Aquarium Blog

Sunday, July 10, 2005

About OS/2 and the 850 million Microsoft paid IBM

Update: I cannot avoid editing this article, mostly because I see in my stats that a few (even from inside IBM) are reading it. I don’t want to change at all the sense of what I wrote, but I feel I have to correct mistakes and improve the style and tone of it in order to make it readable.

I received today the Stardock Magazine by email, and it contains a link to an article in which Stardock’s Brad Wardell discusses some of his experiences as an OS/2 developer and the deal that Microsoft and IBM have just cut:


Birthdays, anniversaries, whatever, I have trouble remembering. But OS/2 2.0’s release date is burned into my mind. And for the subsequent 6 years, I devoted nearly every waking hour to making OS/2 succeed. It wasn’t about money. It wasn’t about business. It was a cause. OS/2 was my cause. It was a better way of doing things. Some people get wrapped up in ideologies. Other people go on religious crusades. I was on an OS crusade.

And we lost. Badly.

Another date I remember well was Fall of 1996. That was when Microsoft release Windows NT 4.0. And within a year, the OS/2 market died. Microsoft’s effective FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) combined with IBM’s unwillingness to strongly back OS/2 made it ripe to be toppled over by Windows NT 4.0 which, while not as good as OS/2 Warp 4, was "good enough" and had good industry support.

By 1998, our once thriving company was laying people off and struggling to survive. And I wasn’t a 20 year old college student anymore. I was 26, married, with a young son. I had responsibilities to my family and my employees. We limped our way into the Windows market, tail between our legs. Nowadays, we’re a pure Microsoft shop. .NET solutions across the board. Microsoft SQL. Microsoft Office. Our company makes a great demonstration of Microsoft solutions now. Which is pretty ironic since we were once OS/2 zealots. I’m not a Windows zealot today. I’m not even a Windows advocate really. It’s just business.

The romanticism of OS technology has warn off and there’s nothing as relatively cutting edge as OS/2 was back then. So now I don’t really think of the OS choice much beyond market share and what makes good business sense. Now it’s about the software WE make. I am still dedicated to a cause -- making stuff that enables people to use their computers however they want. And I want to make software that is cool and useful. That’s where software like Object Desktop and now ThinkDesk comes in.

So today IBM and Microsoft announced that they’re closing the books on that uglyness that was OS/2. Almost 10 years after Windows 95 was released, Microsoft is paying IBM off to not sue them over all the "unpleasantness" that Microsoft was involved in to ensure that 95%+ of you are using Microsoft Windows instead of IBM OS/2. We’ll never know if we would have been better off if OS/2 had won out instead of Windows. But at least IBM got to recoup some of their costs for trying.

Are you kidding? Do you call what IBM did "trying"? Well, maybe the tried, but they also gave up miserably. I understand how it will always be so cool for you to write "Microsoft" and "FUD" on the same phrase, however, as an ex OS/2 zealot, I disagree with you, 80%.

By 1988, I did programming and support for an organization that had tens PS/2 and PC computers connected on a Token Ring LAN. I was 18 and it was my first job. Even the servers ran PC DOS 3.30 and the PC LAN Program 1.3 (I think those were the version numbers).

I remember when one day, a new box with a few diskettes came to my hands. -"Try this", they told me. I was able to install and try OS/2 1.1, but it was very difficult to make the networking work. I remember I had the feeling that I was for the first time seeing a real operating system running on a PC. It also left me very frustrated.

On my second job, by 1991, I also worked in the same network, but this time I was hired by a company that provided much of the hardware and software for it. The network eventually grew to hundreds of nodes, and became a WAN using FDDI. Performance of file sharing database (Clipper based) applications on PC LAN Program was getting really bad.

OS/2 1.3 came to rescue. I remember being there with my boss the day we installed OS/2 1.3 on the new PS/2 Model 90 (or were them 95?) servers. It was the nicest piece of software, and the nicest piece of hardware that I had ever seen. Performance went up like a rocket. That was probably the greatest triumph I remember from that job, and I am sure for my boss it also meant a lot.

OS/2 was still the product of collaboration between Microsoft and IBM. OS/2 GUI, Presentation Manager was very resembling of Windows 2.x, a DOS GUI program I only knew because of Excel. I think version 1.3 was vastly optimized by IBM alone (or was it 1.4?). It included a 32 bit version of HPFS that installed in case you had a i386 or i486. I must say it worked like a breeze.

By the time Windows 3.0 was out, I was a deeply convinced OS/2 zealot. No way an "inferior product" like Windows was going to win in the long run, it was just impossible.

OS/2 2.0, the first fully 32 bit version of OS/2 came out late, but it was wonderful. I still remember the cover of BYTE magazine. IBM had gathered a great team for OS/2 2.0. They had such a great vision they didn’t know very well when the product was ready to ship. They kept adding more and more sophistication. On the technical side, as a fan of Object Oriented Programming, version 2.0 was full of interesting things to look at under the hood. Its compatibility with legacy software was also incredible.

