I used OS/2 and loved it

As Time Magazine notes, today marks the 25th anniversary of the introduction of IBM's OS/2 operating system. For all of you junior geeks, here's a bit of blockquoted text to put this in context:
OS/2 promised multitasking, not just task switching. It knew how to handle memory…It did a heck of a lot of cool things…I don’t think it’s easy for young whippersnappers to grasp how big a deal the PS/2 and OS/2 were at the time. We were certain, absolutely certain, that nothing would be the same again. The closest I can come to it was the reaction after the first iPhone was released: the sense that It’s all different now.

I'll even toss in a commercial from way back in the day:

I used OS/2 2.1 and 3.0, aka OS/2 Warp. I also (briefly) used OS/2 4.0 aka Warp 4. Not only did I use them, I was really snotty and elitist about using them. Why? Because I built my own computers back then. Computer trade shows weren't about showing off the newest phone, game console or online experience site. They were places where vendors had tables full of parts: motherboards, CPUs, memory chips, power supplies, cases, etc. If you knew what you were doing (which I did), you could build your boxen from scratch. The investment in time let you spend half the money for twice the computer. Having built an optimized rig, it was up to the software to squeeze as much performance out of it as possible.

You kids today may not realize it, but computers used to do only one thing at a time. To go from one task to another, you had to exit a program then start the other one. Eventually, Microsoft developed a way to engage in task-switching, where one program was merely suspended when you switched over. OS/2, however, let everything continue to run. No lag time, no stuttering, no program crashes during the hot-key activity. It was glorious.

Unlike the "16-bit emulation of a 32-bit OS bolted onto an 8-bit architecture" Windows, OS/2 was 32-bit from the ground up. It took full advantage of the 386 and 486 chips of the day. Even with the OS software overhead, OS/2 was so much faster than MS-DOS or Windows 3.1 that there was just no contest. It was a hands-down winner for every productivity app. OS/2 ran most native DOS and Windows apps seamlessly along with native OS/2 apps. It also supported dual-boot, to let a pure DOS environment handle pesky programs, usually games. Once you got to know the system, it was a thing of beauty and power.

I loved using it, but I was in a distinct minority. Most people disliked or hated it. Why?
Another of our Guinea Pigs, already an OS/2 fan, neatly summed up the software when he told us that it “thinks the way I think. [But] it’s not an end-user operating system; it’s a nerd operating system.”
OS/2 may have stubbornly refused to become a breakout hit, but it would be grossly misleading to suggest that nobody liked it. Actually, the people who did appreciate OS/2 loved it with an intensity that was unknown in the Windows world.
The article goes on to talk about Team OS/2, people who would extoll the virtues of OS/2 and demonstrate it for people. I was one such devotee.

But I was doomed.

Every DOS and Windows app had to maintain compatibility with DOS and Windows. Microsoft changed their APIs on a regular basis, ensuring that the software patches changed the software to maintain compatibility with Microsoft, but broke them for OS/2. When the revised patch for OS/2 came out, it was too late... a new API patch had been issued. OS/2 could never catch up and would always be using old, incompatible software. There were a lot of dirty tricks pulled behind the scenes that crippled my beloved OS/2:
That was only the tip of Microsoft’s anti-OS/2 iceberg. During United States vs. Microsoft, the Department of Justice’s antitrust suit against the software behemoth, an IBM executive testified that Microsoft prohibited software companies from using Microsoft programming tools to build OS/2 apps, making OS/2 development difficult and costly.
Worse, Microsoft’s contracts with hardware makers charged each company a fee for every computer sold, whether or not it included Windows. That meant that a PC manufacturer that wanted to sell OS/2 machines would have to pay both IBM and Microsoft for the privilege — a double toll that Windows didn’t carry. Microsoft was only forced to end this practice after OS/2 had been neutralized.


Eventually, in order to maintain functionality, I had to give up OS/2 in favor of Windows. I also (eventually) had to give up WordPerfect in favor of MS-Word, and give up QuattroPro in favor of MS-Excel.

The hegemony is inescapable, but free men still dream of a time when rebellion meant a better life.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. Except for a brief flirtation with a 286+287 box about 20 years ago, I never had a Microsoft box running in my house. Amigas, Macs, and various flavors of Unix. At work, it took IT 14 years to get me off a Mac, and they still haven't succeeded 100%.

