The OS/2 Operating System Didn’t Die… It Went Underground

One problem with building things using state-of-the-art techniques is that sometimes those that look like they will be “the next big thing” turn out to be dead ends. Next thing you know, that hot new part or piece of software is hard to get or unmaintained. This is especially true if you are building something with a long life span. A case in point is the New York City subway system. Back in the 1990s the transit authority decided to adopt IBM’s new OS/2 operating system. Why not? It was robust and we used to always say “no one ever got fired for buying IBM.”

There was one problem. OS/2 was completely eclipsed by other operating systems, notably Windows and — mostly — has sunk from the public view. [Andrew Egan’s] post covers just how the conversion to a card-based system pushed OS/2 underground all over the Big Apple, and it is an interesting read.

The choice of OS/2 might seem odd today. However, you have to remember the operating system landscape back then. Unix wasn’t very commercial, for the most part, and the commercial versions like Xenix and SCO were often encumbered with odd and changing licensing arrangements. MSDOS was hardly suitable for any sort of reliable system, with a patchwork of hacks to get more memory, and multitasking including early versions of Windows which were little more than shells over MSDOS.

We might have suggested QNX, as both operating systems were robust and used a microkernel architecture which had many advantages, especially when fighting hardware limitations.

It seems OS/2 isn’t just the subway system, either. Some old ATM machines still use it and there are probably some other hold outs. In 2006, IBM discontinued the operating system and sold off OS/2 support to Serenity Systems and later acquired by Arca Noae.

While OS/2 doesn’t get the same retrocomputer love as some other operating systems, it was actually ahead of its time. Its failure to take hold wasn’t so much about the technology as it was about business decisions and the market conditions of the day.

If you want a look at modern OS/2 emulation, that does exist. If you think OS/2 is the oldest tech running the subway system, you’d be wrong about that.

69 thoughts on “The OS/2 Operating System Didn’t Die… It Went Underground

    1. Same here. My Aunt worked for IBM and snagged me an OS/2 2.5 or 2.something box. I bought Warp 3 and tried Warp 4, but as with all of them, a lack of applications unfortunately rendered them little more than curiosities. I’ve always been an OS geek… I’d install darn near anything to try out. I’m still bummed that BeOS never succeeded. I actually used that half way primarily for some time. I occasionally check in on Haiku just to see where it stands. Ahhh well, doesn’t look like I’ll be escaping Windows any time soon.

      1. I was working at IBM when OS/2 first came out and we were using it at our manufacturing location. The biggest problem for OS/2 was IBM itself. Poor support from the execs and poor marketing. Numerous great products at IBM were badly marketed

        1. Agree. I was working at a Ministery of Education and they bought some 200 IBM desktops with windows preloaded and OS/2 Warp in a CD lost among the packing material.

    2. I ran my BBS with OS/2 (two lines). Worked so much better there than under Windows 95. At that time Windows didn’t multitask well at all. If one app hung up your machine pretty much did too. Not so with OS/2.

    3. If I looked around my old shop in the back room there is a floppy disk container with the complete OS2 Warp set of 3. 5 inch floppies. I tried it as well on some of my old machines years ago, having been exposed to it and Unix in college in 95, I still use a Linux version in fact I am on an old MacBook Pro running Mint Linux because the mac os was so far obsolete that it ran like a 386 with windows 95 on it!

  1. Not anymore. All of the MVMs (Metrocard Vending machines) that I’ve seen the techs argue with are running a very old release of embedded Windows. I still haven’t figured out what sort of embedded OS the card processors and issuers are using however.

    ATMs? There is a good chance the ones I don’t use, I try to use Wells Fargo machines all the time, are indeed using OS/2.

  2. “While OS/2 doesn’t get the same retrocomputer love as some other operating systems, it was actually ahead of its time. Its failure to take hold wasn’t so much about the technology as it was about business decisions and the market conditions of the day.”

