OS/2 – 25 Years Later

I almost missed an anniversary. Last month was the 25th anniversary of OS/2. I suppose that’s understandable. After all, who cares about OS/2 anymore?

Well, I still remember OS/2. I used it on my home computer up until June 1998. By then, the writing had been on the wall for years. But rather than turn to Windows, I put Linux on my home computer. My first reaction after booting up Red Hat 5.2 for the first time was: What the heck am I getting myself into? However, KDE version 1 was released just three weeks later, and that made Linux much easier to use. Not as easy as OS/2, but still acceptable. And unlike OS/2, interest in Linux was increasing.

At IBM, I worked with someone who was at the meeting where Microsoft effectively told IBM that their OS/2 partnership was over. And I still remember his description of the meeting. Both sides presented their status. After Microsoft presented their status, the IBM’ers present slowly began to understand the implications of Microsoft’s position. Meanwhile, on the other side of the room, the Microsoft employees were smiling giddily, knowing full well that they were shafting their loyal partner.

After the “divorce”, Microsoft did everything in their power to stop OS/2 from gaining any traction. But OS/2’s failure in the market wasn’t entirely Microsoft’s fault. IBM’s sales division didn’t know how to sell it. And later on, Windows was adopted as the standard workstation for all IBM employees. Clearly, the OS/2 supporters within IBM were a small, albeit dedicated, minority.

There were broader implications. At the time, I was working on the AS/400. Penetration of OS/2 within AS/400 shops was practically zero. Microsoft had pretty much 100% of the desktops within that market. And yet, few people listened to the warnings that the desktop was a beachhead for Microsoft’s incursion into the SMB market. And over time, as many of us predicted, Windows became more and more prevalent in that market, displacing AS/400 installations (and later, iSeries). And now, interest in IBM i is way down. Perhaps the only thing keeping IBM i alive now is the fanatical devotion of it’s remaining users.

What would have happened if Microsoft didn’t go their own way? Would we all be using some form of OS/2 today?

Cheers! Hans

Adventures in desktop Linux

I’ve been using Linux now for about 14 years. Previously, I was using OS/2. So when I tell people “I don’t do Windows”, it’s a legitimate statement. Linux has matured a lot during the past 14 years, however, it is still often an adventure best suited to the tech-savvy.

Take last week: I booted up my Linux box only to see a frowning face and the message: “Oh no! Something has gone wrong. A problem has occurred and the system can’t recover. Please contact a system administrator.” System administrator? In this house, that’s me! I could boot into a failsafe session, but with a degraded video mode. Well, I’m no X11 configuration geek. Heck, I skipped openSUSE 11.4 since I did’t want to dive into video driver configuration. So I reinstalled openSUSE 12.1.

The reinstall went fine. The openSUSE 12.1 installer is perhaps the best one yet! And things were working well even after loading all the patches. But after loading the nVidia driver, I saw that frowny face again. After yet another reinstall, I noticed that the default video driver, nouveau, looked pretty good, albeit with one or two rough edges. I reported the problem to nVidia, but I’m not sure if it’s worth the trouble trying the nVidia driver once a fixed version is available.

Another issue I have is with desktop manager. The two primary desktops are Gnome and KDE. For years, I used KDE. I still remember installing version 1 of KDE back in July 1998, and appreciating how easy it made Linux. But, like many others, I didn’t like KDE 4, and moved to Gnome. KDE 4 has matured since then, and Gnome is now on version 3, and I sometimes wonder if I should move back to KDE. I liked Gnome 2. I was able to configure it easily, and it worked well. But Gnome 3 is harder to configure. It just doesn’t have all the configuration options that KDE has. For example, after installing Komodo Edit, I could have set things up by manually editing a bunch of files. But instead, I started a KDE session and used its GUI tools to set up the necessary file associations.

But it isn’t always a troublesome experience. I started using Shotwell to manage my photos. Today, I discovered that Shotwell has the ability to post photos directly to my Google+ photo album. The only trick is that you have to choose “Picasa Web Albums” as the target.

Several years ago, it was common for people to ask: Is Linux ready for the desktop? I haven’t seen that question lately. Perhaps people have given up on the question. After all, Linux isn’t much easier now than it was five years ago. Or perhaps in the age of web-connected phones and tablet devices, the question is just no longer relevant.

Cheers! Hans

I’m Shopping For A New Ukulele!

A while ago, we decided to move from Toronto to Kingston. We sold our house in Toronto, bought a house in Kingston, and planned and implemented the move. The last step in the process was for me to find a job in Kingston. We knew that wasn’t going to be easy. Kingston is a much smaller place, with less demand for programmers. As motivation, I decided that one of the things I would buy with my first paycheck would be a new ukulele. Well, I can now shop for that ukulele! I start my new job on Monday!

How did I get to this point? My “sabbatical” started getting a bit too long. So back in the Fall, I went to the KEYS Job Centre for advice. To start with, my councilor gave me some great advice on resume writing. She also recommended the MCF Kingston Practice Firm. What’s a practice firm? It operates very much like a real company, allowing participants to gain real work experience, albeit without a salary. But in addition, participants are expected to spend time searching for jobs and learning the skills needed to look for work. I decided to give it a try.

