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

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