Happy Birthday, OS/2

on April 2, 2012

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the launch of IBM’s OS/2 operating system. At Time Techland, Harry McCracken has an excellent account of how OS/2 failed to head off Windows, but ended up as a strange zombie operating system. But the birthday brought to mind my own encounters with OS/2.

I first ran into it in its least known form, the original command-line version that was a joint venture with Microsoft. We had been running a proprietary 3Com LAN at the Washington office of BusinessWeek and 3Com decided to stop development of the software and migrate customers of Microsoft LAN Manager, which ran on OS/2. LAN Manager is one of those products about which the less said the better. The software was awful and the support non-existent. Before long, we switched over to the then-dominant LAN software, Novell Netware (which we stayed with for way too long,  but that’s another story.) A couple years later, Microsoft released Windows NT Server and put LAN Manager out of its misery.

By the time OS/2 3.0 Warp, the alleged consumer version, shipping in 1994, I had switched  jobs from editorial bureaucrat to tech pundit, so of course I had to try it. I scrounged up a PC–I didn’t have a large collection yet–and tried to install it. And tried. I eventually got it running but could not get it to recognize an NEC CD drive, at the time the most widely used optical disk reader. I eventually got IBM tech support to explain how to find the device drivers and install them manually, a process that convinced me that the only consumers who would ever use Warp had day jobs in IT.

By that time, Windows 3.11 at least worked pretty reliably and even the early betas of “Chicago,” which became Windows 95, convinced me that whatever its architectural flaws, it had OS/2 beat by a mile on usability. I think that when Windows 95 shipped, I installed it on my OS/2 system, and that was that.