The Parallel Evolution of OS/2 and Free Software

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Apr 05, 2012 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Earlier this week, you might have noticed Esther Schindler and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writing about the twenty-fifth anniversary of OS/2, IBM's operating system of the 1990s. So did at least half a dozen others.

Why bother, you might ask? OS/2 still exists today as a hobbyist operating system under the name of eComStation, but it's been a long time since it had any influence on the direction of mainstream computing. Nor is eComStation free software, although many of the applications it runs are.

You might be tempted to attribute the interest entirely to the nostalgia of the middle-aged. In my case, that would definitely be a factor; I not only ran OS/2 for six years, but the first articles that I sold were about OS/2 applications.
However, nostalgia alone would hardly justify dredging up memories of OS/2. If that were all, then the memories would amount to nothing more than a minor footnote in the history of computing.

Rather, for those of us who used computers in the 1990s, OS/2 was an evolutionary parallel to free software. It was a hopeful monster, produced in response to the same pressures that resulted in free software, but leading to different results. Moreover, its failure was both an object lesson and an event that left free software without competitors in its niche. More than anything else, this parallel evolution is why the history of OS/2 is worth revisiting.

Community and Thoroughness

Like free software, OS/2 began as a reaction to the early days of the computer market. On the corporate level, it began as an effort to create the next generation of interfaces after Windows and the Mac OS. For users, it was an alternative that showed you cared about performance and wouldn't just settle for a pretty interface. Sound familiar?

Later, when Microsoft stopped helping to develop OS/2 and rumors about its covert operations against this potential rival began to leak out, anti-Microsoft sentiment became even stronger in the OS/2 community. But the feeling was strong in the community right from the start. The scorn for Microsoft and Apple, the sense that OS/2 users were an elite who knew what matter and had chosen the superior alternative was never very far away.

Such feelings had much the same result as they did in free software: They created a sense of community. Born partly of pride, partly out of a growing sense of persecution, the OS/2 community was something that hadn't been seen in computing before. 

Unlike the cults of Microsoft and Apple, it was tied to a corporation by only the loosest of ties and such loyalty as the community gave to IBM was strictly conditional. Edwin Black's OS/2 Professional magazine, for example, took an openly critical stance on IBM's handling of OS/2 that was applauded even more heavily than it was criticized. Increasingly, the community began to place its faith in its members rather than in corporations, just as the free software was doing more or less independently at the same time.
Another trait that the OS/2 and early free software communities had in common was a commitment to excellence in programming. The number of OS/2 applications were never large, but for their time many were miles ahead of anything available for other operating systems.

On the desktop, I particularly remember Filestar/2. Although today I would probably think it crude, at the time I was amazed by its thoroughness. The same window incorporated both basic file management and compression, and a wealth of configuration options and multiple panes. It was obviously the product of developers who were determined to put every tool you could possibly need into one application. Looking back, I am reminded of apps like Amarok, K3B, and digiKam, all of which try to be just as thorough in what they do.

The same was true of many OS/2 applications. The first graphical editor for markup languages I ever saw was an application from IBM, which -- all too typically -- never got the promotion it deserved. And while the fact is sometimes forgotten today, the first version of Partition Magic was available only for OS/2 (and rightly regarded as a marvel of the times). 

Or consider Galactic Civilizations, which, because of OS/2's superior multi-tasking, was a game whose scope and complexity, especially in its AIs, couldn't be matched on Windows for a couple of years. Interestingly enough, as one reader pointed out, it was promoted heavily in the forums by its lead developer, a move that was almost unheard of back then.

Such innovations seemed the norm in the mid-1990s. It was as if, having questioned the limits and standards of Microsoft and Apple, the OS/2 community freed itself to rethink and re-imagine what were then the norms of computing. Despite neglect, sabotage, and a small market (or maybe because of them), the OS/2 community managed to do what even the free software community wouldn't equal and surpass until several years later.

The Free Software Refuge

In fact, OS/2's failure may very well have been free software's opportunity. As IBM's abandonment of the platform became increasingly obvious, the community's bulletin boards and mailing lists began to include references to something called Linux. I remember more than one person well-known in the community for freeware and scripts announcing that they were stopping work on OS/2 and intending to concentrate on Linux instead. 

For a while, the die-hards talked about using free software to replace IBM. In particular, there was talk of using WINE for running windows applications. But in ones and twos, ordinary users like me dropped out of the dying community, and many of us followed the developers into software.

As a refuge, free software felt remarkably like home. The anti-Microsoft sentiment, the distrust of all large corporations, the commitment to quality and innovation, the belief in community -- to OS/2 refugees, the atmosphere was instantly familiar. If the anti-corporate sentiment was even stronger than it had been in the OS/2 community, our recent experiences had strengthened those sentiments in us, too.

