercial copy of OS/2 Warp at a price I could afford (i.e. cheap).

    I always found it funny that Windows and Windows apps ran better and faster on OS/2 - it would do patching on the Windows software as it was loaded (a big no-no these days with viruses so prevalent) to give them better memory handling and make them task-switcher compliant.

    Ah, those were the days. Mine's a pint, thanks.

    1. deadmonkey
      Thumb Up

      Re: Ahhh, the memorex

      Yes, the article neglected 3.11 as being the first version of Windows with tcp/ip, so I'm glad you chipped in.

      1. Mark Leaver

        Re: Ahhh, the memorex

        Windows 3.11 for Workgroups... ahh the heady joys the Microsoft implementation of the TCP/IP stack with NetBIOS overlaid to create a whole world of confusion with the naming of computers...

  29. Anonymous Coward
    IT Angle

    Msg from a parallel universe ..

    "the 32bit version of OS/2 was everything that the 16bit wasn’t. It was a quite stunning system. It just wasn’t ready yet"..., elREG

    "SteveB went on the road to see the top weeklies, industry analysts and business press this week to give our systems strategy. The meetings included demos of Windows 3.1 (pen and multimedia included), Windows NT, OS/2 2.0 including a performance comparison to Windows and a “bad app” that corrupted other applications and crashed the system", July 1991

    "After pushing these guys for about two years they finally have decided what to do about windows .. they will not license it. The reason for this is OS/2. As Compaq expressed in the last executive meeting, they have decided that OS/2 is their strategic direction", Oct 1989

    "a demo of OS/2 2.0 .. The demo included running:1-2--3 2.01 with expanded memory, DOS Wordperfect, PM Excel, Microsoft Word (CUI) with Borland Sidekick, Microsoft Windows in a window, with the calender application running inside that, Flight Simulator, Cut-and-paste was demonstrated from 1-2-3 to Wordperfect and then to Excel". Dec 1989

  30. The Mighty Spang

    win 95 did run in 4mb

    it was delayed because billg said it would run no slower than 3.11 in 4mb, hence a lot of time consuming optimization.

    1. Steve the Cynic

      Re: win 95 did run in 4mb

      Strictly speaking, it could be persuaded to amble along in only 2MB of RAM. I know this, because I once spoke to a guy who was doing just that. Sure it was slow, and he was the first to admit it, but it would (eventually) boot up.

      Of course, the guy went out of his way to make life difficult, because that machine only had a 16MHz 386SX...

  31. Don Mitchell

    IBM, UBM, We all bm for IBM

    IBM might have been a "powerhouse" of a corporation, but nobody thought they were software development wizards. Read "The Mythical Man Month". They were famous for bloated contorted systems. Having used their so-called timesharing system at Caltech, I can personally testifiy to how utterly horrible it was -- worse than UNIVAC exec, worse than DEC's tops20 or RT11, certainly worse than UNIX. You just can't imagine how backwards IBM was in its thinking...virtual card decks and job control language. They couldn't have done OS/2 without help from Microsoft.

    IBM's strength was marketing and customer support. If you had money coming out of your ears, you hired IBM to build and run your computer center. Their support contracts were legendary. I know one case where a university's computer center burned down (U. Toronto I think), and within 24 hours IBM had a mobile center housed in trucks up and running in the parking lot. But the glorification of OS/2, that's just funny. Remember, it was not the flakey consumer Win95 that Microsoft brought out to compete with OS/2, it was Dave Cutler's NT operating system. That's what freaked out IBM, and caused one of their VPs to say he wanted to put an ice pick in BIll Gates' head.

    Also, nobody was trying to write a "UNIX killer" back then. UNIX was something that ran on $50,000 workstations or $500,000 minicomputers, at universities flush with grant money. It wasn't a threatening personal computer operating system in the late 1980s.

  32. YARR

    "Sun" RISC

    Anyone else notice that the "Sun RISC" screen shots for 1987 in the first video were of the RISC OS 3 desktop on an Acorn Archimedes?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Sun" RISC

      Yes RISCO OS Screen Shots given credit to Sun Microsystems. Some one assume Sun were the only RISC chip maker. When Acron now ARM was making RISC chips.

  33. mhoulden
    Thumb Up

    Susan Kare

    She's mentioned briefly as an icon designer in OS/2. However she also designed a lot of the graphics in older versions of Windows and the Mac OS, including the dogcow and the cards in Windows Solitaire, and she's still around now: If El Reg could arrange an interview with her I bet she'd have a few interesting stories to tell.

  34. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    MIT is in Boston?

    Someone will probably claim I'm splitting hairs and down vote me, but MIT is in Cambridge, not Boston.

    It is all considered "the greater Boston area", but Boston is Boston, and Cambridge is Cambridge, and there's a rather large river separating the two.

  35. John Smith 19 Gold badge

    the best advices for dealing with large corps comes from Martin Sheen in Wallstreet

    "He's in it for the bucks and he don't take prisoners."

    Keep that in mind when any corporate type is speaking.

