Riding into the sunset

Imagine an IT industry in which history unfolded differently. In this story there is one dominant operating system, Bill Gates is still a household name, and IBM is one of the industry’s most influential vendors. Users might still grumble about the licensing fees, but they also respect the platform’s ease-of-use, sheer variety of applications and, above all, its stability.

If a few key people had made some slightly different assumptions 10 years ago, this is quite likely what our industry would look like today. IT departments everywhere would be running OS/2.

Instead, today “if (OS/2) is still out there, it’s going to stay hidden,” said Phillipe Bonneville, a Montreal-based SAP developer. Bonneville is an avid home user of OS/2 who worked with the platform while he was an employee of Pratt & Whitney throughout most of the ’90s. He’s also a member of Montreal’s OS/2 user group that years ago boasted a membership of 100 people, although “we’re down to the executive committee now,” he added.

The user group, like the 15-year-old platform itself, appears to be in its twilight years. A thin sliver of “Other” on pie charts often represents its market share, and few ISVs are writing business applications for the platform. “The percentage of OS/2 has become very little …. Very few companies have a big investment in OS/2,” noted Simon Morris, director of consulting at Fujitsu Canada Inc. He said that of the new corporate clients Fujitsu has signed over the past year, only three were running pockets of OS/2.

Even IBM, the platform’s gatekeeper, is distancing itself from the brand, grudgingly offering support to only large enterprise customers. Last year, IBM posted a notice on its OS/2 Web site detailing nearly 300 related products that it now no longer sells. The vendor also plans to phase out shrink-wrapped versions of the platform in favour of downloads and online support, and is actively encouraging its user base to migrate – ideally to a WebSphere/Java environment. (Big Blue declined to offer comment for this article).

Still, say experts, islands of OS/2 continue to survive today, mainly in the financial, insurance and manufacturing sector – environments with many remote stations that require massive, yet simple and repetitive tasks, environments where OS/2 shines (bank machines, dumb terminals, etc.).

But why continue to use an OS when even its sponsor vendor is trying to phase it out? The first reason lies in its design. Everyone interviewed for this article who worked with OS/2 during their career agreed it was among the most reliable environments they’ve worked with. “OS/2 never failed…I found it very stable,” noted Ashish Deb, principal consultant with Fujitsu. Windows only found an equivalent level of reliability in its 2000 release, Deb added.

That kind of reliability gave IT managers the confidence to run their mission-critical applications on it. And that leads to the second, and by far most compelling reason for companies to stick with OS/2: the daunting task of migrating it. Most firms using it today “have planned for its migration for years, but never really made a go in the rollout yet,” said Greg Shah, a former IBM software executive and now partner at Golden Code Development, which specializes in OS/2 migrations and customizations, mostly for U.S. banks.

“Like a lot of companies that continue to use OS/2, they found that it worked and that as long as they had someone to maintain it, they had no reason to change,” noted David Both, one-time employee of IBM’s PC software division, author of books on OS/2 and now e-mail service manager for the state of North Carolina in Raleigh.

Convincing management to sign off on the cost and work involved in shifting a system to Windows – a system that works just fine – on the basis of nebulous support issues is a hard sell. To add to the complexity, the original documentation has often long since disappeared, as have the people who originally configured the systems.

Thus migrations are rarely framed as OS/2-specific. “It’s not an OS/2 refresh program…it’s a major, architectural refresh, and OS/2 gets caught up in it,” Morris said.

That those migrations will happen, however, is a virtual certainty, Deb added. With cost-minded managers looking at how to tame IT expenses, attacking heterogeneous operating environments has become a preferred strategy.

Assumptions, and the break

With an early headstart on Windows and initial admiration, the story of how OS/2 came to its current state has more to do with a series of incorrect business decisions rather than technological assumptions.

According to Both, in 1981 IBM was operating under three major assumptions when it came to the PC: big companies would stick with mainframes and dumb terminals, most PCs would remain at home and those that were to be used at work would be processing one task at a time, all day long.

It became quickly apparent, however, that multi-tasking was not only preferred; it was also a necessity. Around the same time, Microsoft was working with a company called Entry Systems Division to produce an OS dubbed OS/2 (while working on DOS-based Windows at the same time). IBM shipped OS/2 1.00 in December 1987 – it was text-mode only, but it allowed other programs to run in the background, and supported a maximum disk size of 32MB. A GUI was added in 1.10 Standard Edition a year later. A 1989 release shipped with what is now known as DB2. The second large release, OS/2.0, was the first true 32-bit OS for PCs.

By 1990, however, Microsoft was noticing that Windows 3.0 was taking in more revenue than OS/2. IBM, worried at the company’s lax attitude towards its preferred OS, took over development responsibility for the platform. Microsoft later renamed OS/2 V3 to Windows NT. OS/2 upgrades continued to come from Big Blue on an almost-yearly basis until 1999 and Warp 4.

In the early days it easily gained favour among enterprise IT staff, particularly when it was set against the 3.x series of Windows. “I find it more powerful,” said Bonneville. “Batch support within OS/2 is a lot more powerful than you get in Windows without third-party stuff.”

There was REXX, a still-popular, platform-independent script programming language, which came with several IBM systems, including OS/2. It also offered features that were tough to find elsewhere. In the late eighties IBM shipped OS/2 with technology known as RPL (pronounced “Ripple”), a modified network card with firmware that enabled it to be the boot device. When the PC detected the card, it found the boot server and pushed OS/2 down to the individual user. “You got the same OS/2 you’d get if it was loaded manually…(It was) PC-like performance without the headaches,” Shah said.

He said it wasn’t until 1997 that IBM “realized what a gem” it had in this feature, when it transformed it into Workspace on Demand, its server-based client management tool.

But the results of the OS/2-Windows battle are now obvious. Enthusiasts unanimously agree that IBM’s biggest downfall, and Microsoft’s greatest strength, was in making their respective platforms user-friendly, and in getting software partners onboard, particularly when it came to office applications. Shah recalls being told of two very large customers telling IBM that OS/2 was a very well-managed environment, but without an office suite, they would not consider it as their OS of choice. He said the company toyed with the idea of shipping a version of StarOffice (an open source suite now overseen by Sun Microsystems Inc.), but it never came to pass.

By 1997, IBM made the internal decision to no longer promote OS/2 to its customers, although it still sells and supports Warp 4.

What to do?

So what should you do if you’re still running OS/2? Even enthusiasts agree that it’s time to start thinking of migrating. “I think about four or five years ago most of the overt interest and folks who were (behind) OS/2 started to drift apart to other things like Linux,” Both said.

Morris said it’s best to be proactive when it comes to OS migration projects, as downtime can often be costly. “Don’t wait until it becomes critical…. What happens is that there’s a sudden panic, and that makes these projects even more difficult than they are.”

E-zines, support groups and lists of current corporate customers can still be found on the Web. One of them, BMO Financial Group, was unable to confirm whether it is still using OS/2 as of press time. Another, First Banks of Virginia, also did not comment. A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles confirmed that it was an OS/2 customer, “but we switched to Windows NT six years ago,” he said.

Although many others have simply transformed themselves into Windows shops, Shah said for those who prefer to keep the open nature of OS/2, IBM’s suggested WebSphere/Java migration plan is likely the best option.

“It’s a good strategy,” he said. “We have not found a situation where we could not recommend that as the best option. It’s the lowest-cost option.”

Both still uses OS/2 at home, but says his days of pursuing OS/2 projects at client sites are over. However, he likes to tell the story of the day, after he began his job with North Carolina, that he peered into the work area next to his and inspected the equipment.

“There was an OS/2 box running in there.”