Death OS / 2: murder or crossbow?

Original author: Dominic Connor
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My first OS / 2 article mainly consisted of an apology for personally contributing to OS / 2's failure. But I can’t put all the blame on myself. Honestly, the failure of OS / 2 had thousands of reasons, with the vast majority of which I could not do anything. Here are some of them.

Once upon a time, IBM earned crazy money on big hardware - mainframes so large that one of the German universities was heated by the cooling system of the Blue Giant computer.

Even “minicomputers” often occupied an entire room, which gave IBM complete control over customers. Organizations simply took for granted the fact that providing serious computing power required a significant amount of money. IBM understood that it could ask for as much money as it wanted - and did it. Personal computers did not fit into this model.

The era of IBM, in which cars, printers, drives, people, cats and dogs lived together.

IBM’s big hardware was in jeopardy: advanced PCs were digging into the Blue Giant as servers. The mega-provider decided to respond by turning their own PCs into minicomputers and mainframes. This required a new operating system. DOS should have gone.

Microsoft, which developed OS / 2 with IBM, really liked the idea of ​​moving to the upper segments of the market, because at that time its influence was limited to desktop computers, and Bill Gates did not lie, calling Windows and DOS steps on the path to OS / 2. This knocked out competing DR-DOS and UNIX from the game.

So what happened to OS / 2 servers?

At that time, x86 servers attracted much more attention than the IBM System / 36 and 38 and even AS / 400 minicomputers , which appeared at about the same time as OS / 2 in the late 1980s.

You could add RAM and disks to your Intel-based system unit and there was not a single reason to buy it from IBM, run IBM programs on it, or pay IBM employees to repair it and integrate with other systems. It may seem that this is not only good, but also inevitable. But if you own 85% of an extremely profitable market, you will not see anything good in this inevitability.

Countless firms have used IBM software on IBM machines connected through IBM SNA to IBM printers using IBM paper. Only a complete fool could risk such an influence, but IBM still began to lose control of the initially disruptive and diverse PC world.

When creating IBM personal computers, it never occurred to me to somehow connect them with other systems of our own production. For a very long time, it was necessary to use third-party hardware and programs for this. IBM shook every penny of PC lost revenue, but noticed that each PC connected to the mainframe became a terminal and increased the load on the processors of a large machine. This meant that customers would have to update their mainframes. According to the experimental rule, each terminal increased mainframe sales by about half a MIP.

I am not entirely sure of the accuracy of this data, but it was taken into account when the decision was made not to add network capabilities to the PC. IBM's influence was so great that any action was considered wise. Of course, Unix and VMS were, but many buyers were frightened by what they were not doing by IBM.

The release of x86 IBM servers inevitably entailed a shift in high profits from mainframes to low profits from PCs. Among other things, this meant that although OS / 2 could be a first-class server system, this superpower hid until it was too late, and IBM's x86 server prices were very high.

Employees at the IBM PC department understood the prospects of servers, but as a tactical maneuver, they commissioned the development of an OS / 2 version for Microsoft servers. In this way, they tried to avoid the wrath of those IBM divisions that earned serious money, as opposed to the proud but low-profit PC department.

It is unlikely that they could have made any other decision, at least while IBM was run by “business people,” the main feature is the fundamental unwillingness to understand their own products, turning into aggression if someone tries to start a serious conversation about it. Competitors were led by people who personally participated in the development of their technologies, it is unlikely that anyone would call Bill Gates a brilliant programmer, but he started by writing code, not building a career in the accounting department. In this regard, he significantly exceeded the leadership of IBM.

Red death sign
As I said in the first part, in the late 1980s I worked in a temporary agreement at IBM, catching errors in OS / 2.

Of course, a lot of time has passed since that moment, but the paragraph below is what I remembered from the inscription on the blood-red sticker that the stubborn IBM security officers left on your desk if during the night check they found out that you forgot it something deemed by them to be especially secret
This mark I mark you as a sinner. For you are a sinner. Yes, a sinner in the eyes of God and in the eyes of man, who sinned in the depths of his heart. My eyes hurt at the sight of your sin. Leave these fertile lands and go to the domain of the administrator of lawlessness, where all your sins will become clear to you.

Or something like that, not important. Since the bloodhounds from the security department did not know how to read floppy disks, they considered any of them to be filled with secret information and took them to a safe place, after which you had to apologize humbly to get your disks back. Then they turned the knife in the wound, reducing the scores for you and your boss.

We are talking privately, so don’t unlock, it would be nice to get such a sticker, right?

