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If The Best Technology Won We Would All Be Using OS/2

25 Years Later OS/2 is a great lesson in what might have been

Today marks the 25th anniversary of IBM's announcement of the OS/2 PC operating system. Harry McCracken over on Time.com has a great piece reflecting back on the success and failure's of IBM's ill fated attempt to to rule the desktop and how in some places OS/2 sill lives on. I know some of you reading this may not be as old as I am, and may not remember a time when OS/2 was actually a likely candidate to become the dominant PC operating system. More than anything to me though OS/2 is the poster child of why very often the best technology doesn't win. Sometimes it is marketing, politics and other factors that make our technology decisions for us and have us choose inferior technology instead.

In case you are not familiar with the history involved here, let me give you a quick synopsis.  When IBM launced the original PC (largely developed here in the Boca Raton area where I live) they choose as the OS a system licensed to them by a small company called Microsoft. Microsoft in turn had licensed this disk operating system (DOS) from a Seattle based company.  DOS was 16 bit, clunky, buggy and not real user friendly but as PCs were cloned, Microsoft was making a fortune licensing it to all of the clone makers.  In the meantime those wild and crazy guys out in Silicon Valley, Jobs and Woz, were moving beyond the early Apple computer interface and finalizing something they were calling Macintosh.

IBM began working with their small partner on what the next generation operating system should be, operating system 2nd or OS/2.  Microsoft was working closely with IBM on OS/2 making sure they would maintain their dominance of PC operating systems. In the meantime Microsoft had their own secret project for a new OS that they were working on, that they called Windows.  

Well you all kind of know how this turns out.  The crazy guys from Apple went through a very tough time, kicking out Steve Jobs and taking money from Microsoft to help stay afloat. But then they made a pretty nice comeback and have been doing pretty well lately from what I can gather.

The guys from Redmond led IBM down the garden path with OS/2 and after several fits and starts, some activity that was later called monopolistic and other heavy handed marketing was able to establish a decent business around that Windows thing.

IBM, the 800 pound gorilla in the tech market who created the PC market sunk a couple of hundred million or more into OS/2, but never could get their feet untangled. They never did get OS/2 to realize its goals and finally in the early parts of this decade got out of the PC business all together. But take up no collections for them, they have done pretty well as a service provider too.

So this is a story where it would seem that all is well that ends well. But wait, there is more. Let me give you my own personal take on this story.

I was a geek back then. I wasn't working in tech, but it was my hobby and passion. I played with every kind of computer I could get my hands on.  I admit, I liked the IBM PC because to me it represented the blue blood compared to all of those clones out there. I was pretty proficient around the DOS command line and for my non-tech friends they thought I was a bit of a wizard, though in reality I knew nothing.

I remember when Windows 3.0 and then 3.1 one came out.  Wow, now everyone could use a computer and look at how much you could do. The 386 chip was so frigging hot.  RAM and hard drives were going through the roof. I remember having a 40 meg hard disk and a ful meg of RAM!

I read every computer magazine I could get my hands on and there were lots of them. The industry was pining for OS/2. It was going to be the next wave. PS/2 hardware, new OS and soon everyone would have a computer.

Well the first version of OS/2 sucked, so did the 2nd frankly. By now the cat was out of the bag. Microsoft had been playing IBM on OS/2 while doing Windows all along.  They were talking about a new Windows (eventually Windows 95) and a Windows next technology (NT) and left IBM holding the bag.

But for me the OS/2 3.0 version represented what i was waiting for. I wanted an OS that let me do DOS and Windows better than DOS and Windows did. I loved the power OS/2 was giving me. For me and many like me, there was no doubt that OS/2 was by far superior technically to Windows. 

Another thing about OS/2 was the ability to go under the covers. It was the same thing that attracted me to open source and Linux. It is probably the same thing that attracts me to jailbreaking my iPhone. The ability to go under the covers and tinker a bit.

But for OS/2 this story does not have a happy ending.  While as the Time article says, OS/2 still runs under the covers at some places today. But IBM just fumbled the ball and OS/2 died shortly before or after version 4.0 Warp was released.  It is the classic story of the best technology doesn't always win. 

So happy 25th birthday OS/2. Could it really be that long ago that I was that idealistic? I always knew computers and the Internet were going to change the world, I just thought you would be a big part of the reason why.

Below is still my favorite OS/2 commerical of all time, the Nun with the beeper:

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