Stardock’s OS/2 history
This weekend my wife and I were going through boxes of “stuff” as we transferred items from what had been my upstairs study to the new “lab” in the basement. I was amazed at some of the stuff I found because I had long forgotten I had them. Various gifts from IBM such as watches, wallets, executive pens, clocks, etc. It made me think about how much had happened since those days.
Every company has its own unique story of how it was founded and for what purpose. Most technology companies these days seem to be founded via venture capital to jump into a market they whole will make big money. The founders usually see something they think will make it big, get some capital and pursue it. Stardock’s history could really be divided into two parts – The OS/2 Stardock and the Windows Stardock. Because much changed between the two and this brief article will talk about the OS/2 Stardock.
1993-1994: In the beginning…
The OS/2 Stardock came into being in 1993. I was in college then trying to get my Electrical Engineering degree. I came from a very modest background so paying for school was very difficult for me. To do so, I had 3 jobs at the time. My first job was as a lab instructor and occasionally professor substitute in Electrical Engineering classes. My second job was as an assistant to a professor in the Geography department which essentially had me managing the department’s Mac lab. The last job was building personal computers from their component parts. This job came under “Stardock Systems” (that’s why it’s been called Stardock SYSTEMS). These PC’s came with OS/2 preinstalled (I would run out to Baggages, purchase OS/2 2.1 and install it onto their machine for them).
When people talk about OS/2 fanatics, I was the biggest OS/2 fanatic around in many respects. Most zealots merely talked big, but my zealotry went way beyond that. I believed in my naïve 21 old way that one person could make a different in the “OS Wars”. In June of 1993, after arguing on Usenet’s comp.os.os2.advocacy that OS/2 could be a good game platform and having talked to my friends on comp.sys.ibm.pc.games.strategic, I decided I would write a game. How hard could that be? Nothing is impossible for the person who has never tried and I quickly discovered it was a lot of work. I bought a book “Teach Yourself C in 21 days” and “OS/2 2.0 PM programming” Because I couldn’t afford anything more, everything in the game I created, Galactic Civilizations, could be found in those 2 books.
Let me give you an example – in GalCiv on OS/2, each star ship is actually a full blown window that is of style SS_ICON. So when you move a ship in the game, I’m just using WinSetWindowPos to move the ship X,Y coordinates. There’s no “graphics” in the game per se, just all icons being moved around. That’s because I couldn’t afford any more books than those two and they didn’t cover graphics programming, just icons and window movement.
Over the next year, between classes and teaching, and my other jobs, I wrote up Galactic Civilizations. I came to the attention of an IBMer named Gabriel Vizzard who, like me, dreamt of OS/2 as supplanting DOS\Windows as the primary OS. He got me in contact with lots of people at IBM who could help me. They got me “Real” programming tools (GC 1.0 was mostly done in GNU since it was free) like C/set++, and introduced me to a lot of different people. Some of these people would be instrumental in our company’s history. People like Bob St. John who would eventually leave IBM to start up his own company called Serenity were very important in teaching me how “the real world” worked. Some of the lessons learned were very expensive as not all of the contacts made were good ones.
For example, the company suggested to “publish” Galactic Civilizations turned out to be just some guy out of his house with no real experience at these things and was not really capable of professional publishing and it showed on GalCiv. Of course, I can’t really condemn so much him pretending to be a “real company”. In one conversation with an IBM executive, I was sitting in my dorm room and I asked “Is GalCiv the only OS/2 game being made?” The IBMer responded “Well, there is another game but it’s being made by some college kid, haha, so we don’t have too much faith in that..” to which I responded “Hahah, yea, those college kids, can’t trust them..”
(Though that college game, a flight simulator for OS/2, never was completed so in that case they were right).
At CeBIT in early ’95 showing off OS/2 for the PowerPC. Most current OS/2 users have no idea how much time and energy OS/2 ISVs invested in OS/2 products that never saw the light of day.
1995: OS/2 reaches its height…
The GalCiv/2 1.0 debacle taught me some valuable lessons and created the incentive to publish OS/2 software instead of just develop them. I believed that if there was just enough quality OS/2 software, professionally published and marketed that it could make the difference for the OS/2 “Cause”. Though our “publisher” never did pay us royalties (long story, suffice to say that my wife and I don’t have very kind words to say towards the person who "published" GalCiv 1.0), what saved us were two things. The first thing was an add-on to GalCiv called Shipyards which we sold for $15 apiece and sold many thousands of copies of. That made enough money to fund OS/2 Essentials, our second product. The second thing that happened was that IBM licensed our GalCiv derivative Star Emperor for their IBM FunPak which generated a considerable amount of capital to invest.
