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IBM gets ready to pull the plug on OS/2

Touted at one time as "better Windows than Windows," IBM's long-in-the-tooth desktop operating system is about to reach the end of the line.

While the Windows versus Linux marketing slugfest rages on today in Redmond, it's easy to forget that in another time, Windows faced a similar showdown against a competitor that was once touted as a "better Windows than Windows."

[OS/2] never crashed. … Windows typically had to be rebooted.

David Both, former IBM engineer


IBM's 32-bit OS/2 operating system is finally about to fade into history, as IBM said this week it will end standard support for OS/2 at the end of the year. A paid support option is still possible through a special contract, IBM said.

OS/2 was originally released in 1987, at about the same time as IBM's PS/2 computer with its proprietary micro channel bus. The last version, OS/2 Warp Server, hasn't been sold for years, but it is still supported because organizations with applications written for OS/2 need to be supported, said Gordon Haff, a principal analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H., consulting firm.

Windows and OS/2 shared the same roots. IBM and Microsoft famously collaborated on the platform, which culminated in a split in 1990 that sent both companies' software development in separate directions.

Early versions of OS/2 were well regarded, especially compared with the first iterations of Windows. But developers found it easier to write applications for Windows, and Microsoft's operating system quickly caught on.

David Both is a Linux consultant today, but he spent 21 years at IBM, eight of those working as part of the OS/2 team as the lead support engineer at the IBM PC Company's help center, providing technical leadership to IBM personnel. He watched the OS develop from its first version to the last, Warp 4.

Regarding OS/2, Both's biggest source of pride is the fact that the OS had rock-solid stability and an easy-to-use interface. "It never crashed," he said. "You could put it in a closet for years and not have to worry about it. Windows typically had to be rebooted."

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Both sees Microsoft's challenge in out-marketing Linux as being far different than OS/2, given that there is much more software available for Linux than there ever was for OS/2. "Open source really engenders a huge number of folks who write software and improve existing software," he said. "OS/2 never had the number of developers you would need for critical mass that we have with Linux."

And unlike OS/2, Microsoft has no clear target to aim at, given that Linux is somewhat amorphous. "What is Linux?" Both said. "It's a kernel, but it's also all of this other stuff that goes around it. The utilities give you the OS, not one single thing."

He does mourn OS/2's passing just a bit, though it came as no surprise. "Considering the ineptness with which IBM marketed OS/2, it was a foregone conclusion," Both said.

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