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Alas, Poor OS/2; I Knew it, Horatio - page 3

I Read the News Today, Oh Boy

  • May 20, 2000
  • By Dennis E. Powell

The applications never appeared in any great numbers--if OS/2 would run Windows apps, why write to two APIs when you can write to one?--though the single best application that I have ever used on any platform was the OS/2-native DeScribe word processor. (DeScribe was a microcosm of IBM and OS/2, a great product insanely mishandled. At one point the company's president, James P. Lennane, announced that the next version would work only if a key disk, sent out semi-annually, were applied; then he withdrew that plan and said that if 1,000 copies were not sold in the first month he'd close the company, which did not inspire buyer confidence for some reason. Finally he backed away from that, too. He appeared on "60 Minutes" and said that his software was being pirated. And he ran for president of the United States. I am not making this up; he was in the New Hampshire primary, but I don't know if anybody voted for him. No surprise, he was an ex-IBMer.)

Led by Reiswig, IBM actually played for the consumer market with OS/2 3.0, which wasn't quite as hard to install and which contained a full (though pretty miserable) Internet suite and IBM Works, an OS/2-native productivity suite that resembled Microsoft Works in a number of ways. And for a few months (during which time the sales charts were mysteriously absent from PC Magazine), OS/2 3.0 was the top-selling software product in the country. Nobody noticed -- The New York Times, for instance, ran a three-inch wire story about the OS/2 3.0 rollout in the fall of 1994 on an inside page of the business section; understandable, in that the rollout took place at the Richard Rodgers Theater on Broadway, an entire three blocks from the office of The Times. This was in stark contrast to the orgy of coverage The Times did the following year when, on July 31, 1995, more than a month before its release, the newspaper devoted page after page to Windows 95 in an orgy of speculation that made it seem as if the chief benefit of Creation was that it made Windows 95 possible. In that section The Times finally did a piece on OS/2: IBM was discontinuing it, the story said. Finally, last week, The Times was relieved of its obligation to publish a retraction, something toward which it had apparently decided to take a wait-and-see attitude.

IBM actually advertised OS/2 3.0, sort of. The only thing anybody remembers was a television ad featuring elderly Belgian nuns croaking something in Flemish that the subtitles told us was a discussion of the joys of being on the Internet with OS/2. It seemed never to have occurred to anyone in a position of power that introducing this product to a new market might have included, in English for English-speaking countries, what the product was, what it did, and why anyone would have wanted it. The advertisements soon disappeared, but OS/2 didn't.

There was, later, OS/2 4.0, which dropped the notion of marketing to consumers (a batch of games, home accounting programs, and so on, called the "Family Fun Pak," was said to have been produced, but I've never talked to anyone who actually had the thing). Instead of IBM Works, there was now speech recognition--even a little headset. You would have to train the program to understand what you were saying, but then you could speak into the microphone and see the words appear on the screen, ready to be pasted into any application. (OS/2's clipboard was incredible. If you could get it onto the screen, you could cut and paste it--text, graphics, anything.) IBM had been selling the speech recognition stuff only a few months before as a standalone application for $1,000. Now it came with an OS that you could buy for a hundred bucks. Too bad they never much told anybody about it.

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