    Some might argue things haven’t changed much.

  3. I liked how I could write X11 apps on OS/2 using Xfree86/EMX, Borland had a nice cross platform OO framework and SDK, I could run OS/2 apps, DOS apps, run Windows apps, and Java and mostly all at the same time. StarOffice was my office suit of choice even though I loved how smooth Describe ran. The OO desktop is still without comparison today and it was an easy move to it from HP New Wave on top of DOS/Windows before. OS/2 was as robust as the ATT UNIX or MicroPort UNIX I’d run on x86 hardware but with a very nice GUI. Robustness I heard it took Microsoft 20 years to get close to. I think it was the late ’90s I did an NT app and was blown away by the memory leaks in MFC. Not all great technology survives great marketing but it looks like OS/2 still shines under ground.

    1. OS/2 Warp boasted of “seamless” running of 16 bit Windows programs, at a time when Windows was going all 32 bit programs, even on Windows 3.1x, using Win32s. Most software that had compatible with Windows 3.1 and 95 on the box used Win32s to run on 3.1x, so it didn’t take full advantage of the capabilities of 95.

      Since IBM and Microsoft were on the outs at the time, it was extremely unlikely OS/2 was going to gain the ability to run any 32 bit Windows programs, and it never did.

      1. IBM did have OS/2 running full Win32 applications but Microsoft caught wind of that and “fixed” Windows so that would no longer work. Did you ever wonder why Windows resource compiler shoved the apps resources up into the 2GB address space???? OS/2 virtual addressing could only map up to 1GB so by shoving a small yet required bit of code to load into the upper address space they made sure OS/2 could not run Win32 applications.

      2. Miicrosoft has a bad habit of altering it’s software so it doesn’t work on their competitor’s OS’s. Caldera found that out and so did IBM.

        Also MS went out of it’s way to threaten big SW vendors not to port their flagship apps to OS/2.

        People just plain ass forgot exactly how nasty and predaotry Gates and his company really are,

      3. Ah yes, Win32s! I remember spending a couple days trying to download that and WinG over a shitty rural dial up connection to try and run the Warcraft 2 map editor in 3.11!

  4. In theory an interesting article, but totally devoid of any details, and about 3/4s of it was introduction and recaps. About all it said was that there was a mainframe at some point in the system, and that the magnetic swipe cards use a top secret encoding with “huge” bits. The HaD summary had more detail lol. Oh well.

  5. OS/2 was properly designed operating system, bringing multitasking, layered architecture and GUI to the DOS world. It even allowed easy porting of DOS apps to the new architecture. It failed because there was no market for operating systems, as Microsoft managed to preload Windows on every manufacturer PC. So you would have payed for the Windows, than you should pay again for the OS of your choice and install it by yourself . Even the Limux which is free can not fight with that.

    1. What also hurt OS/2 was a lack of applications for OS/2. Microsoft went out of it’s way to make sure the big software houses did not port their apps to OS/2.

      In terms of OS’s, All MS had at the time was that POS WIN NT 3.1 which as clunky as they come. Win95 and Win98 were nothing but a graphical shell for DOS. But MS had massive clout in the industry,

      They went out of their way to make sure their own apps would not work on competitors OS’s as well.

      The younger crowd has no idea just how criminal MS was in it’s behavior during that time. “Embrace and Extend” was nothing but a way of stealing a company’s IP and then watching the company die. They’d deliberately hire away top programmers from competitors to just destroy their development teams. Borland was a victim of this.

      1. It was really to bad, and to little to late. IBM had purchased Lotus and was trying in vain to get the smartsuite complete and delivered o OS/2, then the playing field might have been a bit different. Corel Draw, Lotus Approach(open data base tool) would have been game changers

  6. I was hoping for some more detail with this article. It started out pretty good and i clicked on for more details and found it lacking. Please Mr. Author add some meat here.

