Celebrating OS/2 2.0’s 10th birthday.

March 31, 2002 by Brad Wardell

It’s hard to believe that the course of PC computing was irrevocably changed 10 years ago.  On March 31, 1992, IBM release OS/2 2.0. While OS/2 ultimately lost out to Windows, its impact on OS interface design was extraordinary.  Many Windows users today may be surprised to find out just how much of today’s Windows interface was borrowed from OS/2 2.0.

 OS/2 2.0 Innovations

OS/2 2.0

These are just a handful of undeniable interface concepts developed for OS/2 that Microsoft borrowed for Windows 95 and beyond. But here are some more controversial assertions I’ll make that are open for debate:

I would argue that DirectX would not be anywhere near where it is today if it weren’t for OS/2.  Microsoft was content with DOS as a gaming platform and toying around with WinG but when IBM started touting DIVE (Direct Video Extensions) and talking to id about an OS/2 version of DOOM, suddenly Microsoft woke up. DirectX 1.0 (see “Renegades of the Empire”) started getting touted and Microsoft suddenly discovered the Game Developer’s Conference where it and IBM vied for the loyalty of game developers.

The quality of video playing in Windows was dramatically affected by how good OS/2 2.1 could play video. IBM’s demo-god, David Barnes, squashing of Microsoft in a series of OS shootouts certainly encouraged a competitive response from Microsoft.

It also launched the careers of many developers who cut their teeth on coding on OS/2. The result was a new kind of developer. These developers inherently understood the advantages of multithreaded programming, object-oriented interfaces and context-sensitive design. Many of these new developers created companies that focused on OS/2.  For instance, PowerQuest (Partition Magic), Stardock (WindowBlinds), and V Communications initially started by focusing on OS/2.

Even on games,  developers who started on OS/2 moved on to become players in the Windows game market. I was at the Game Developer’s Conference as one of the judges for his year’s Independent Games Festival. I looked at the short list of judges and discovered my old friend, Dave Pottinger as a fellow judge – who now works at Ensemble (Age of Empires) which is published by Microsoft. His first major game project was on OS/2 (“Avarice”, published by Stardock).  For a platform that was supposedly weak on games, this was an odd sight (and who knows how many other former OS/2 game developers are today in the Windows game industry).

The legacy of OS/2 also lives on as we look at the current problems Microsoft faces in anti-trust.  OS/2 old timers scoff at the cries of unfairness from the Netscape crowd. Netscape had it easy.  The OS/2 vs. Windows wars made the subsequent browser wars look like child’s play.

OS/2 Shoulda Coulda

OS/2 2.0 in 1992 was up against Windows 3.0/3.1.  OS/2 2.0 could run Windows programs seamlessly (i.e. not in some compatibility mode but right on your desktop like any other program).  It could run them faster than Windows in many cases. It definitely ran DOS programs better than DOS itself and could provide maximum free memory to DOS programs. It had an object-oriented graphical user interface (contrast this to Program Manager). It had pre-emptive multitasking which means that you could do things like format a floppy while downloading a program (using a DOS or Windows terminal program even) while typing a letter.

And just how good was OS/2’s Windows support? It was so good that it was better for a Windows user to use OS/2 to get real work done because Windows programs could preemptively multitask between themselves (versus Windows 3.1’s “Cooperative multitasking”).  A good example of this would be that I could be using Microsoft Word for Windows while my scanner using Photoshop was scanning a very large document.  In contrast, on Windows 3.1, such a scan would have made me sit there waiting until it finished before doing anything else.

In contrast, while Netscape’s advocates may argue about various points where Navigator was better than Internet Explorer at some point, OS/2 2.0 was undeniably massively superior to its competition. It wasn’t a modest difference, it was a massive difference and OS/2 would have these undeniable massive advantages for 3 years (when on August 24th, 1995 Windows 95 would ship). Despite these advantages and the length it had them, OS/2 never was a serious threat to Windows. Why?

