Diehards refuse to bury OS/2

Canadian OS/2 users say IBM’s decision to end support for its aging platform is unlikely to send them in search of open source alternatives.

Big Blue on Friday said it will stop selling OS/2, the first 32-bit multi-tasking operating

system aimed at the PC market, and discontinue support for related products by the end of the year. OS/2 was first released 18 years ago, but IBM has not made a major update for the past six years, though it has continued to quietly make money from it. The company said it would be directing customers to migrate to Linux, which has become a central part of its computing strategy since the late 1990s.

Originally co-developed with Microsoft to replace DOS, the last major versions of OS/2 in 1996 included OpenGL and OpenDoc support, a full Java Development Kit and a VoiceType Dictation system. The decision last week did not come as a surprise, since IBM had consistently said it would wind down support for OS/2.

Canada once boasted several OS/2 user groups in almost every province, but most of them have disbanded in the last 10 years. Those still active include one in Kitchener-Waterloo, whose six to eight members continue to meet on the second Tuesday of every month at the nearby university. John Edwards, who leads the group, said IBM’s decision will not immediately be felt by the remaining installed base. 

“The only thing we may miss is some kernel refreshes and drivers,” he said. “Other than that they pretty much pulled their horns in over the last couple of years.”

Edwards, a retired elementary school teacher, said he hopes to continue to using a version of OS/2 called eComstation, which has been resold by a company called Serenity Systems International in Lexington, Ky., since 2001. Recent enhancements, Edwards said, include a program called S-Vista which allows users to run Windows on top of OS/2 in a virtual environment.

“I look at it as, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said, adding he still has OS/2 running on a 64-bit computer as part of a network of three machines. Serenity, he noted, has indicated support for eComstation into 2007. “IBM may be dropping the ball, but that doesn’t mean everyone is.”

Derek Keoughan, owner of Toronto-based Finnegan Software Inc., is a past vice-president for the Toronto OS/2 User Group, which never officially closed down but hasn’t had a meeting for the last five years. He sells and supports eComstation across Canada and the United States.

Keoughan said his client base includes home users and hobbyists, but also developers running Java with well-established workflow models. One of his customers, for example, is a health-care clinic in Idaho that runs its IT security applications on OS/2, though he admits such vertical market users are rare.

“The market is shrinking, of course, and has been for years,” he said. “There are a number of different niche markets, but OS/2 support for enterprise is dead.”

IBM’s gradual withdrawal has actually increased Keoughan’s market opportunity, he said, because many other OS/2 providers have dropped out of the market. He still uses an OS/2 fax program, which he describes as “bulletproof,” as does one of his clients.

“There’s nothing on Windows that does anything close. They’ve fired off over 140,000 faxes,” he said.

Barrie Rody discovered OS/2 many years ago and formed an Annapolis OS/2 Support Group in Kingston, N.S. Despite its promise, IBM’s lack of interest in the product eventually drove OS/2 users away, he said.

“They weren’t computer geeks – they were people who were looking for an alternative to Microsoft,” he said, admitting, “most of them surrendered to Windows. When IBM gave up, essentially they gave up.”

OS/2 users continue to congregate each year at Warpstock, which was held in Toronto four years ago. Edwards said he will be attending this year’s event in Hershey, Penn., to discuss a way of using drivers with small devices made by Asus and D-Link to do wireless networking of OS/2 based systems.

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