  7. I tried OS/2 Warp 3 for a while, but the extreme lack of software I had any use for made it just a curiosity for me. One place IBM failed at OS/2 was games.

    Microsoft launched a games division specifically to promote Windows 95 by showing off its performance capabilities, so people would use DirectX and experience the multimedia capabilities of Windows.

    IBM? No games division. No fancy addon like DirectX to optimize 3D and multimedia performance and make it easier for people to write games and multimedia programs by providing an API for those features. OS/2’s more robust memory management design could have drastically reduced or eliminated a major problem with games on Windows 9x, a crash that’d freeze the whole OS.

    Windows 95 had another big advantage over its other competitor, Macintosh, in networking. 95 could run multiple protocols simultaneously on up to six network interfaces. Macintosh? ONE protocol on ONE interface, which without 3rd party software Mac suffered from that limitation until the introduction of OS X. That advantage did come at a bit of a cost, Windows 95 had to be restarted for *any change* in its networking setup while a Mac could have its one protocol over one interface changed at any time without having to reboot.

  8. OS/2 is still very much alive. It didn’t go underground, it was merely retooled and renamed after IBM didn’t like where Microsoft was going with it. You know it better as the NT Kernel. Yes, every Windows OS since Windows NT 3.1 is the descendant of OS/2.

        1. It is funny mentioning VAX/VMS as I heard there are still a lot of businesses that are still running that and depending on it. There was also the art bell conspiracy theory thing with VMS and WNT, each being the next letter in the alphabet. There was a company that sold systems that potentially gave you a few seconds warning of an impending earthquake that ran on OS/2. You had sensor stations set out in a mesh and the idea was you had just enough time to do an orderly slowdown of a high speed train or other big infrastructure items.

    1. The OS/2 subsystem wasn’t fully compatible and was dropped with Windows XP. The design is completely different with a completely different platform target and a completely different philosophy.
      TL;DR No.

      1. If memory serves me, correctly, David Cutler, from DEC, almost single-handedly, wrote the NT kernel. I believe I read this fact, from Gates’ book “Hard Drive”

    2. Incorrect NT was a totally different animal developed by David Cultler and crew from DEC and named it NT OS/2 at the time. IBM insistted OS/2 support the the 286. MS objected to this and rightly so as the 386 was in production and just waiting for something to take advantage of that cpu. When MS and IBM split up MS renamed NT OS/2 to Windows NT and carried on with it’s development. Dave insisted that NT boot to cli but Bill Gates objected to this entirely. IBM eventually saw the error of their ways and dropped 286 support came out with a 32-bit kernel. When OS/2 v2 was released there was still OS/2 v1.x support and MS supported OS/2 v1.x applications up until XP I think. Also IBM hired Amiga programmers to help develop Workplace Shell in exchange for REXX.

      1. I was an IBM CSR in a local marketing branch during the days of warp 3.0. They had not rolled it out inter – company yet but I successfully installed it (something like 23 3.5 floppy disks) on my company PS2 and started running our internal DOS apps in a window and everyone was amazed. But question here on this discussion about the origin related to NT etc. I have been out of the computer industry for many years but still an avid personal user and I’m wondering which operating system today would be the closest to OS/2? Windows 11 because of the NT Kernel? Mac OS because of Unix relation? May be a stupid question but was just curious if anything could be said on that.

  9. Working for a retailer at that time, I had both the red spine box and the blue spine box.
    As memory serves, the primary difference was that one of them (i forget which) had the MSW subsystem built in, and with the other, you had to supply your own.

    Then there was the infamous 512MB storage limit that was later patched with a hex editor.

  10. we used to give customers the option of OS2 on the PS2 machines, but not XT or AT machines
    IBM Australia didn’t like us doing that for some reason

    the other option, Novell Netware, DR-DOS was what we sold them if they wanted a networking solution

    I still run DR-DOS 7.1 on my old machines and emulation under Linux

    small footprint, multitasking, robust networking with IPX

    I’ll be over here with the other dinosaurs…


  11. If you life in the US, or get packages from the US, chances are you’ve been touched by OS/2 recently. As you know, every package shipped by UPS is tracked. The messaging system that communicates all the tracking information runs on OS/2.

