IBMs OS/2 Reaches the End of the Road

News Analysis: IBM is ceasing sales of the formerly dominant operating system after almost two decades, leaving fans bereft.

In 1987, the top songs included U2s "With or Without You" and Belinda Carlisles "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," and the top new operating system was IBM and Microsofts OS/2. In 2005, IBM announced that OS/2 was coming to the end of its road.

This week, IBM officially announced that OS/2 Warp V4 and OS/2 Warp Server, the last two members of IBMs OS/2 family, will be withdrawn from the marketplace as of Dec. 23, 2005. Standard customer support ends for both operating systems on Dec. 31, 2006.

IBM will be making support available beyond 2006 for customers willing to pay for either its SE (service extension) or TCO (total content ownership) plans.

For OS/2 users and fans, this news didnt come as a surprise. IBM said in 2000 at the WarpTech conference that the end of life for OS/2 would be in 2006.

OS/2 began its life as an advanced 16-bit operating system for 80286 PCs. It was the creation of both IBM and Microsoft. The first version, with its character-based interface, O/S 2 1.0, appeared in late 1987.

Through the late 80s, both companies supported the system through Version 1.1, which introduced a GUI (graphical user interface), Presentation Manager, and Version 1.2, which included the HPFS (High Performance File System). Beginning in 1990, though, the two companies courses began to split apart as Microsoft spent more time working on Windows 3.0 while IBM focused on OS/2 1.3.

Although Microsoft continued to pay lip-service to OS/2 being the future of desktop computing, by 1992, the companies were no longer working from the same plan. IBMs release of OS/2 2.0 was advertised as "a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows."

In the subsequent battle between Windows and OS/2 for the hearts and minds of users, Windows pulled ahead. X86 developers also began making Windows their first priority, leaving OS/2 with fewer native applications.

/zimages/3/28571.gifRead more here about IBMs 2003 decision to cease offering OS/2.

As the popularity gap grew larger between the two, despite efforts such as the release of the much ballyhooed 32-bit OS/2 Warp 3 in 1994, OS/2s decline continued. While OS/2 continued to be used in some niche markets, such as banking, its usage was clearly waning.

Today, while IBM has never released market share numbers for it, there appear to be very few users.

"We folded OS/2 revenues and shipments into Other Single User quite a while ago," said Dan Kusnetzky, IDCs vice president of system software.

"By the end of 2004, that category produced only a fraction over $98 million worldwide. This category contains revenue from many low-volume client operating environments. So, revenues for OS/2 are only a fraction of that total."

Nevertheless, OS/2 still has its loyal users.

Neil Waldhauer, president of Santa Cruz, Calif. consulting firm Blonde Guy LLC, supports a large transportation agency which uses OS/2 as an interface between diverse transportation equipment with embedded microprocessors and a mainframe.

"I use OS/2 and eComStation for every aspect of my business to show customers Im serious about providing support," Waldhauer said.

IBM is recommending that OS/2 users start migrating to Linux. For some users, though, moving to Linux or another operating system isnt a viable option.

Mike Luther, president of Ziplog Inc., makers of a professional management-template software suite in College Station, Texas, said, "The entire development platform for Ziplog runs on OS/2. Period. It is the only mission-critical development platform I can use for secured medical system development that leaves me free enough of administrative overhead to do the real creative work."

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read OS/2 expert Esther Schindlers commentary on the operating systems post-IBM future.

Many users who were very fond of OS/2 blame IBM, not Microsoft, for their favorite operating systems decline.

Jason Perlow, former TeamOS/2 member, founder and co-founder of the New Jersey and Westchester NY OS/2 Users Groups, and a system architect today, said, "Never again will we see such a bizarre and intense dichotomy of grassroots support by a products fans and absolute blundering and self-sabotage in terms of marketing and lack of support by a products owners."

"While it had its champions within IBM Personal Software Products and the IBM PC Company, and some of the most talented people in the industry were working on it, and it was technically superior to anything else on the market at the time, it never had the full support across the entire breadth of the IBM organization in terms of marketing dollars, no across-the-board commitment to write new software products for it, secure ISV partnerships and make it compatible with all its hardware like they have now done with Linux," Perlow said.

"You can put the blame all you want on Microsoft for being predatory and monopolist, but IBM didnt even seriously try to salvage what it had," he said.

While IBM may be finally closing the door on OS/2, two other vendors, SSI (Serenity Systems International) and Dutch company Mensys BV, have jointly produced and supported a version of OS/2, eComStation, a business desktop, since the late 90s.

According to the companies, eComStation can be thought of as OS/2 Warp 4.5, and as an OS/2 distribution in the same way that RHEL (Red Hat Enterprise Linux) is a distribution of Linux.

This version of OS/2 will stay on the market until at least 2007. "The eComStation plan is in place through mid-2006 and I dont expect any real changes through mid-2007," said Bob St. John, SSIs director of business development.

"My view is that the withdrawal from active marketing will help SSI and eComStation. The next release of eComStation is planned for the end of the year, and will include IBM support until there is no more IBM support," St. John said.

And after that?

"eComStation will remain available as long as it is a good business. There is no end in sight," St. John said.

Editors Note: Esther Schindler provided additional reporting for this story.

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