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

Ex-IBM insider Dom Connor reveals what went wrong

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Sign this, it says: 'Do not ever talk to our programmers again'

We learned at one point that distributing DOS-with-Windows cost less than just DOS, so Microsoft effectively paid hardware vendors to ship it. IBM salespeople weren't at all incentivised to sell OS/2, but at one presentation the guy handling IBM's largest banking client cornered me in a kitchen and offered to commit an act that would get both of us fired.

He wanted to speak to someone in the operating system's development team.

Apparently he'd had earlier promised in writing to not talk to anyone directly involved in producing IBM's most important software product. His own PC couldn't run it, but he was far more committed to IBM than it deserved and he really wanted to sell it.

I now teach bankers financial programming, but back then I was pathetically ignorant of software economics and finance. As was IBM.

OS/2 was priced by taking the development cost, dividing by the expected sales and adding a margin, which meant it cost hundreds. This was tough when Microsoft was paying people to take Windows. OS/2 also needed a couple of extra megabytes of RAM, which was a big deal, but worse was the fact that the only PCs it came on were from IBM, which was losing market share at a rate of knots.

Microsoft was ambivalent towards OS/2 by this time and IBM didn’t want non-IBM kit running its software, so no effort was made to persuade other manufacturers to ship the operating system with their computers. Installing OS/2 wasn’t very hard, but you couldn’t guarantee it would work on your hardware, and at about a thousand bucks a go this was an expensive experiment.

I've never worked for the London Stock Exchange - this will puzzle some who saw me tapping away at a screen there - but its main data terminal Topic 2 was going to be based upon OS/2. I appointed myself as the exchange's support guy because IBM wouldn't help anyone with OS/2 unless it was part of a mainframe project, and this wasn't.

This rule against supporting OS/2 even applied to IBM's top customers. The IBM rep for a client, which at the time was more lucrative than the US government, only got the support he needed when he risked his job by directly tackling people in the development team who realised that he was critical to our project’s success.

I got hate mail from managers for being among those who responded to the rep's pleas for help, and was one reasons why they eventually decided that my contract shouldn’t be extended.

Listen to your customers

One simple stupid mistake killed OS/2. It was called OS/2 1.3*. We'd got to the point where a 32-bit version that could run multiple copies of Windows with all its apps was nearly ready and it was a killer - basically delivering what you got in Windows NT but better and two years earlier.

Loading dynamically linked libraries wasn't done very well in version 1.0 nor 1.1, but some genius had worked out a much faster way for 1.3. Plus there were a whole pile of little fixes and improvements.

Then some customers told IBM they just wanted version 1.1 to run a bit faster and to use less memory. So development on the cool new version stopped and we squandered months on this pointless bit of crap.

At that point my contract ran out and I took to wandering the world doing OS/2 for banks and other corporates and, for self interest, took on the job of undoing some of the harm inflicted by IBM PR. This included installing OS/2 at Windows Magazine. IBM had flatly refused to give the mag a copy even though it was to be a favourable cover story because Microsoft had really pissed off the editor at the time.

Drivers, drivers everywhere, but not a byte to link

As a nearly competent test director at PC Magazine, I found myself trying to get the bloody thing to work on the random hardware we had lying around for a seriously big shootout between OS/2 and Windows. In those days PC Mag was a hugely important rag, so this really mattered. Windows just worked on pretty much every bit of hardware, OS/2 worked on very few machines and then only after serious force was applied.

This wasn't by accident. IBM actively tried to stop people writing OS/2 device drivers. The "sample" drivers were ridiculously flawed; I was present at one argument where the professionalism of one IBMer overcame his desire to keep his job and he flatly refused to let it ship because it was no good. He was overruled.

Booting up - and pray it gets further than this on your PC

I'm an OS/2 developer who learned Windows, so the benchmarks I wrote could not have been fairer to OS/2. In fact I knew quasi-documented software interfaces that were faster for plotting graphics although it wasn't particularly pretty.

The art director called the screenshots of the GUI benchmarks "the ugliest thing even seen on a computer screen". But my trick didn't work on most PCs and app developers were stampeding towards Windows, so with a lead lump in my stomach I cast my lot for Windows in the Editors' Choice.

IBM's PR department, which had never liked me, was really cold after that, but there was no further retaliation because it was already doing its best to make my life awkward.

IBM just didn't get PR, and the culture of secrecy meant its spinners saw the IT press much the same way the Royal Family sees the paparazzi. When it learned I had joined PC Magazine, an email was sent widely around Big Blue forbidding people to talk to "a journalist who you may have worked with in the past and know on a personal basis". I know this because I never knew how many friends I had at IBM until they all forwarded the email to me. I had many people from IBM at my wedding, including my best man and a former intern who was the bride.

For most of us, the fights weren’t just between Microsoft and IBM. Often they were technical staff versus managers, who repeated the mantra “we are not a computer company, we are a business” so often that within a few years IBM posted the largest loss ever made by a company in a single year since the “business” people produced almost nothing you might want to buy.

The emphasis on cost saving over producing a superior product was scary to watch. Another mantra was “every dollar saved on the cost of a PC is worth millions”, quite literally on posters all over the building.

The aftermath

Millions of copies of OS/2 were sold, running many whole firms, a large percentage of the cash machines and checkouts in the world, and I guess it made a profit on the cost of development. It lives on today as eComStation.

The project consumed resources that may have developed IBM a product that held its dominant position for longer. It also damaged the intensely valuable “no one ever got fired for buying IBM” maxim.

IBM now does far fewer products, more often buying in “mature” firms and using financial engineering to monetize them effectively, and of course is one of the top body shops. ®

Dominic Connor still is a member of the London OS/2 Drinking Group.

Bootnotes

* Why wasn't it called OS/3? When the name OS/2 was decided, no one had thought to check that OS/3 was available: it's a trademark owned by Unisys, not the sort of mistake you’d expect from a competent marketing group is it?

Also EMEA marketing was in thrall to the French who managed to stall the release of the UK English version until there was a French “European” build available; the delay cost us real sales.

The French version was harder to produce than you might think since all the dialog boxes and window layouts had been carved by hand in .RC files. I was one of the fools who didn’t realise that English is the most terse of all major languages. So during the internationalisation effort, it became obvious that the English-friendly dialog boxes either looked ugly or the text didn’t fit at all with other languages, which meant long hours at the end of the project manually aligning everything.

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