This was also believed by Microsoft, starting to work together with IBM or, depending on your point of view, against it. After one of them received a sticker, leaving a programming guide on the table, each of them wanted to get one to take home and show to friends.

Wow, look! Crazy OS / 2!

Remember, Microsoft was not the current dinosaur at the time. She was an impudent, small mammal eating the eggs of the dinosaurs of that time. At that time, the Redmond bosses used their own products without complaining that it was taking time away from playing golf. Yes, that was a very long time ago.

At that time, I worked part-time to solve IT-related problems in third-party companies, and my own clients were extremely sensitive to the need to give access to their systems. IBM treated Microsoft the same way, despite the fact that OS / 2 was considered a joint project.

IBM directly denied Microsoft access to its network, so Microsoft’s decision was the most sensible, although it reduced productivity. Microsoft built their own network using cables purchased at a nearby store. There they bought their PCs.

We all happened to “enjoy” the expectation of getting a new job and issuing a computer, but if you are the largest IT company on the planet and your most important project is delayed, maybe it’s worth making sure that your partner’s developers will get working computers on time?

When the best Microsoft developers arrived in London, it was easier for them to buy their own computers. They preferred Compaq machines. Unfortunately, IBM PS / 2, which was specifically developed for OS / 2, was not fully compatible with Compaq computers and, quite possibly, with the Microsoft employee code. American Microsoft employees had to knock out PS / 2 from IBM for a long time to test their code.

Where was the database?

At that time, IBM’s influence in the database market was so great that many IT professionals couldn’t remember a single competitor, and in the end they still pronounced the name of some IBM product.

In the end, the Blue Giant reluctantly released OS / 2 Enhanced Edition, capable of connecting to IBM databases, but it was not easy to put it mildly. I did not see such poor performance until I started using Lotus Notes. Of course, no one considered this part of IBM's deeply respected family of database management systems.

Databases brought IBM more money than the entire PC division, so management blocked all attempts to make the PC database friendlier than cornered rats. I don’t know exactly who wrote it, but I know for sure that he has never been to England because he is still alive - I had to write code using it and it was a real nightmare.

Decades later, RIM made a similar mistake: it developed a tablet purposefully deprived of the ability to work with e-mail, the convenience of which was known for their smartphones. This did not lead to anything good. Theoretically, RIM “didn’t want to confuse customers”, but in fact the leadership of the smartphone team was simply much more influential than the newcomers from the tablet team.

Sign it, it says here: "Never talk to our programmers again."

At some point, many realized that distributing computers with DOS and Windows was cheaper than just using DOS, so Microsoft actually paid for Windows. IBM employees weren’t particularly encouraged to sell OS / 2, but at one of the presentations I was caught by a guy who worked with a major client from the banking sector and suggested I do something for which we both would be fired.

He wanted to talk to one of the developers of the operating system.

Most likely, he signed a commitment not to communicate with people directly involved in developing the most important IBM software product. His own computer was too weak for OS / 2, but his dedication to IBM was much stronger than she deserved, and he really wanted to sell OS / 2.

Now I train bankers in financial programming, but at that time I knew almost nothing about the economic side of software development. Like IBM.

The OS / 2 price was obtained by dividing the development cost by the expected sales and adding the expected profit - this meant hundreds and hundreds of dollars. A bold decision against Microsoft, paying people to install Windows. OS / 2 also required several additional megabytes of memory, which at that time cost a lot, but the worst part was the fact that only rapidly losing IBM market share preinstalled the system on their computers.

By that time, Microsoft began to have ambivalent feelings about OS / 2, and IBM did not want to install its programs on other people's computers, so no effort was made to convince other computer manufacturers to preinstall OS / 2 on their machines. Installing OS / 2 was quite simple, but no one guaranteed that it would work on your hardware, and the price of a thousand dollars made such an experiment an extremely expensive pleasure.

I never worked at the London Stock Exchange, which sounds strange to those people who saw me sitting at their computers - but it was planned to use OS / 2 on its main terminal Topic 2. I offered myself as technical support, since IBM did not help OS / 2 projects in any way if they were not part of the mainframes, but this one was not.

The OS / 2 support ban has been applied to even the most important IBM clients. An IBM representative working with a client who at that time was more profitable than the US government received the support he needed only if he risked his work by communicating directly with people from the development team who knew that he was critical to the success of our project.

I received indignant letters from the authorities after I responded to the pleas for help from the technical support service, and in the end this was one of the reasons why they decided not to renew my contract.

