OS/2: Never say die

What would happen if a company developed an operating system that offered stability, impressive performance and a long-term lifecycle?

They’d quietly kill it off, of course.

This has been the sad story of OS/2, which has managed to survive in the shadows of the circus acts that greeted the arrival of Windows 95, Windows 2000 and the preliminary rollout of Windows XP. Based on a particularly strong kernel that was designed to recover if one of the applications sitting on top of it fails, IBM had good reason to be proud of a platform that found its way into many corporate enterprises.

In the mid-90s, however, Big Blue officially threw its weight behind Windows and has since treated OS/2 like a crazy relative best kept locked away in the attic. We’re not supposed to think about it anymore, much less plan an IT strategy based on it.

This week Connectix Corp. put OS/2 on the map again with the release of a new version of its Virtual PC product, which will allow integration between multiple operating systems, including Windows. It’s like putting a blindfold on an application, running it from OS/2 if desired and delivering the results to almost any graphical user interface.

The news will no doubt be a boon to the user groups and die-hard enthusiasts who continue to breathe life into the platform. There are certainly enough of them out there. The best sources of information online include the OS/2 eZine, and the OS/2 Supersite, published by a company called BT Micro. These are community-driven efforts by users who have found something that eludes many corporations: a product that works.

These loyalists may sound like crackpots (and are often unfairly treated as such), but they represent some brilliant minds — there is even a OS/2 user group at MIT. They admire its design, obsess over its future, champion the slightest update to a compatible application or hardware product. In fact, they sound like Mac OS users, or Linux enthusiasts, but there are important differences. Compared to those OSes, OS/2 looks like an endangered species, facing 40 per cent market share declines the last time Computer Dealer News checked with IDC in 1999. Of course, these numbers are much harder to track than for operating systems which are actively promoted by their vendors.

The other major difference is that OS/2 is not powered by the kind of fervor that surrounds open-source platforms or the Mac OS. It is not an operating system whose users want to topple Microsoft or change the world. These are people with a valuable IT legacy they want to preserve.

Connectix’s Virtual PC will not resuscitate the development of OS/2 applications — it would take IBM’s support to do that, and IBM refuses to discuss it — but it may lay down a more gradual foundation that will ease the migration of some enterprises to more sophisticated operating system environments. Microsoft has already demonstrated with the recent changes to its licensing programs that it wants to push the industry into a more frequent upgrade cycle. OS/2 demonstrates that customers have a surprisingly effective ability to manage that transition at their own pace. More power to them.

sschick@plesman.com

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