Zeichick’s Take: Abject failure: Lessons from 25 years of IBM’s OS/2

Alan Zeichick
April 3, 2012 —  Once upon a time, IBM’s OS/2 operating system was the future. As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of its April 1987 launch, it’s instructive to look back on OS/2’s failure in the market.

OS/2 played a large part in my own history. Ted Bahr (the other founder of BZ Media and SD Times) and I launched OS/2 Magazine together in December 1993; I edited every issue until Miller Freeman, the publishing company, finally pulled the plug in January 1997.

It’s often forgotten, but IBM and Microsoft collaborated to bring OS/2 to market as the successor to the 16-bit MS-DOS and Windows 3.x. OS/2 was ahead of its time as a 32-bit operating system with preemptive multi-tasking. It was much more stable than the DOS-based Windows 95 and the other graphical DOS shells then on the market.

OS/2’s failure certainly can be largely attributed to Microsoft’s marketing prowess around Windows 95. However, IBM is equally at fault, because Big Blue was never committed to its own product.

Incredibly, the IBM PC Company refused to preload OS/2 onto its own desktops or servers, which were offered with Windows instead. Top management didn't force the issue. IBM’s own software for OS/2, with the notable exception of DB2/2, were substandard for the industry, and also ridiculously overpriced on per-seat or per-server licensing.

IBM never bothered to take care of its partners. The company never demonstrated that ISVs and IHVs would profit by supporting OS/2 instead of (or in addition to) Windows. With few exceptions, like a short-lived catalog program, IBM didn’t help its ISVs market the third-party products that did appear.

Worse, IBM treated programmers as a lucrative revenue source to be exploited, not as vital allies necessary in building a successful platform. ISVs and enterprise developers had to pay an arm and a leg to get poor-quality tools, which were again fantastically overpriced relative to compilers, editors and libraries for other platforms.

Despite Big Blue’s not-so-benign neglect, OS/2 garnered a loyal following, including some who still believe in the platform today. Die-hard fans continue to patch and augment OS/2 to support modern networks and the Internet. (OS/2 loyalists are up there with those who still revere Novell’s NetWare 3.x and the Commodore Amiga.)

Here are some other reminiscences of OS/2:

Esther Schindler: “OS/2 is 25 Years Old”

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols: “OS/2 Turns 25”

Steve Wildstrom: “Happy Birthday OS/2”

Alan Zeichick is editorial director of SD Times. Read his blog at

Related Search Term(s): OS/2

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04/09/2012 11:19:50 AM EST

I will like to point that the OS/2 and eComStation community still hangs out at and other online sites. We have OpenOffice, Firefox, Thunderbird, OpenJDK, Qt 4 framework, GCC ported to this platform. You are welcome to visit us at Thanks Martin (PD: SDTimes don't have Ecuador on the Country list).

United StatesMartin Iturbide

04/13/2012 04:55:43 AM EST

As an independent developer, I had two choices: go with OS/2 with a $3,000 buy-in and essentially no support, or go for Windows 3.1, with a $250 buy-in and actual support. Let's just say that it was a "no-brainer" as to which platform to develop for. IBM should have given the development kit away for free. What is also not mentioned is the PC/AT debacle. IBM convinced thousands of buyers that there would be a wonderful OS for the 286 chip. When it became clear to everyone (except IBM) that the 286 was a bad design and a dead-end product, IBM held out for OS/2 because they had promised an OS for a now-dead architecture (it took several years before IBM came out with a 386-based system, years after the rest of us were delivering products on them). As I heard the story, Microsoft wanted to create a portable OS written in C, but unfortunately it would not be possible to make it compatible with the now long-obsolete 286, but IBM said "No way! We have to support the 286!" So Microsoft turned OS/2 over to IBM and went their own way. In 1992, shortly after the release of Windows NT 3.1, I was dragooned into giving a talk to a bunch of mainframe managers (don't ask!). I said "There are only three operating systems out there that matter: Unix, Windows, and OS/2. Now we all know that Unix is The Operating System Of The Future, because it has been The Operating System Of The Future for at least 20 years. If that were actually true, everyone would have a Unix box on their desk. Well, OS/2 is there, created by a company that is unwilling to admit the 286 is dead, and if you've seen any of their software products, they're all mainframe ideas on a personal workstation, and cannot compete even with MS-DOS apps, let alone what we've seen on 16-bit Windows. And their development kit is overpriced. They do not understand either the end-user market or the developer/ISV market, so nobody is going to develop products for them. Then there is Windows, written by a company that understands the market, and has already demonstrated they know how to sell products and encourage third-party developers. Who do you think is going to win?" I was right. When someone buys a personal supercomputer from Best Buy, and note that a multicore system with gigabytes of RAM, and a pipelined superscalar chip is more powerful than the supercomputers of the 1980s, they do not ask for Unix, and it wouldn't do them much good if they did. Many of Microsoft's competitors once demanded that the government step in and "level the playing field". These are the same companies that in the 1980s dismissed the PC as a "toy", not suitable for Real Work. So they explicitly and deliberately walked off the playing field. There's a term for this in the sports world: "forfeit".