I decided to concentrate on developing skills in PHP, since that’s used by some local firms. I was assigned the task of developing a new software system for the local Operation Red-Nose organization to replace an old DOS-based application. I visited their operation on New Years Eve, and for what they were doing with that ancient program, they could just as easily be doing everything on paper.

To cut a longish story short, what I had implemented in five weeks using PHP and CakePHP, I had originally expected to spend most of my 12 week stint at MCF working on. Within weeks, I was able to confidently add PHP to my resume. I had expected to be at MCF longer. But an opportunity arose, I sent off my resume and cover letter, and I went for an interview and testing. I accepted an offer, and finished my stay at MCF after just those five weeks. Granted, there’s still more work left to do on the ORN project. But I expect to finish that in my spare time.

What have I learned from this? First, that CakePHP is a great way to implement a web-based application. Some point out that it has a harder learning curve than other PHP frameworks. And sure, you need to understand why the framework insists on doing things a certain way. But having strong conventions is not a bad thing. In all, I think CakePHP was a good choice for that project.

Second, it helped me convince myself that the things I wrote in my resume were true. I can learn new skills. I got the skills. I know what I’m doing. I demonstrated that nicely with the ORN project. Sometimes it seems we can forget what we’re capable of, and lose confidence in ourselves. Especially when between jobs.

In my previous job, I used Zope and Plone, but without ever really reaching the point of fully mastering those frameworks. I took that job because it offered me the chance to use my favorite programming language, Python. But while I still love that language, I would never recommend using Zope. We just could never get the Zope-based project to where we needed to be, partly due to the complexity of the framework, and also due to some nasty intermittent bugs. These were the kinds of bugs that you could never really be sure you fixed. And no one should have to depend on that kind of system.

(Fortunately, the Zope-based project was shelved. Unfortunately, development moved on to an ambitious .net based system, which is not really a good place to be for a Linux/Unix geek. Frankly, I was glad that moving to another city offered me a good excuse to quit that job.)

But now my new job beckons, and I’m really looking forward to it. From what I’ve seen so far, it seems like a really great place to work, and I know I can make a difference there. And soon, I expect to add a new ukulele to my modest collection. A banjo-ukulele perhaps?

Later, dudes!

Should Everything Run on IBM i?

re Shouldn’t Everything Run on IBM i?

To start with, I’m reminded of a couple of things told to me when I was job-hunting four years ago. First, a head-hunter told me that, at the time, the bottom had fallen out of the iSeries job market. Second, at a job interview, I was asked: “What’s an iSeries?”

In the referenced blog, Aaron mentions that the IBM i has just seen 4 quarters of growth. That’s good to see. I worked for 22 years on the iSeries and its predecessors, AS/400 and S/38. And I really don’t want to see my good work go to waste.

But in his blog, Aaron suggests that everything should run on IBM i. The i is indeed a fine machine to store your mission critical data. You really can’t go wrong choosing IBM i for your database. But I disagree that it should be used to run everything. (Those who like the i, tend to like it a lot, which says a lot about the system. The only people more devoted to their computers seem to be Apple fans.)

First, Aaron brings up the common strawman argument that the choice is between IBM i and Windows. Clearly, there are more choices out there, especially in the Linux, Unix, and BSD realms. For example, for the top tier in a web site, you can’t go wrong with OpenBSD running on a couple of inexpensive Intel servers. You can easily configure OpenBSD to offer 100% availability, for at least your static pages, with rock-solid security.

But let’s look at the application tier. Many shops choose an IBM i solution for one simple reason: The application they need only runs on i. If the application is implemented in RPG, then it’s basically limited to the i. What if you need to develop your own custom application? Is RPG the best choice? Frankly, no. Thirty years ago, when I started working on the RPG III compiler, it was already an oddity among programming languages. It has advanced quite a bit since then, and I’m proud of my own contributions to its evolution. But it has not kept pace.

Is there an ideal choice of programming language? Again, no. Actually, I think that’s the wrong question to ask. Today, when choosing a programming language for a particular project, you don’t look at the characteristics of the programming language. If the attributes of the language were a primary consideration, Python should be the most popular programming language on the planet (in my opinion). Today, one does not program using just a programming language. Today, you use a programming language and a framework.

Consider PHP. By itself, it’s a rather ugly programming language. But it’s popular because of the rich frameworks implemented using PHP. In the i community, Zend is commonly used. Elsewhere, frameworks like CakePHP and CodeIgniter are popular. Other programming languages have their own rich frameworks: GWT, .net, TurboGears, Ruby on Rails, to name just a few. Lately, I’ve been implementing a web-based application using CakePHP, and I can attest to its convenience and power. But, as far as I know, the RPG community has nothing like these frameworks. IBM i does support a number of modern tools and languages. But then, unlike RPG, those tools are not limited to IBM i.

That is, when using an interpreted language like PHP, you have something that a language like RPG can never have: platform independence. For my own modest CakePHP application, I can run it on Windows and I can run it on Linux. I’ll bet that it could also run on IBM i! In other words, by using many of these rich frameworks, you can run on many different operating systems, and so, you can render the choice of operating system platform irrelevant. To get back to the original question, should or shouldn’t everything run on IBM i? I say this: It doesn’t matter. And hasn’t mattered for a long time.