March 26, 2019

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

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

  • May 20, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Almost from the beginning there were people in IBM, renegades responsible ultimately for things like the abandonment of the white-shirt requirement, who saw the potential in what they thought was a tragically mismarketed operating system. They were hackers and they knew that not all hackers worked at IBM. They would write little apps for OS/2: Text editors, programming tools. Somewhere around here I have a floppy that contains an employee-written program that allows OS/2 to run CP/M applications. They lobbied heavily for OS/2, even though most of them had nothing at all to do with the product. They called themselves Team OS/2. And while they could not spread the word outside of IBM, they could say that something big was coming. A new version? Could be. Who knows?

By the middle of 1992, Team OS/2's guerilla war was all but public. Semi-official OS/2 representatives appeared on CompuServe and Prodigy, where the great Mel Hallerman held court, and little fora were set up to discuss the upcoming OS/2 2.0, a 32-bit thing that would actually run not just OS/2 apps--of which there still were few and there would be a lot real soon now--but a whole bunch of DOS apps at once and, yes, even Windows apps! By now, Microsoft was engaged in an acrimonious divorce from IBM, but IBM had a prenuptual agreement and therefore had custody of the code, including Windows 3.0. Big Blue recompiled Windows with the Phar Lap compiler, resulting in smaller and faster code than the homebrew tools Microsoft had used for standalone Windows 3.0. And it was included in OS/2. Steve Ballmer, then just a Microsoft hitman as opposed to the Microsoft hitman, his current position, said he'd eat a floppy disk if OS/2 were released by the end of 1991. IBM obliged, releasing OS/2 2.0 LA in November. (LA meant "Limited Availability," which is to say beta, and Ballmer didn't eat a floppy, or if he did it went unrecorded.)

On March 31, 1992, OS/2 2.0 was released. A lot of people went to software stores to buy it. It wasn't there. IBM had made no plans, had no idea really, that actual people would want to buy it. (I went through the Westchester County, New York, phone book. IBM is headquartered in Westchester County, and the company's phone numbers make up more than half a page of the phone book. I dialed every number until, two-thirds of the way down, I found someone who had a shrinkwrap copy. I drove there and paid retail, in cash, no receipt, in a transaction that more resembled what I'm told drug deals are like than a software purchase. It was a copy that had been sent to an office that didn't know what it was or what to do with it; my guess is that they had drinks after work with the money.) Those who did manage to find it were startled to learn that it had no manual. None. All the box contained was a little installation pamphlet and some peel-and-stick OS/2 stickers, and a box containing a couple dozen 3.5-inch floppies. The first thing most new OS/2 users did was change the ribbon cable on their floppy drives, so that the 3.5, not the 5.25, was now A:.

It took some getting used to. You could actually intermingle it with your existing DOS installation, which was so paralyzingly weird that anybody who did it (I plead guilty!) quickly tried to undo it, and failed. The dual boot was not a good idea. Besides, OS/2 offered the High-Performance File System, which made better and faster use of hard drives. This involved repartitioning, reformatting, lots of stuff that has disappeared in memory in the way that traumatic events sometimes do. What's more, you needed to set up each DOS application to run correctly--give Procomm Plus access to the modem, for instance--producing what were called "extended attributes." For DOS hands, it was like landing on Mars and learning the ways of the Martians.

But then one got the hang of it, and my goodness was it good! Team OS/2 at first extended invitations to a few mere users chosen on merit, then opened up membership to one and all, and for a time the organization was even supported to some extent by IBM. There were user groups. Lee Reiswig, the legendary Blue Ninja and head of IBM Personal Software Projects, would even drop by user group meetings from time to time and talk about the wonders to come--"If you don't have a CD reader, get one," he said with a wink before the release of OS/2 3.0 in 1994. Users would organize presentations at software stores and meetings of unenlightened user groups: hordes of users doing volunteer work in support of a multi-billion-dollar company that had a great product and didn't know how to sell it.

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