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.)