In this way, the failure of OS/2 helped to strengthen the free software community. In 2002, the release of Lou Gerstner's autobiography, Who Says Elephants Can't Dance? would reveal just how badly IBM had let down the OS/2 community and help to reinforce the attitudes of the free software community. But even before then, the failure of OS/2 had reinforced the ranks of free software supporters and removed a potential competitor. 

OS/2 proved an evolutionary dead-end. Its community never did manage the final step of breaking all corporate ties. Instead, the operating system became a transitional form, part corporate and part community, and the contradiction resulted in its collapse into the bare remnants that remain today. 

Still, for a while OS/2 came close to an independent invention of free software. And, while we may never know for sure, its collapse probably gave free software a boost just in time for the dot-com era. Without OS/2, free software would not have developed the way it did, and that is why its history is worth remembering occasionally.


  • "RE: The Parallel Evolution of OS/2 and Free Software"

    "Mr. Byfield's brief history of OS/2 is seriously in error!"

    Actually, if you read a little further, nothing you say contradicts what I said. There were versions of Window before 3.0, and the fact that the first release was GUI-less says nothing about the intended direction.

    As for whether lack of interest or IBM's decisions killed OS/2, that's a bit of a chicken and an egg question. Both happened, and no doubt one reinforced the other.

    Similarly, whether OS/2 or GNU had more users at any one time is probably impossible to say. What is clear is that GNU's popularity continued to grow through the 1990s, while OS/2's rose until about 1993-94, then declined rapidly. It should be obvious from the context that I'm giving my subjective impression (which, for the record, is based partly on observations at the time, and partly on what I know about the early history of the GNU Project from reading and from talking with people who were there). I'd say that it probably wasn't until about 1995-96 that GNU/Linux's numbers exceeded OS/2's.
  • RE: The Parallel Evolution of OS/2 and Free Software

    Mr. Byfield's brief history of OS/2 is seriously in error! OS/2 did not begin "as an effort to create the next generation of interfaces after Windows and the Mac OS", it began as a replacement for MS- and PC-DOS, and it was in production before Windows 3.0. In fact, version 1 of OS/2 did not have a GUI. Also, it began as a full 16-bit OS making full use of the 80286 CPU "protected mode" capabilities and addressing space giving it relatively much greater security and stability which were important features. I am not certain, but I believe there were more copies of OS/2 running in ATM machines in the late 90's (I had read that over 80% of all ATM's ran OS/2 at that time, but I certainly couldn't verify that claim) than there were copies running on desktops, and there were a few million desktops with OS/2. I never heard of an ATM running Windows NT, there may have been a few. I also heard of a number of manufacturing companies that were using OS/2 to run critical manufacturing processes, and which refused to switch to Windows NT to run them in the '90's. OS/2 had a satisfactory GUI, but it's reputation among most of its users, who were corporations, was for stability.

    I ran OS/2 versions 2.0 through Warp 4 on my first 32 bit computer, a 33Mhz 80486. It was, without question, more stable than Windows 3.1, Windows 95 or 98, and even more stable than Windows NT. It's desktop interface didn't wow me and had it's quirks, but the OS was rock solid, especially compared to M$ products at the time.

    OS/2's failure wasn't a failure so much as a business decision by IBM. There was testimony at Micro$oft's anti-trust trial that hinted that IBM's decision to terminate OS/2 had much more to do with threats made by Micro$oft if IBM didn't. Also, by the time IBM decided to terminate it, I strongly suspect there were more Linux desktops in use, and certainly far more servers than OS/2 - which also came in a server version which I never used. So the free software movement was well on its way without OS/2, and may have only expanded it's community in only a minor way as a result of OS/2 users turning to Linux in their search for a stable, reliable OS.

    So Mr. Byfield's article is merely a lot of entertaining blather. But entertaining, nonetheless.


    W. P. Taylor
  • OS/2 Abandonment was such a disappointment

    I began to use OS/2 soon after 2.1. came out, and I was so pleased with it after using Windows 3.11. Before that jerk Gerstner directed IBM to abandon OS/2, I had a considerable investment in OS/2 software .... everything from great FAX software to Lotus Office Suite.

    I was never impressed with ecomstation .....too little, too late, and burdened with that horrible LVM partitioning many of us couldn't figure out if we tried, but it was IBM I blamed for the loss of of my investment in time and money in OS/2.

    And that's what I told the IBM reps when they tried to sell our credit union on a new banking system a few years later when I happened to be a director - that I did not trust at all IBM's "commitment" to their users.

    No, we didn't buy their system.

    And today, all my six computers run primarily Linux.
  • Agreed

    Very well written! I think you correctly identified the relationship between OS/2 and Linux.
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