Feb 21, 2020
Today we’re going to look at an operating system from the 80s and 90s called OS/2. OS/2 was a bright shining light for a bit. IBM had a task force that wanted to build a personal computer. They’d been watching the hobbyists for some time and felt they could take off the shelf parts and build a PC. So they did.. But they needed an operating system. They reached out to Microsoft in 1980, who’d been successful with the Altair and so seemed a safe choice. By then, IBM had the IBM Entry Systems Division based out of their Boca Raton, Florida offices. The open architecture allowed them to ship fast. And it afforded them the chance to ship a computer with, check this out, options for an operating system. Wild idea, right? The options initially provided were CP/M and PC DOS, which was MS-DOS ported to the IBM open architecture. CP/M sold for $240 and PC DOS sold for $40. PC DOS had come from Microsoft’s acquisition of 86-DOS from Seattle Computer Products. The PC shipped in 1981, lightning fast for an IBM product. At the time Apple, Atari, Commodore, and were in control of the personal computer market. IBM had dominated the mainframe market for decades and once the personal computer market reached $100 million dollars in sales, it was time to go get some of that. And so the IBM PC would come to be an astounding success and make it not uncommon to see PCs on people’s desks at work or even at home. And being that most people didn’t know a difference, PC DOS would ship on most. By 1985 it was clear that Microsoft had entered and subsequently dominated the PC market. And it was clear that due to the open architecture that other vendors were starting to compete. And after 5 years of working together on PC DOS and 3 versions later, Microsoft and IBM signed a Joint Development Agreement and got to work on the next operating system. One they thought would change everything and set IBM PCs up to dominate the market for decades to come. Over that time, they’d noticed some gaps in DOS. One of the most substantial is that after the projects and files got too big, they became unwieldy. They wanted an object oriented operating system. Another is protected mode. The 286 chips from Intel had protected mode dating back to 1982 and IBM engineers felt they needed to harness that in order to get multi-tasking safely and harness virtual memory to provide better support for all these crazy new windowing things they’d learned with their GUI overlay to DOS called TOPview. So after the Joint Development agreement was signed , IBM let Ed Iacobucci lead the charge on their side and Microsoft had learned a lot from their attempts at a windowing operating system. The two organizations borrowed ideas from all the literature and Unix and of course the Mac. And really built a much better operating system than anything available at the time. Microsoft had been releasing Windows the whole time. Windows 1 came in 1985 and Windows 2 came in 1987, the same year OS/2 1.0 was released. In fact, one of the most dominant PC models to ever ship, the PS/2 computer, would ship that year as well. The initial release didn’t have a GUI. That wouldn’t come until version 1.1 nearly a year later in 1988. SNA shipped to interface with IBM mainframes in that release as well. And TCP/IP and Ethernet would come in version 1.2 in 1989. During this time, Microsoft steadily introduced new options in Windows and claimed both publicly and privately in meetings with IBM that OS/2 was the OS of the future and Windows would some day go away. They would release an extended edition that included a built-in database. Based on protected mode developers didn’t have to call the BIOS any more and could just use provided APIs. You could switch the foreground application using control-escape. In Windows that would become Alt-Tab. 1.2 brought the hpfs file system, bringing longer file names, a journaled file system to protect against data loss during crashes, and extended attributes, similar to how those worked on the Mac. But many of the features would ship in a version of Windows that would be released just a few months before. Like that GUI. Microsoft’s presentation manager came in Windows 2.1 just a few months before OS/2 1.1. Microsoft had an independent sales team. Every manufacturer that bundled Windows meant there were more drivers for Windows so a wider variety of hardware could be used. Microsoft realized that DOS was old and building on top of DOS was going to some day be a big, big problem. They started something similar to what we’d call a fork today of OS/2. And in 1988 they lured Dave Cutler from Digital who had been the architect of the VMS operating system. And that moment began the march towards a new operating system called NT, which borrowed much of the best from VMS, Microsoft Windows, and OS/2 - and had little baggage. Microsoft was supposed to make version 3 of OS/2 but NT OS/2 3.0 would become just Windows NT when Microsoft stopped developing on OS/2. It took 12 years, because um, they had a loooooot of customers after the wild success of first Windows 3 and then Windows 95, but eventually Cutler’s NT would replace all other operating systems in the family with the release of Windows 2000. But by 1990 when Microsoft released Windows 3 they sold millions of copies. Due to great OEM agreements they were on a lot of computers that people bought. The Joint Development Agreement would finally end. IBM had enough of what they assumed meant getting snowed by Microsoft. It took a couple of years for Microsoft to recover. In 1992, the war was on. Microsoft released Windows 3.1 and it was clear that they were moving ideas and people between the OS/2 and Windows teams. I mean, the operating systems actually looked a lot alike. TCP/IP finally shipped in Windows in 1992, 3 years after the companies had co-developed the feature for OS/2. But both would go 32 bit in 1992. OS /2 version 2.0 would also ship, bringing a lot of features. And both took off the blinders thinking about what the future would hold. Microsoft with Windows 95 and NT on parallel development tracks and IBM launched multiple projects to find a replacement operating system. They tried an internal project, Workstation OS, which fizzled. IBM did the unthinkable for Workplace OS. They entered into an alliance with Apple, taking on a number of Apple developers who formed what would be known as the Pink team. The Pinks moved into separate quarters and formed a new company called Taligent with