OS/2 Has a Future—It Just Isnt with IBM

By Esther Schindler  |  Posted 2005-07-15

OS/2 Has a Future—It Just Isnt with IBM

Ive gotten a lot of e-mail today. "Did you see IBMs news? Theyre finally killing OS/2!" wrote several longtime acquaintances, pointing me at "Changes in support for IBM OS/2 Warp 4 and OS/2 Warp Server for e-business" on IBMs site.

Many of those friends remember that I used to specialize in covering--and using--OS/2; that I taught corporate training classes about the operating systems internals; that I wrote books and magazine articles about OS/2 applications; that I was a founder of the worlds largest OS/2 user group.

Sometimes, I can see the smirk between the lines. A few of these messages are written with same the subtle snarkiness in which they might say, "I see that your ex-husband just got married again," as though they want to see if Ill burst into tears.

Sorry, guys. If you want tears, youll have to turn elsewhere.

This "OS/2 is dead, yet again" announcement is irrelevant. Not because I expect the operating system to wallop the competition, but because OS/2 already moved on … and, for several years, IBM has had almost no part in that evolution.

The IBM announcement isnt unexpected, and honest, it isnt a big deal. Back in 2000, at the WarpTech Conference in Phoenix (which I helped to invent and organize), IBM said that end-of-life would be in 2006.

Since the Passport Advantage contracts are yearly, they have to quit selling the product in 2005 if theyre to close the door at the end of 2006.

IBM had already been doing its best to wean enterprise customers away from OS/2; companies committed to being Big Blue shops chose another technology back in 1996 or 1997, when IBM said thered be no new desktop client.

They tried to shove all sorts of alternatives at its OS/2 customers, ever since the wind was taken out of the products sails by a Lou Gerstner comment in 1995. (They had to punch several holes in the sails to do so.)

First, IBM tried to tell customers that Java was the way of the future; then, when IBM adopted Linux in a big way, that was the technology force-fed. With poor results, in many cases; most of the customers who did drop OS/2 (and there were certainly plenty who did) turned to Microsoft instead.

Not because of Linuxs unsuitability to task (I like Linux, and use it on my own servers) but because it was evident that IBM would be behind any innovative technology as long as they werent the ones creating it.

Next Page: A long history.

A Long History

IBMs OS/2 ambivalence has a long history. The OS/2 Warp 4 release was better known as the "Java, Java, Java" release; at the rollout in San Francisco, they mentioned nary a new product feature in the OS except its suitability as a Java client.

Before that, they pulled functionality from that version, until the OS looked like a broken-down car left on the highway in a bad neighborhood--stripped of all its interesting parts within minutes.

The fact is: IBM was terribly embarrassed about OS/2. As one then-executive explained to me, "Weve been promising management for years that OS/2 is going to hit the ball out of the park. They arent going to believe us forever."

Although OS/2 users loved the technology--and they still do, with events like Warpstock demonstrating the health of the community--IBM executives tried ever-so-hard to pretend that it didnt exist.

Just like a 15-year-old going to the movies with her parents, trying to pretend shes not with those un-cool people.

But that doesnt matter. The reason this announcement is irrelevant is because OS/2 users had abandoned IBM years ago.

While IBM has indeed sold OS/2 with a "Passport Advantage," their support "hasnt amounted to much," as one user wrote in an online forum.

Many desktop OS/2 users (and some percentage of enterprises) adopted eComStation, an OEMed version of OS/2 available since the late 90s, which is actively updated with device drivers, encourages new applications (they just had a developers conference in Europe), and a viable community.

If an OS/2 or eComStation user has a problem, shes more likely to post a message on a discussion list run by the Phoenix OS/2 Society or eCSs online forum. They attend events like Warpstock in the U.S. and in Europe (yeah, I helped invent Warpstock, too).

If theyre hard-core and committed, they might participate in a project to clone OS/2, or to petition IBM to open-source OS/2 or a subset thereof.

IBM already released Object REXX, the scripting language built into OS/2, as open source.

Click here to read more about IBM pushing to make its iSeries systems more attractive to small and midsize businesses.

OS/2 was ahead of its time. Some of its technical achievements, such as the SOM (System Object Level), arguably, remain unequalled in newer operating systems.

However, like other users, I found it necessary to change. Although the bitranch has two live OS/2 computers, I no longer use OS/2 as my day-to-day desktop environment; Mac OS X exceeded the WorkPlace Shell, and we depend on Linux for our servers.

When I relocated to a new house, I sadly gave away 300 OS/2 applications, which was probably the worlds largest collection; it consumed a non-trivial amount of space in my garage.

My heart, though, remains with the OS/2 community. We made something stronger than IBM did, and it outlasted IBM.

But this announcement? IBM couldnt sell OS/2 to the right audience, based on the products real strengths, even when it was trying to market the operating system.

Now that they want to kill it, the company is no more effective at the job. Communities are stronger than companies.

Esther Schindler used to say that OS/2 was her life. She was co-author of a book about REXX (a newer edition is still in print), wrote OS/2 product reviews and technical articles, taught OS/2 courses, and was active in Team OS/2 and the user group community. Nowadays, Esther is editor of Ziff Davis DevSource.com.

Check out eWEEK.coms for the latest news, reviews and analysis in programming environments and developer tools.

Rocket Fuel