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OS/2 lives! IBM turns life support back on

Graham celebrates with a long piece we weren't expecting

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Analysis OS/2 lives - albeit somewhat belatedly. After years of neglect and silence IBM has promised annual refreshes of client and server versions, and consolidations of fix packs on CD. It's not exactly what you'd call a huge vote of confidence, but it's quite a jump for a company that for years has given every impression of wanting to turn of the life support. The fix packs will remain free, but they will also be offered with other goodies on CDROM, in consolidations that IBM is calling Convenience Packages. There will be no charge to customers who have support under the Passport Advantage or Software Choice programmes. The first Convenience Package is scheduled for 30 November in at least 15 languages. Apart from offering more device drivers and a developer kit with Java Technology Edition 1.1.8, there will be significant video enhancements, DVD/UVD, Geyserville power management and USB support. IBM's announcement is not the long-awaited new version, but it is of considerable comfort to OS/2 developers. During the Microsoft trial we saw how IBM had effectively left OS/2 for dead. Well, it turns out that the corpse was not quite dead after all, and is being kept alive because of some big-spending IBM enterprise customers who have found that OS/2 applications just continued working, and wanted more of the same, together with some SOHO users and small developers. Despite IBM's callous neglect of an operating system used affectionately by quite a few oldies, the corpse has started twitching and could be about to stage some form of recovery. There appears to be some signs of OS/2 reinvigoration, but as to whether this will lead to a renaissance, it is too early to judge. Project Odin OS/2 would surely be in a sunset condition for most people if Project Odin - previously called the Win32-OS/2 Project - had not set out to make it possible to run Win32 applications in OS/2 natively, without needing either Windows or Win-OS/2. When IBM effectively threw in the sponge, it cited the difficulty of making Windows applications work with OS/2 as a reason for getting ready to lay out the body. Netlabs is tackling the problem through binary compatibility, by converting Windows EXE and DLL files to the OS/2 LX (linear executable) format, and reassembling them in memory, as OS/2 requires. Although permanent conversion is possible, dynamic on-the-fly conversion is also allowed, so that Win32 programs could run under other operating systems as well, from the same code. There's still some way to go with this free, open source project, but the results so far look promising. Some Windows applications may run faster under OS/2, but most are likely to run 10 to 15 per cent slower because it is not possible to use the full functionality of OS/2 after the conversion. Another development track is the Everblue Project, which is porting xlib to OS/2 (xlib is the Unix equivalent of the OS/2 Presentation Manager). The hope and expectation is that it will be possible to port nearly every UNIX application to OS/2. So far, there is emx for porting non-GUI applications, with xlib intended to take care of the GUI. When this is done, Netlabs plans to port Wine (a Win32 implementation for UNIX/X11) to OS/2. So far as a finishing date is concerned, Netlabs says "never", because the Win32 API is a moving target. Neglectful After the bruising negotiations between IBM and Microsoft over Windows OEM prices that were revealed during the trial, IBM did almost nothing to market OS/2, and tried to become chums with Microsoft. IBM's current announcement is one of the most deeply hidden and un-trumpeted press releases we have ever encountered. There was certainly a missed opportunity to do some resurrection work during the continued absence of Windows 2000 and as the tide began to turn against Microsoft, but IBM was utterly silent. Analyst Dan Kusnetzky of IDC sagely notes on MSNBC that OS/2 is "an example of how an excellent operating system that's been marketed in a mediocre way can be beaten by a mediocre system that's marketed in an excellent way". There are many serious OS/2 supporters with helpful web sites that keep the faith. Tom Nadeau, who operates the www.os2hq.com web site, writes passionately and persuasively about the merits of OS/2. John Urbaniak, president of Aviar, develops OS/2-based software for plant engineers and maintenance managers. He speaks of hard times, but says he has found "more current interest in the last few weeks than in the last year". Urbaniak believes this may result from Judge Jackson's activities. He also identifies one of the biggest problems being IBM's own apparent indifference to OS/2. The current announcement is widely welcomed for its demonstration that there's life in the old girl yet. OS/2 capabilities and future OS/2 has always been good at doing several jobs at the same time, such as formatting a floppy, searching a large file, downloading another file, or running several DOS sessions at once. Simplistically, Linux could be viewed as an OS/2 competitor. While Linux enthusiasts are rediscovering the joys of Unix derivatives and the open source development model, OS/2 stalwarts are using the object-oriented model to drag and drop data from a data file to an application icon. OS/2 has an object-aware language called Rexx which allows desktop objects to be used in sophisticated interactions without programming, because of the System Object Model (SOM) - a kissing cousin of CORBA. The TCP/IP implementation is also much praised. Users who have tried both OS/2 and Linux tend to suggest that Workplace Shell is superior to anything currently existing for Linux [or it used to be, before IBM started breaking it - Ed]. Apart from the merry band of OS/2 bug fixers and support staff, IBM has undertaken no serious marketing for OS/2 and largely shuns it internally: the speech group stopped supporting OS/2, Lotus scorned it, and it's a very rare IBM PC that has OS/2 preloaded. Much of IBM is having a love affair with Windows, or at least is hoping that it could make loads of money by fixing Windows, but at its root, IBM is in the business of making money by keeping enterprises happy. Putting aside the enthusiasm and the cheerleading, IBM is at heart operating-system agnostic. Of course there are deficiencies for OS/2 users - there's a need for some better native development tools, for example. There has been increasing pressure on IBM to make OS/2 open source, and perhaps to give some serious backing to Project Odin. Stranger things have happened, but because of the amount of Microsoft code in OS/2, this route would need a generous judge. Related Story IBM witness: the inside poop on MS and IBM killing OS/2 Link The IBM OS/2 announcement

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