    If, on the other hand, you use the regular postal service, you’ve been touched by Windows XP. :)

    1. xp/nt4/2000 are FINELY being replaced in govt circles but also, os/2/ecomstation (its rebranding after ibm sold it off) is used in some places i have been told even in the usps, some of their automated systems/kaiosks at least as of a few years ago, ran on it, unlike XP boxes, they never crash to any sort of error screen that makes it clear what OS its running on..infact…they rarely crash period…

      and, yeah, the govt actually got MS to extend XP support beyond the already stupidly long run its had, the os/2 based ones are actually maintained by the company the govt leases them from…

      all of them run on ancient hardware that has many hacks that would allow all sorts of unpleasant things to be done…like recording and transmitting peoples card info…. (its happened to similar systems, mcd’s covered it up when they tested an early touch screen system, worked there at the time, and, the thing was horrible, it ran on fucking windows ME… im not even kidding, the whole system got compromised and mcd’s pulled the units from stores or converted them into internet computers.. it was.. wonderfully stupid.. the media didnt cover it, and a corp rep admitted, he was sure that cost alot of money.. and it seemed every network had mc’ds hads on ALOT after that period…)

      the system was updated to XP and setup so people could use net, we promptly fixed some…issues with its security software…;) ;)

      when you know how to activate the inactive admin account from a boot disk..heh..

    1. Considering what OS’s were available for the x86 platform, OS/2 was indeed ahead of the times. Pre-emptive multi-tasking with virtual memory systems capable of running many different applications smoothly wasn’t available on x86. UNIX did pretty good with its light weight process forking but UNIX on x86 was way more expensive in cost and resource usage. Throw in the CORBA implementation of the desktop shell and that was another leap ahead of all others.

      Of course Microsoft’s position in the market with DOS, their willingness to leverage that position and the lack of technical skills had lots to do with software lagging hardware capabilities. Gawd, do you remember Intel trying to jump start the 32bit world with the Pentium Pro? IIRC 150MHz was king but since Windows 95 was so much a 16 bit OS, a 150MHz PentiumPro ran Windows 95 half as fast as a 150MHz Pentium. OS/2 on the other hand saw great improvements in performance but unfortunately, applications would need data structures streamlined to 32bit words or they too would find performance wasn’t as good as it could have been. example struct of char char float word(8,8,32,16) wouldn’t work so well in 32bit registers and would have to be split up into 3 32bit words. but changing to char char word float would fit nicely in 2 32bit words.

      OS/2 networking also was fantastic because of the pre-emptive multitasking kernel and it supported running Netware clients and TCP/IP clients simultaneously. I know because IBM had called me and asked to talk to me about how I’d setup both including using the TCP/IP XServer to work with remote Solaris workstations. In the early ’90s!

      1. It is hard to put your head back in the world before WNT, but there were so many competing network topologies and vendors back in the day. I can not say for sure which one OS/2 or WNT supported more of them. I do recall when MS came around though and showed how easy it was to use their tool to import the user base from Novell into NT server, you could see that Novell’s days were limited. It is interesting over the years how many pieces of the computing spectrum MS has managed to gobble up and stick in Windows. About the only war they really resoundingly lost was the web browser war, and with google potentially killing ad blacker functionality in Chrome, MS may not have lost that war just quite yet….

  12. I was in an Egghead Software store a few days before OS/2 Warp 4 was due for release, and I asked whether perhaps they had their stock in already. Answer: “The IBM rep was here a few days ago and told us that OS/2 had been discontinued” — sabotaged from within. I stuck with its successor, eComStation (the Serenity Systems-branded version), until about five years ago but decided I was too old to keep waiting for drivers for perfectly ordinary PC hardware. I now use Linux, but I still have all my OS/2 CDs and floppies, and my “WordPerfect Ready for OS/2” button.