This all happened at just the right time. I had become friends with a fellow OS/2 fanatic, Kurt Westerfeld who had recently released a powerful Fidonet news reader called KWQ/2. He had become an expert at WPS development. We both considered OS/2’s object oriented shell its “killer app”. If we could harness the power of OS/2’s shell with the right program, more people might migrate to OS/2. In the Fall of 1995, we used the capital we gained via Star Emperor to launch Object Desktop. This turned out to be one of the most popular OS/2 products of all time. For many people, using OS/2 without Object Desktop was unbearable. It filled in all those little pieces that OS/2 was missing and made a clear demonstration of what OS/2 could do.
Later that year, we got the rights back on Galactic Civilizations and published it ourselves as a sequel called Galactic Civilizations 2. Those two programs would represent the vast majority of Stardock’s overall OS/2 revenue.
With the success of these products, we began our quest to get more good OS/2 software into shrink wrap. We published third party software such as Avarice, Trials of Battle, Process Commander, PMINews, and several other programs. We also continued to develop more OS/2 software internally such as OD Professional, PlusPak, Entrepreneur, and more. In all, over a dozen OS/2 products were created.
1996: The beginning of the end – the limits of advocacy…
As 1996 began, Stardock, still a very young company, flush with cash and cockiness thought that OS/2 was in pretty good shape. What we didn’t know was what had occurred at IBM at around this time. IBM had been working on a project called Workplace OS (later called OS/2 for the PowerPC). This project had gone on for years and had returned little in results. A call from the highest executives at IBM stated that if OS/2 for the PowerPC didn’t get completed by Fall Comdex of ’95, PSP was doomed. They didn’t make it and OS/2’s fate was sealed. But it would take awhile for us to know that this had occurred (even as I type this, there are still plenty of users in denial, my own denial went on until 1998).
In early 1996, myself and our friends at CDS and Indelible Blue, 3 of the more vocal and successful OS/2 ISVs got together and formed the “32bit Alliance”. We organized several OS/2 ISVs together and pooled marketing dollars to take out full page ads for OS/2. On the retail/distribution side, we organized something called “Warpware” via a new company called Blue Orchards to help get OS/2 software into retail. Unfortunately, by mid 1996, the OS/2 SOHO market had already shrunk by quite a bit and most of the OS/2 products at retail died. Only a few thrived (Partition Magic, GalCiv, Object Desktop, Back Again/2, Performance Plus, and System Commander) while the rest sold very few copies which amongst other factors led to Blueware going bankrupt (owing several OS/2 ISVs, primarily Stardock, large amounts of money).
(trying to find a scanned version of the ads, they were quite good)
This taught me a painful lesson – the limits of advocacy. Don’t let fanaticism get in the way of sound business judgment. A company founded by a fanatic, employing fanatics, was slow to recognize the market realities of OS/2. But this episode really brought home that things were not quite as rosy as we thought. We still went through the usual denials “Oh, the products that failed were too expensive” or “They just weren’t good enough” or whatever. But ultimately we were discovering that there weren’t nearly as many OS/2 users as we had been led to believe. For instance, OS/2 Magazine by 1996 had fewer than 30,000 subscribers (including give aways). Obviously that isn’t the type of statistic one would expect in a market that had allegedly 14 million users.
The lesson was just in time as it helped cement the decision to make our next major game, Entrepreneur, be on both Windows and OS/2 instead of exclusively on OS/2.
By the end of 1996, it was pretty clear to people “in the know” that it was pretty much over for OS/2 as far as IBM was concerned. Warp 4 was not much of a release as much as a “here it is, we want to get the heck out of here, so make everything JAVA and then we’ll figure out where to put you later.”
1997-1998: The fall of the OS/2 market
1997 was a terrible year for us as our OS/2 software sales dropped to very low levels as OS/2 users switched to Windows NT 4.0 which had arrived the previous fall.
When Entrepreneur came out in 1998 as things were at their darkest, everything changed. Entrepreneur, the Windows version of it, did quite well and bought us enough time to get Object Desktop for Windows completed. In mid 1998, the unthinkable happened for me, I switched from OS/2 Warp 4 to Windows NT.