Apple and IBM backing. Taligent planned to bring a new operating system to market in the mid-1990s. They would laser focus on PowerPC chips thus abandoning what was fast becoming the WinTel world. They did show Workspace OS at Comdex one year, but by then Bill Gates was all to swing by the booth knowing he’d won the battle. But they never shipped. By the mid-90s, Taligent would be rolled into IBM and focus on Java projects. Raw research that came out of the project is pretty pervasive today though. Those was an example of a forward looking project, though - and OS/2 continued to be developed with OS/2 Warp (or 3) getting released in 1994. It included IBM Works, which came with a word processor that wasn’t Microsoft Word, a spreadsheet that wasn’t Microsoft Excel, and a database that wasn’t Microsoft Access. Works wouldn’t last past 1996. After all, Microsoft had Charles Simony by then. He’d invented the GUI word processor at Xerox PARC and was light years ahead of the Warp options. And the Office Suite in general was gaining adoption fast. Warp was faster than previous releases, had way more options, and even browser support for early Internet adopters. But by then Windows 95 had taken the market by storm and OS/2 would see a rapidly declining customer base. After spending nearly a billion dollars a year on OS development, IBM would begin downsizing once the battle with Microsoft was lost. Over 1,300 people. And as the number of people dropped, defects with the code grew and the adoption dropped even faster. OS/2 would end in 2001. By then it was clear that IBM had lost the exploding PC market and that Windows was the dominant operating system in use. IBM’s control of the PC had slowly eroded and while they eeked out a little more profit from the PC, they would ultimately sell the division that built and marketed computers to Lenovo in 2005. Lenovo would then enjoy the number one spot in the market for a long time. The blue ocean had resulted in lower margins though, and IBM had taken a different, more services-oriented direction. OS/2 would live on. IBM discontinued support in 2006. It should have probably gone fully open source in 2005. It had already been renamed and rebranded as eComStation first by an IBM Business Partner called Serenity. It would go opensource(ish) and openoffice.org would be included in version two in 2010. Betas of 2.2 have been floating around since 2013 but as with many other open source compilations of projects, it seems to have mostly fizzled out. Ed Iacobucci would go on to found or co-found other companies, including Citrix, which flourishes to this day. So what really happened here. It would be easy, but an over-simplification to say that Microsoft just kinda’ took the operating system. IBM had a vision of an operating system that, similar to the Mac OS, would work with a given set of hardware. Microsoft, being an independent software developer with no hardware, would obviously have a different vision, wanting an operating system that could work with any hardware - you know, the original open architecture that allowed early IBM PCs to flourish. IBM had a big business suit and tie corporate culture. Microsoft did not. IBM employed a lot of computer scientists. Microsoft employed a lot of hackers. IBM had a large bureaucracy, Microsoft could build an operating system like NT mostly based on hiring a single brilliant person and rapidly building an elite team around them. IBM was a matrixed organization. I’ve been told you aren’t an enterprise unless you’re fully matrixed. Microsoft didn’t care about all that. They just wanted the marketshare. When Microsoft abandoned OS/2, IBM could have taken the entire PC market from them. But I think Microsoft knew that the IBM bureaucracy couldn’t react quickly enough at an extremely pivotal time. Things were moving so fast. And some of the first real buying tornados just had to be reacted to at lightning speeds. These days we have literature and those going through such things can bring in advisors or board members to help them. Like the roles Marc Andreeson plays with Airbnb and others. But this was uncharted territory and due to some good, shrewd and maybe sometimes downright bastardly decisions, Microsoft ended up leap-frogging everyone by moving fast, sometimes incurring technical debt that would take years to pay down, and grabbing the market at just the right time. I’ve heard this story oversimplified in one word: subterfuge. But that’s not entirely fair. When he was hired in 1993, Louis Gerstner pivoted IBM from a hardware and software giant into a leaner services organization. One that still thrives today. A lot of PC companies came and went. And the PC business infused IBM with the capital to allow the company to shoot from $29 billion in revenues to $168 billion just 9 years later. From the top down, IBM was ready to leave red oceans and focus on markets with fewer competitors. Microsoft was hiring the talent. Picking up many of the top engineers from the advent of interactive computing. And they learned from the failures of the Xeroxes and Digital Equipments and IBMs of the world and decided to do things a little differently. When I think of a few Microsoft engineers that just wanted to build a better DOS sitting in front of a 60 page refinement of how a feature should look, I think maybe I’d have a hard time trying to play that game as well. I’m all for relentless prioritization. And user testing features and being deliberate about what you build. But when you see a limited window, I’m OK acting as well. That’s the real lesson here. When the day needs seizing, good leaders will find a way to blow up the establishment and release the team to go out and build something special. And so yah, Microsoft took the operating system market once dominated by CP/M and with IBM’s help, established themselves as the dominant player. And then took it from IBM. But maybe they did what they had to do… Just like IBM did what they had to do, which was move on to more fertile hunting grounds for their best in the world sales teams. So tomorrow, think of bureaucracies you’ve created or had created to constrain you. And think of where they are making the world better vs where they are just giving some controlling jackrabbit a feeling of power. And then go change the world. Because that is what you were put on this planet to do. Thank you so much for listening in to this episode of the history of computing podcast. We are so lucky to have you.