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Alas, Poor OS/2; I Knew it, Horatio

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

  • May 20, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The news last week was scarcely a surprise, but it had that sudden deflating effect that one gets when an ancient and beloved friend and teacher, terminally ill, finally passes on: IBM is pulling the plug on OS/2. No service is planned, but the mourners will comprise thousands, maybe millions of Linux users who first tasted independent thinking in computer software when they endured the horrendous installation procedure of what was otherwise the most powerful and magnificent of dosrivative operating systems, present company included. Having earned their stripes by just getting the thing on the hard drive, they learned that power, reliable multitasking, yes, a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows were theirs.

There will be no funeral, but an obituary is in order anyway.

From the days when it was still a joint production involving IBM and its pet software company, Microsoft, OS/2 was a sickly child, not expected by many to live long at all. The first version, devoid of GUI or native applications and capable of running but a single DOS app at a time, was released in December 1987. It had no mouse support, wouldn't support hard drives bigger than 32 megs, and was functionally crippled by IBM's insistence that it run on 80286 processors. A beta had been sold the previous summer to anyone willing to pay $3,000 for it.

IBM promised a graphical front end for the thing, and a mere 11 months later, on Halloween, did so in the form of a ghastly thing called Presentation Manager. (Microsoft was still on the boat; the second version of Windows was named Windows Presentation Manager 2.0.) Nevertheless, the computer press went wild. This, they said, was the wave of the future. Article after article about this great new OS appeared, and when Lotus released 1-2-3G for Presentation Manager, the ink-stained crowd went wild. Microsoft released applications as "family mode," meaning that if they were installed under OS/2, they were native OS/2 apps. (This was true, in fact, through Word 5.5, released long after Microsoft had declared war on IBM. The chief change in Word 6.0 was elimination of this feature. I'm talking DOS apps; this was a few months before Winword inexplicably replaced its version 2.0 with 6.0.)

There was OS/2 1.1 and OS/2 1.1 Extended Edition, which was like 1.1 but now actually good for something. Microsoft wrote OS/2 1.2, which by all accounts made DOS 4.0, that beehive of buggy releases, look like high art. IBM rushed out OS/2 1.3, which was highly successful well into the mid 1990s as the imbedded system in the majority of the world's automatic-teller machines.

Dry facts. But then there was The Movement.

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