Switching OSes (not version numbers but to an entirely new OS) is pretty dramatic. The first thing I realized is how far behind OS/2 had become by 1998. Most OS/2 users have no idea just how much harm they’re taking today using OS/2 if they use computers largely in their careers. The typical response is “we don’t need that” or “that feature doesn’t work on Windows anyway” but the reality is quite different. For instance, I am typing this on my laptop on the living room couch without any wires. I’m still on the Internet thanks to Intel Anypoint. You can’t do this kind of thing on OS/2 (unless you get a very expensive wireless LAN setup) nor will you likely ever be able to do it. Many other things ranging from plug and play to basic software support are things users give up now when they use OS/2. It took me many months to “Catch up” to where many professionals had already been. I also learned Windows NT wasn’t a “bloated pig” or “buggy” as we had thought it was (Win9x certainly is crap though still).
After Warpstock ’98, I really got re-energized about OS/2. There was still a vibrant community using OS/2. Though more and more “normal” people had moved to other OSes, leaving the outcasts to increasingly make OS/2 users look like a bunch of disgruntled bitter users who just want to complain about how unfair the world is but not willing to do anything constructive about it. But I still thought there was a shot. Enough people were still using OS/2 to serve as a base and enough people had only recently switched to Windows that they could be brought back if there was renewed hope that OS/2 might catch up and then be the best.
If IBM could just produce another shrink wrapped version of OS/2 that one could find at the store then OS/2 could survive as a reasonable alternative. But time was running out. Each day OS/2 users were giving up on and moving on. We approached IBM with a radical plan – if they weren’t going to do another shrink-wrapped retail OS/2 client, let us do it. Let us take the next sever version of OS/2, take out the server components, and we would put the Stardock Development Network to work on updating the client features to be more competitive. Advocacy was part of the reason, good business sense was another. While the client wouldn’t be terrible profitable to do, if we could bring enough users back to OS/2, we had over a dozen OS/2 products that were still state of the art technologically that we could sell to these new users. Break even on a client, generate profit from selling additional software. It was the perfect blend of advocacy and business sense – IF we could get it out the door before the end of 1999.
Things we had planned included:
1) A new installer
2) Stardock.net Instant Messaging (OS/2 users could opt in to find any on-line OS/2 user that had also opted in)
3) Stardock.net Instant web (Bundling of Apache integrated into Stardock.net so that users could set up their own JAVA based virtual desktops and have it listed on Stardock.net so that the OS/2 community could more easily coordinate things)
4) SCUA ’98 UI enhancements (navigation bar as part of the folder UI, enhanced properties dialogs, flexible UI skinning, integration of WinOS2 and OS/2 to have the same look)
5) Warp 2000 integration in which users would go to warp2000.com to find out what hardware and software was available at an instant and put in requests for software. This would also coordinate with the SmartCredits concept Tim Sipples came up with (a form of currency in which OS/2 users who contributed software, help, or whatever else would in turn gain credits which could be used to get discounts on OS/2 software, services, and web space. This was designed to help create an incentive for OS/2 users to help themselves instead of relying on IBM or Stardock or some other entity).
Feature wise, the default install was going to be a lot thinner than Warp 4. The idea being to create a really fast, small OS that was very scaleable. So things like OpenDoc and some of the extraneous OS/2 multimedia extensions not used but using up space and ram would be off by default.
1999-2000: The market becomes a community
With the OS plan in place, things with IBM moved well but slowly. The problem was that there was no part number for an OS/2 V5 client to license. The suggested route was to take OS/2 Warp 4, license that, and do our “Stuff” to that. If we had agreed to that, we would have had a client in 1999 but it was and still is our belief that someone doing this would have met with considerable resistance in the OS/2 community (“What?! You’re charging us $150 for Warp 4 + FP6 integrated?!)
It was our requirement that it be a OS/2 Warp Server for eBusiness (Aurora) based client that ultimately killed the deal. By Spring of 1999, users were becoming increasingly impatient and the market declining by the day. Worse, our development team needed to be doing something and so we were beginning to focus increasingly on Object Desktop for Windows. We finally set a deadline, by the end of 3Q1999 (September 30, 1999) we had to have a contract or we were going to have to end negotiations.
Things progressed during the summer but the same problem continued to arise, a lack of political will at IBM HQ to create a “Warp 5” client part number to license. After a September 1999 meeting word came back to us that IBM wasn’t going to be able to create such a part number any time soon and that IBM had no plans to create a new (v5) shrink-wrapped OS/2 client or part number. That was the point I gave up any hope of OS/2 ever coming back. At that point, a lot of remaining OS/2 users who had been hanging on to OS/2 by a thread gave up as well.