Maybe it wasn’t a better Windows than Windows itself, but it was very close, and it was clearly a better DOS than DOS, and the best OS/2 ever. The Workplace Shell was not very polished and it was inconsistent at times, but it showed promise.

During 1993 and 1994, I had access to beta versions of OS/2 3.0 (Warp). I don’t remember if it was a formal beta or if somebody at IBM found a way to make the diskettes reach my hands. I saw the betas improve so much that, I was one of the first in my city to buy it when it was released. It was around USD 69 I think, and I wanted it for my home computer.

I was the last time I saw a new version of an operating improve its performance so much on the same hardware.

"Warp" helped to consolidate on us OS/2 zealots the feeling that we were on the right side and Microsoft was on the wrong side. We were sad and skeptic every time Microsoft made any progress.

For instance, we knew 1995 was the year of Chicago, the much improved Windows 95 that was supposed to steal much of the innovation made on the user interface of OS/2. But we were not too worried because Chicago was going to be just a DOS shell. OS/2, on the other side, was a full 32 bit operating system, and it was the best.

I must admit, I needed to be defeated first, so I could realize how ridiculous it is to be an OS zealot.

The first time I saw Windows 95, I just knew Microsoft were going to win the battle. It was simpler, more consistent, it performed better, it came with better hardware support, it used only the best UI artifacts found on OS/2 but also had some innovations of its own. Even if it was a DOS Shell it was 32 bit in most areas and multitasked relatively well. I saw it was a winner, but at first I didn’t see it as an OS/2 killer.

At the beginning I though OS/2 were going to survive, just not as a dominant platform. SMP was on the way and IBM was porting it to the Power PC Platform, which was poised to eventually displace the PC.

After that, we only got disappointments and more mistakes. OS/2 proved impossible or very difficult to port. The Power PC was abandoned, for no known reason.

Microsoft had an absolutely great team doing the architecture of their Windows NT (original though was OS/2 NT). Those people weren’t believers of using hand tuned assembler code in operating system, but of building hardware abstraction layers and designing operating systems to be portable. Ironically Microsoft got a commercial version of NT to work on the Power PC, something that IBM never fully accomplished with OS/2.

Now I think IBM lost this OS war by itself. Microsoft didn’t win it because of FUD, it just battled better on every front. While Microsoft was able to attract a lot of developer support. IBM just abandoned OS/2 development, like they abandoned every other related initiative, like Open Doc, Power PC, etc. I guess they fired every developer years before they publicly admitted they weren’t going to fight.

A few years later, Windows 2000 was, in my opinion, the first version of Windows NT that was better than OS/2 in every area.

The last time I saw OS/2 running was during a trip to Italy, I think during 1999 or 2000. My wife and I came to a train station and bought a ticket on an automated kiosk. When I saw the light yellow text and list boxes and the "^" and "v" shaped scrollbar buttons on that screen, I almost cried.

Let me be clear on this: I hated it when I learned that Microsoft bullied OEMs not to distribute Netscape. I think this kind of practice should be illegal in every industry, in any country, by any company.

But I think what happened to OS/2 was absolutely different.

Microsoft wasn’t the bad guy. They weren’t kicking a poor old man, but a stronger giant that would have loved to do the same to them. They simply were faster, smarter, successful, whatever. Eventually, it became almost impossible to buy a new PC with OS/2 preloaded, even from IBM.

Besides, I don’t think it is our mission as mere mortals to lick the wounds of big corporations. It was the case of two very capitalistic big companies fiercely competing. Neither needed our consolation.

So, the question is: What were the stakes for us zealots on it?

I mean, if you contribute to an open source operating system like Linux or FreeBSD, you have a clear justification to be zealot. After all, you have your beloved code in it. But why were we so passionate about OS/2? Why did we hate Microsoft so much? Was it because OS/2 was a "better way of doing things"?

Then I think we were probably a bunch of pathetic OS fascists.

About the USD 850 million Microsoft gave to IBM, I think it is just because Microsoft today prefers to donate the money to competitors in the tech industry than give it to the lawyers. They must be so sick of litigations!

But this doesn’t make this end any fair or happy, in my opinion. IBM does not deserve the money. Certainly, IBM is a company I could not trust again.

The best they can do is to distribute the money among people like Brad Wardell that dedicated their time and own money to a cause IBM embarked them on, just to abandon them in the middle of the journey. They could also give some to the original developers that made OS/2 one of the best PC operating systems of its time. And they could also give me 2 dollars, for my 2 cents.

If you think IBM should release their OS/2 source code, sign the petition here. It wouldn’t bother me that Microsoft allowed the parts that they co-own to be released too. I think Serenity Systems would still have a business model (maybe a better one) if OS/2 source code were to be released.


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