Listen to your customers
One stupid mistake killed OS / 2. It is called OS / 2 1.3 (*). At that time, the 32-bit version, capable of running multiple copies of Windows with all applications, was almost ready - a killer offer, in fact, everything that you received in Windows NT, but it’s better two years earlier.

Downloading dynamically linked libraries in versions 1.0 and 1.1 did not work very well, but some genius came up with a very fast way for 1.3. On top of that, there were tons of minor fixes and improvements.

But some customers told IBM that they wanted to speed up version 1.1 and reduce memory consumption. The development of a cool new version was stopped and we killed months on this meaningless piece of shit.

By this time, my contract had expired and I went to wander around the world, supporting OS / 2 in banks and other organizations, and at the same time, just for my own pleasure, tried to fix part of the damage caused by the IBM PR department. Among other things, I installed OS / 2 in Windows Magazine. IBM explicitly refused to provide the magazine with at least one copy, despite the fact that this would be the main topic of the next issue and hit the cover - at that time Microsoft very angered their editor.

Drivers, drivers everywhere, but no information about them

As a more or less competent PC Magazine test department head, I suddenly discovered that I was trying to run this damn system on the random hardware found in the editorial office for a large-scale comparison of OS / 2 and Windows. PC Magazine was a very influential publication in those days, so it really mattered. Windows worked on almost all hardware, while OS / 2 started on very few machines and only after a serious effort.

This situation was not accidental. IBM actively discouraged writing drivers for OS / 2. The “exemplary” drivers were deeply flawed, I attended a meeting where the professionalism of one of the IBM employees overpowered his desire to keep working and he bluntly refused to release them because of the extremely poor quality. He was ordered to do this.

The boot process - we pray that it goes further on our PC.
I am an OS / 2 developer who later retrained on Windows, so the tests I wrote could not be more honest with respect to OS / 2. In fact, I knew some poorly documented interfaces that helped to work faster with graphics, although it was not very beautiful.

The main artist called the screenshots of the interface of my tests "the ugliest thing he had ever seen on a computer screen." But my tricks did not work on most PCs, application developers massively switched to Windows - and with a heavy stone on my heart, I voted for Windows as "Editors' Choice".

The IBM PR department, which I never liked, was extremely cold after that, but didn't do anything more serious simply because it already did everything it could to ruin my life.

IBM, in principle, did not engage in public relations, because of the general culture of secrecy, they treated the IT press about the same as the royal family did to the paparazzi. When I joined PC Magazine, a letter was sent across the Blue Giant forbidding people to communicate with "a journalist who could work with you and whom you might know personally." I know this because I did not even suspect how many friends I had at IBM, until each of them sent me this letter. A lot of IBM employees attended my wedding, including my best friend and a former intern, my fiancee.

For most of us, the battles were not just between Microsoft and IBM. Very often, they occurred between technical staff and superiors, who repeated the mantra “we are not a computer company, we are a business” so often that only a few years later IBM suffered the largest annual losses that one company has ever suffered in history, since "Business people" could not do anything that you would like to buy.

It was scary to look at the deliberate neglect of product quality for the sake of cost reduction. Another mantra was “every dollar that is saved on the cost of a PC brings millions” - posters with it were hung throughout the building.


Millions of copies of OS / 2 were sold, entire companies and a significant part of cash registers worked all over the world, so I can assume that in the end the system made a profit. She still lives under the name eComStation .

The project swallowed funds that could go to other products and help IBM maintain its leadership position for longer. He also shattered the incredibly valuable belief that "no one has been fired yet for the purchase of IBM products."

Now IBM is developing far fewer products, often buying mature firms and monetizing their products with monetary engineering. Of course, it is one of the largest consulting firms (body shops).

Dominic Connor, still a member of the London Drinking Group OS / 2 Club
* Why was she not named OS / 3? When choosing the OS / 2 name, no one checked the availability of the OS / 3 name - this trademark belonged to Unisys and you are unlikely to expect such an error from a serious marketing department, will you?

Marketing at EMEA was under the control of the French, who blocked the release of the system in the UK until the release of the "European" assembly in French, the delay cost us real sales.

The development of the French version was more difficult than you might think, since the layout of all windows was hardcoded in .RC files. I was one of those fools who did not understand that English is one of the shortest languages ​​in the world. In the process of localization, it became obvious that the dialog boxes designed for English either look ugly or the text in another language does not fit at all, which meant long hours of manual adjustment at the very end of the project.

Where were the bullet holes on OS / 2's corpse? Its head ... or foot?

Memoirs of an IBM employee: how I found my wife, catching errors in OS / 2
OS / 2 a quarter of a century later: why IBM lost and Microsoft won