Within a few months, it was clear that a large portion of the vocal OS/2 community were people often out of touch or using OS/2 out of hatred of Microsoft or simple inertia (like people who still use Apple IIs today). My feeling was that there was and is nothing wrong with using OS/2. If it gets the job done, then why switch?
Unfortunately, as the more reasonable people left, the extremists of the community became more and more noticeable. In many dying or fringe communities, the hateful and discontent tend to be the most vocal and things became that was on OS/2 as well. Suddenly Stardock was a “Traitor” because we weren’t willing to basically go down with the ship. Never mind that the accusers weren’t willing to make any such sacrifice themselves. They also had unrealistic support expectations. It wasn’t enough to release new updates to OS/2 software every few quarters, it had to be as often as the Windows version or else you weren’t a “Real” OS/2 ISV. For instance, if a company or software author released only one update for their OS/2 program per year, they were okay as long as they weren't releasing anything for Windows. But if the same company or author released 2 things for OS/2 in a single year but 4 things for Windows, they were suddenly accused of "abandoning" OS/2. As early as 1998, Stardock had already been accused of "abandoning" OS/2 because Win32 software was starting to appear.
Object Desktop 2.0 for OS/2
What constitutes "abandoning"?
By summer of 2000, the consensus of the OS/2 community was so solid that Stardock had abandoned OS/2 that when Warpstock approached us about having a booth at WS 2000, the conversation began, "We realize you've left the OS/2 market but..." This was despite Stardock having released Object Desktop 2.02 for OS/2 in 1Q2000 and Stellar Frontier for OS/2 in active development. The perception was because so much of our emphasis was on Windows. Some users took it to an extreme by considering me specifically and Stardock in general to be "traitors" to the cause and that we should be punished for this.
This really hit home at E3. In the game industry, I’m reasonably well known for making “indie” games. I like to hang out on the news groups and talk to people. I’ve never been flamed in any of these news groups. I’m generally known as that “game developer who used to make a lot of OS/2 games”. Yet they would be shocked to find out that nearly every time I post on an OS/2 news group I get flamed and reviled loudly and publicly for not doing “enough”. I've been accused being a "criminal" to having "no soul" to things that are unprintable here. My primary crime is that I tend to try to defend and explain our position. In any OS/2 news group, any mention of me or Stardock will almost certainly bring some sort of anti-Stardock comment from an OS/2 user. The perceived sin isn't that we didn't do anything for OS/2, but that we're not doing enough now. "What have you done lately?"
And so things came full circle. I had started out as one of those OS/2 fanatics. OS/2 to me was a cause, a holy mission. And so I learned another valuable lesson that I hope others learn. Fanaticism can quickly turn on you. There is little loyalty in the hearts of many fanatics and that becomes very true the minute you prove yourself to no longer be a fanatic. To the fanatic, you’re either totally with them or you’re the “enemy”. There is no in-between.
Our OS/2 history was a fun growing up part for the company. The Windows Stardock grew out of the ashes of the OS/2 market and has a very different environment for employees and customers. I learned that it isn’t OS/2 itself that I was a fanatic about, it was the concept of being able to make cool stuff that might in some way transform the way computers could be used. That’s what I think made me such an OS/2 fanatic. OS/2 represented a fundamentally better way of doing things.
I’m still a fanatic but not an OS fanatic. Now it’s in fanaticism in empowering users to have control over the machine. To not let anyone dictate to them how they have to use a machine but to let them decide what best suits them. It’s a more personal fanaticism in that it’s more specific in some ways and it’s just as exciting.
I don’t regret my OS/2 days at all, it was a great time, a lot of friends were made and a lot of lessons learned. I miss the promise and dreams OS/2 represented but each day demonstrates how many new opportunities there are to “Change the world” in some small way. Just remember though, no matter what OS or machine or whatever, don’t get too attached to what is ultimately an inanimate object. Software is there to serve you, not vice versa. ;)
Also, on the bright side, Bob St. John at Serenity has managed to get IBM to let him publish a Warp 4 based client called eComStation (www.ecomstation.com). This will be quite helpful for OS/2 users who are planning to stay on OS/2 in the long term because the latest OS/2 Fixpacks include many components of Aurora. If you're interested, check out the website and it'll tell you more.