  36. /dev/null

    "Windows 3.0, the first version to do the Protected Mode trick"

    Erm, didn't the Windows/286 and Windows/386 editions of Windows 2.10 do protected mode tricks?

  37. Belgarion

    Time warp...

    I haven't even finished the first page and I'm lost in memories. Has it really been that long?

  38. Belgarion
    Thumb Up

    A good read...

    @Gregc: If you want a good read, check out Dealers of Lightning by Michael Hiltzik. It may not be in print, but copies can be found. Probably available in e-format.

  39. King Zaphod
    Thumb Up

    Memory Lane

    Thanks for such a brilliant article and very interesting - I won't go into when I was doing this or that - but as a young greenhorn starting off in IT in the mid 80's in it was all very fast moving and without the internet it was harder to get a top level view of who was doing what at the time; thank you for bringing more clarity regarding some of the things going on in those times.

    It's enjoyable reading to think back about the possibilities and it seems like we are back there again in a critical period regarding where IT is heading.

    I remember the larger financial institutions were the IBM shops adopting OS/2 and staying with it - as an ordinary observer, it seems Windows 3 then hit the World like a tidal wave.

    Perhaps worthy of a mention is the Sanyo Icon mini-computer venture in early nineties that attempted to hedge bets to some extent and bridge the gap by bridging the back end with a Novell server and thus allowing hot-key access between the Windows 3.1 x desktop / network, native Unix and the PICK shell. This approach may have paid off had Unix apps been more adopted and global - we certainly had issues with compiling other vendors Unix apps even though the OSF set of standards was supposed to address this - I think the Unix vendors were busy fighting for the cake whilst MS was busily promoting a relatively user-friendly and integrated environment.

    (BTW - Pick was a wonderfully easy variable length O/S allowing very for quick development, not bad with graphical add on GUI interfaces like System builder / Frog/ etc - yes I liked it !). Apparently, IBM approached Dick Pick to ask about adapting PICK to become the basis of their PC O/S but he turned them down - does anyone know if this true or throw light on it....?

  40. lrs

    OS/2 > 0

    While I don't necessarily agree with the following joke, it's still cute.

    How do you pronounce "OS/2 > 0" ?

    Most people would probably say "OS/2 is greater than 0".

    But there are some who would say "Half an operating system is better than none" !

  41. Johan Bastiaansen

    That's the problem with self declared smart people...

    What we learned from this is that if you outsell your competitor, you can defeat a superior product that is "supported" by "strategists" and self declared smart people who concentrate on company politics instead of business.

    Who would have thought? Well I would.

    But not my boss. And neither his boss.

  42. Stewart McKenna
    Thumb Up

    I used OS2 v1. My FIL purchased one of those S/Z? 80s for $8,000 (amazingly expensive at that time).

    I could not run anything except dBASE on it and I had to develop an app for him.

    It was horrible.

    My next experience was using OS2 v 2.1 to port development of a PL/1, IMS, DB2 application from

    and IBM mainframe to the cheaper PC platform. Once I got through all kinds of issues getting

    compatible software etc. to work - it was awesome,

    What was most impressive was the system recovery. If the system crashed, or even if you

    just hit the power button, it would come right back up with the same screen open and the cursor

    sitting on the same line that it was on before the crash/power... impressive...

  43. M.D.

    OEM, OS/2, MS and Eco(systems) !

    Gosh, a shame I missed this article when it was first published, as I'd have plunged into the debate. So, as a postscript <grin> to all this, some points, in the tradition of 'IMHO' :)

    I was the Technical Manager of a moderately successful OEMer during most of the 90's & I'll say the ONE THING that really made e difference (it's in the article!) MS created a workable platform/Eco-system. Ok, so MS wasn't the best thing in the World but crikey it made the creation of integrated Pc achievable without a ton of pain.

    Its easy to just say this but the continuing cost of managing equipment integration was a major challenge to most OEMers - we are talking about a time where 'peripherals' (i.e. graphics cards, modems) were evolving almost shipment by shipment, the pain in reconfiguring builds and integratiion testing all this stuff was only rivalled by the agony of talking to some company rep in Taiwan about driver for what "appeared" to be exactly the same 20,000 graphics cards that we had purchased 2 weeks earlier. Multiply that by every add-on card ... Microsoft certainly wasn't a panacea but it was the least painful - and believe me, I had a team of guys who did nothing but test other OS. options - nothing was LESS painful.

    We even got into bed with IBM for Merlin, where I recall losing an entire Christmas holiday while my team and an IBM team tried to make a build that would work with all our worked. For about a month - then the new devices arriving changed.

    Yup, Personally loved Warp4 but then, I had a nice powerful computer on my desk with bags of RAM and was essentially paid to keep tweaking it - fact is we had far too many returns as our customers (remember them?) told us time and again that it was too hard/didn't work with their printer/external Modem/zip/whatever

    As for LiNUX for end-consumers during the 90's? don't make me laugh (again, I'm so sad a geek that I even built Debian into a PS/2 once, but what's that got to do with Consumers?! LINUX was too hard back then).

    To the purists I point to history - "good enough" will always prevail, especially if it's aligned to "least painful"

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