  13. It always puts a smile on my face when I see an appliance that has crashed and the OS/2 logo is bouncing around the screen.

    I have no real world experience with the OS myself other than playing around with an old setup sitting at Egghead. (For those of you that remember those days)

    Have always been a Solaris fan though.

    1. Yes, you see them maybe once every 10 years or so. I heard the story of someone finding a really old computer running in what they thought was a storage room so they unplugged it. Then a bunch of employees started calling IT talking about their data disappearing. It was an OS/2 LAN Server box nobody knew existed.

      In the last 16+ years I got a call 2 or 3 times from a guy who was supporting call centers. One of his customers pulled the plug on the OS/2 machine and munged up the os2.ini file so it would not auto start into the call center software. In the office was about 50 cubicles. I took the box home, fixed it up and returned telling them not to shut it down that way. The last time I charged $125/hr and charged 3 hours with one being travel time. I heard the guy telling the customer something like “see, that’s why you should be running the Windows software.” To which I gave an audible laugh on the way out. I’ve not heard from them in at least 8 or so years so my guess is they went with Windows and they are paying the guy far more in support than they ever paid me. Or they put a UPS on it and shutdown properly.

  14. I remember a computer show at the Javits Center in the early 90’s, shortly after MS ended the cooperative effort on OS/2.
    IBM and MS had the biggest booths, across the aisle from each other, and IBM was handing out t-shirts with big N-T on the front – spelling out Nice Try! They were also giving out 1 MEG sample chips (!) in little plastic tie tack type boxes.
    I used to use OS/2 on dial-up internet because it worked so much better than Win 95 on the ‘net.

    1. And I remember IBM pulling out of COMDEX after Bill Gates forced the COMDEX management to move IBM’s CEO’s keynote speach so to minimize it’s attendance. IIRC it was called Choice or somethig like that. Just one of the hundreds of strong arm tactics Microsoft pulled to protect their Wndows operating system marketshare. It was the beginning of the end of COMDEX as many others pulled out too.

  15. I too supported OS/2 on desktops and servers back in the 90’s. At the phone company where I worked we had a big IBM fan base to go with our mainframes. Remember IBM actually bought out Lotus (remember Lotus Notes) and it was a pretty good piece of software for the time. Far better than Microsoft.
    If I looked real hard through some old copy of it still laying around on 3.5 inch disk somewhere.

    Alas, I have slept a couple of times since then and the knowledge has slipped into deep storage.

  16. I used to run a BBS on OS/2 with Desqview underneath it back in the late 80’s early 90’s. It was an interesting combination. The BBS software (Opus) was written for OS/2, as was the front end mailer, BlinkleyTerm. I enjoyed those days.

  17. I really like OS/2! I stopped running it when my H/W became unsupported, driver wise. If you had a supported GPU, you were pretty much home-free . I ran a Compaq System Pro Dual 486 with a Cirrus Logic VESA “color card”. It screamed and was graceful in it’s error handling. Bring it back!

  18. I remember at the time of launches for Windows 95 and OS/2, Windows 95 won simply because of marketing. At the time, OS/2 was much much more consistent as an OS and from that foundation had a great basis. We used it in ATMs and other devices. It didn’t reboot every time I did something like install something and never had a blue screen for me. I taught my kids how to program using OS/2. It was consistent, reliable, well structured and I wish it was still an option.

    Windows only won in those days because of the marketing that Microsoft did. I remember a news item (clip) of a woman in a line outside Walmart, queuing from early morning to purchase two copies of Windows 95. She was asked what she was buying – she said “…well WINDOWS 95, I’m buying two if I can”. The reporter asked do you know what it is? She said “No”. She was asked if she had a PC or a computer. She said “No”. She was asked why she was buying it. She said “It’s the new thing, it is going to be very popular and it is an investment; I can sell it when it is worth more”. I can just see those diskettes now, what did she do with them?