    1. I used a Mac for a while, and tried to get into Linux, but never made the kind of commitment to it that it required. Interoperability with specialized software was always too paramount, and that meant Windows.

  2. I used OS/2. I loved OS/2. But there was no software for it. And as a developer, I couldn't write software for it. I don't know the truth about whether or not Microsoft did the stupid things like prevent their compilers from working to an OS/2 target or not--I didn't use Microsoft compilers back then. But I do know that when I tried to sell some OS/2 products, I was thwarted by weird licensing, bizarre regulations and other difficulties that came from the IBM folks. Basically, if they didn't want me to sell my applications, I couldn't. Much like Apple was for a while.

    It's a shame that OS/2 didn't have a better plight. But personally, blaming Microsoft for all of what went wrong with it is not fair or accurate. And trust me I'm not a Microsoft defender - I personally have plenty of reasons to be bitter and hateful towards Microsoft. But even so I don't support the constant bashing they receive.

    OS/2 failed because it had no software to support it and the software which did support it was not easy to maintain (at least the software I was trying to use). At that time the Borland compilers were more dominant than the Microsoft ones (again, at least where I was concerned), so the Microsoft stuff was less of an issue in my opinion than this article implies.

    Anyway, my ranting aside, I agree: OS/2 was a great operating system and it is a shame that a) it went away and b)Windows/Linux/Mac-os still haven't equaled it 25 years later.

    1. Rob, thanks for the detailed comment - it's good to compare notes on this. The compiler issues were widely rumored at the time, and it was certainly my experience that every new patch for Windows broke OS/2. This was borne out by testimony in the antitrust suits, years after it was too late.

      As tempting as it is to blame Microsoft for everything, I don't, not anymore. The article I linked to goes into much more detail about IBM's marketing and design failures, their fumbling with personal computers, Microsoft's hardball tactics (legal and otherwise), and the changes in the PC ecosystem that made OS/2 such a hard sell.

      Personally, I never found OS/2 difficult to use, but one of the issues raised in the article is that the vast majority of people did. Especially in comparison with Mac or Windows, OS/2 was (as that quote says so nicely) a nerd's OS. If you knew a lot about computers, you loved it. If you just wanted it to work and were unable to optimize, tweak or troubleshoot, it wasn't your cup of tea. I think that more than anything else would have always limited OS/2 to a techno-user niche.

  3. I'm with you on OS/2, but I NEVER liked WordPerfect -- preferred Multimate, thanks, and preferred LOTUS 1-2-3 and Symphony to Quattro Pro. As far as the Operating systems go, I loved XENIX and OS/2, but you had to enjoy getting under the hood and tinkering -- like LINUX now.

    Even now, a lot of people (this comes out of almost 20 years of support) can barely do the basics with their PCs. Tell someone "press CTRL-ALT-DEL" and you'll hear "are you sure? I won't break the computer?"

    And Rob has a point about no apps. That killed Steve Jobs' Unix workstations, too and I thought they were awesome for the time.

    There have been a lot of missed opportunities in IT history. OS/2 is just one of them (it didn't help that OS/2 ran best on PS/2s...)

  4. I happened upon this article while searching for some development-related stuff. As Managing Member of Arca Noae, LLC (currently, the driving force behind OS/2 maintenance and development), I can tell you that while I use OS/2 daily, I am well aware that just as a single screwdriver can't turn all screws, a single OS can't fit every situation.

    Still, there are places where OS/2 remains entrenched. Large enterprises which invested small fortunes in custom software continue to depend upon the OS. Arca Noae provides new and updated drivers to allow the OS to run on today's hardware, ensuring longer term support for running applications.

    Frankly, if you thought OS/2 was snappy on a 486, you should feel it on a modern quad core system. The memory footprint which once held OS/2 back from mainstream adoption (who had 16MB RAM in 1990?) is now a fraction of the size of modern Linux, let alone Windows. Ported Linux apps help maintain some parity on the desktop with other OSes, too. (There are recent Firefox, SeaMonkey, and Thunderbird builds for OS/2, as well as an up-to-the-minute version of OpenOffice.) For running some 32-bit Windows apps, there is Odin, which is based (to some extent) on the Wine project.

    It would be great to see some former OS/2 users come back and give Blue Lion a spin when it goes GA.


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