United StatesJoseph M Newcomer

05/17/2012 04:40:21 PM EST

What is the point of the original article or the response? Everyone knows what happened. IBM blundered in trying to develop and multitasking operating system on a Intel platform that was incompatible with the 8086 instruction set when running in protected mode forcing a lot of "compatibility" code into OS/2. Microsoft realized the blunder and went along with it because it was in their best interests to do so, meanwhile working on their own multitasking OS for the “fixed”, next generation Intel 80386 chip. Microsoft’s effort took a fraction of the code space and a fraction of the development cost. As a result, Windows won and OS/2 lost. Microsoft has always been very developer friendly and continues to be. In 2012, this OS/2 story is hardly a relevant story. There are no developers writing commercial code for OS/2 and it has no significant following.

United StatesMike Hader

06/17/2012 02:18:46 AM EST

To Mike Hader: OS/2 is now marketed as eComStation by Serenity Systems, with major development efforts by Mensys, in The Netherlands. The homepage lists a small number of *large* clients still using OS/2 (now eComStation). Thus, while the widespread use of OS/2 as a consumer OS never materialized, its stability and utility in enterprise is legendary. While many of these original apps have moved over to Linux (and Win32 - egad), the need to re-write working code simply to move to another platform has been greatly diminished by the ongoing availability of *new* (yes, brand new - release 2.1 of eComStation just shipped in 2011, and 2.2 is under development) OS updates and enhancements, allowing OS/2 to run on modern hardware. Is the only measure of the viability of an operating system the size of its commercial software development community? I think the Linux crowd might disagree with that (and BTW, considering Android, I think Linux may be the most widely used OS in the world today). Also, have you used a bank ATM recently? Many, many of these devices *still* run on good old OS/2. Ride a subway in a major US city recently? Purchase a farecard or token? Guess what OS is likely to be on the other side of that keypad? Yep. OS/2. Still. I think the fact that many people don't even know that it's running speaks volumes about the system itself. Of course, if you want to measure how many video games are written for it, well, that's a different kind of measurement. In general: Alan may recall how disappointed subscribers to OS/2 Magazine were (including Yours Truly) when ZD orphaned us. The one thing the OS/2 community has enjoyed for a long while is a loyal core constituency (and which, as he so aptly points out, IBM took mostly for granted, including ISVs among us). So, is the "OS/2 is dead; long live OS/2 25 years later" story irrelevant? I don't think so. I'm an IT consultant who makes a living supporting OS/2, Linux, and NetWare technologies on modern (read: new and/or recent) hardware. Is the niche market as large as the Microsoft support and solution market? Of course not. But then again, I don't really deal with little Johnny and his video games as clients, or the typical viral outbreak (ever check to see how many native viruses there are which execute on OS/2?). OS/2 has a recent port of ClamAV available (and a couple commercial options), but really, the only need to run anti-virus on OS/2 is to check files sent from - ahem - "other" operating systems. There is an excellent built-in software firewall, as well, and a very stable IP stack. Add current Firefox, Thunderbird, and SeaMonkey builds, 3.2 (3.4 in the works), and Java 1.6, and the system is really quite usable today. (There is ACPI support as well as AHCI and a generic audio driver, based on Linux's ALSA Project, and generic network and video drivers, too.) So, as Microsoft continues to foist on an unsuspecting customer base a user interface which so many dislike (can anyone say, "Metro?"), my Workplace Shell runs just as well as it did in 1995, with updated themes and enhancements, and still as object oriented as ever. ;-)

United StatesLewis Rosenthal

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