It’s only when you look at it as a whole does the why question really become interesting. OS/2’s detractors will  point out IBM’s inept marketing or OS/2 having this or that short coming was the cause, but let’s be real – for three solid years, IBM’s OS/2 was the only OS that could boast running DOS, Windows and OS/2 programs,  was a stable software platform. Had preemptive multitasking. Had a consistent user interface across many programs, was fast, and had reasonable hardware requirements.  By all measures, OS/2 should have won.  But it didn’t.

Evil Microsoft or stupid software companies?

The blame can’t fall on Microsoft alone. Microsoft’s success makes them a big target. But as Microsoft will quietly tell people, Microsoft’s success wasn’t always because they were so smart or so ruthless, it was often because their competitors were so inept, incompetent and short sighted.

No one forced Adobe, Word Perfect, Ashton-Tate, Lotus, Corel, and others to not make modern native OS/2 versions of their programs.  They literally had years to do so.  It was the lack of modern versions of the programs that companies made, combined with some iffy OEM deals that ensured Windows’ triumph.  One has to ask “What the hell were these guys thinking?”  Now, these companies are shadows of their former selves, allowed to exist in Microsoft provided niches that seem to grow slightly smaller each year.  It didn’t have to be that way.

Imagine world in which Word Perfect, Photoshop, 123, Ami Pro, Corel Draw, etc. shipped with native OS/2 versions in late 1992.  The advantages OS/2 had for these kinds of programs over Windows weren’t insignificant either.  We take features like memory protection, preemptive multitasking, and multithreading for granted today. But in 1992, these features didn’t exist on Windows and OS/2 could give them those advantages.  Programs that were more stable, faster, and could integrate with one another much easier (OS/2 didn’t even need files to have file extensions, files had a type of metadata attached to them called “extended attributes”).

But what happened happened.  And by 1997 the show was pretty much over.  Windows NT 4.0 shipped with enough of OS/2’s features, MS Office and the above programs to seal OS/2’s fate. Windows users had to wait an additional 5 years to enjoy the benefits OS/2 provided in 1992.  While OS/2 may be gone (other than a tiny handful of die hards), its influence lives with us in Windows today.

Now the new threat to Windows is Linux. Linux is competitive on the server and many believe it is destined to become competitive on the desktop as well. I certainly think it can be if the Linux culture can become more accepting of having to pay for close-sourced software as the norm rather than as the exception.  But between Linux and MacOS X, Microsoft, still reactively competitive, moves forward with Windows XP now as influenced by Apple as previous versions were influenced by OS/2.  And third parties like Stardock have embraced and extended Windows XP with products like Object Desktop (www.objectdesktop.com) such that users can transform Windows into their ideal – even an OS/2-like environment. J

ss_os2.jpg (109637 bytes)

My XP box with the OS/2 WinStyles theme (part of Object Desktop)

OS/2 2.0 was a true milestone in the course of PC desktops.  Its 10th birthday should be cause for all to celebrate.  While not a financial success for IBM, its long term influence and impact on the lives of millions of people cannot to be understated.

Here’s to IBM and the OS/2 2.0 team.  Happy Birthday. You truly changed the world for the better.


Great article on OS/2 2.0 including screenshots: http://pages.prodigy.net/michaln/history/os220/

He also did one on OS/2 2.1: http://pages.prodigy.net/michaln/history/os221/

And OS/2 Warp (3.0): http://pages.prodigy.net/michaln/history/os2warp/index.html

Brad Wardell is the President & CEO of Stardock. Stardock was one of the premiere OS/2 software developers from 1993 to 2000. Its OS/2 software included Galactic Civilizations, Avarice, Object Desktop, Trials of Battle, Process Commander, PMINews, Links for OS/2, PlusPak for OS/2, BUGS for OS/2, Stellar Frontier and more. In 1998 Stardock moved into the Windows market and today makes Windows programs such as Object Desktop which includes WindowBlinds, DesktopX, ObjectBar, WinStyles, and more along with games such as The Corporate Machine, LightWeight Ninja, and Galactic Civilizations.