    Because Microsoft sold so many copies of Windows 95, they could invest in development and make it run more things and more 3rd party Application development was attracted to a growing platform. The architecture of Windows is still flawed so many years later with some of the core code that cannot be enhanced. Even today there are so many implementations of Powershell and all the associated commands that contradict each other. How were these ever thought out? It is a very underwhelming world we get left with.

    There is probably a similar story with the old VHS and Beta wars in the past, where VHS made better deals with manufacturers earlier, but the Beta solution was supposed to be a better technology.

    It is sad when good technology gets to lose out over something as pervasive as marketing, where the masses do not get to see the real picture and we back a deficient system or technology. Ultimately, the public buys into the lies or glossing over of information and another great idea and all the research and problem solving is lost to the wind. It is also like politics of today as well.

    I hope that E INK smartphones that have both a back-lit colour screen on one side and an e-ink alternate on the other side get a good chance in the future as an example.

    1. Windows 9x is long dead and buried – it was a temporary OS anyway. The NT line is a very dfferent thing, and it has always been light years ahead of any OS/2 version contemporary to it – let alone SW compatibility and HW support.

  19. As I sit here in the latter half of 2020 on one of my laptops which is running ArcaOS (the current supported version of OS/2), I can’t help to agree with everything being said. My first exposure to OS/2 was back in the 90’s when my dad loaded OS/2 Warp Connect (3.0) on our main home PC alongside Windows in a dual boot configuration (both on the same FAT partition using some baked in OS/2 trickery). I always preferred OS/2 to Windows mostly because it was different but also because it could run so many different types of programs.

    When I built my own PC in college, I installed OS/2 on it (then Warp 4) and eventually moved to eComStation. I became very adept at the ins and outs of OS/2 and used it as my main PC up until about 2009.

    To this day, support for hardware is the achilles heel of the system. ArcaOS will run on fairly modern systems with no major issues but device driver support is spotty. Things like audio and ethernet are fairly well supported now but wifi, biometrics, bluetooth, etc… are virtually nonexistent. I had to pick up a very specific laptop just so I could use it with wifi. The video drivers work but lack hardware acceleration which hurts video playback and gaming performance.

    Another area lacking is software. Right now I am using the last version of Firefox built for OS/2 which is the v45 nightly release. It works but not all websites render correctly. I would love a more up to date version of Firefox or even Google Chrome.

    1. If you don’t think os/2 gets retrocomputer love, I would dare to say you are not that aware of the very loyal os/.2 community! I’m writing this from ArcaOS, almost 2021. It’s still a great & usable OS thanks to the developers that keep it alive. Sad that IBM competed against itself instead of fully promoting the OS when they had a chance.

      1. What hardware are you running it on? I never did move up to ArcaOS. My last efforts to get eComStation running on a then-new Asus motherboard and on a T-series ThinkPad, I was getting conflicting (and sometimes even near-abusive) instructions about what logs to send and not to send, and I moved on to Linux — now using Manjaro.

  20. i loved OS/2 2.0 for a very short time.
    the 2.0 version would only run on a very narrow subset of CPUs.
    90% of installs ended with an error-code that indicated that your CPU was either incompatible, or an incompatible variant. too bad it didnt check first… could saver a few “minutes” of install-time

    but maybe it had something to do with it being an IBM O/S that might not work on all non-IBMs?
    i hd so many 386’s and 486’s, but only a few would run it

  21. OS/2 was my support function at IBM from 1994 to 2001(I finished at IBM in 2018), RIPL(Remote IPL) was a great – if little known – feature of OS/2 that if marketed well could have been a HUGE game changer for the OS in business. It was a product that I loved, and felt immense pride in its stability, design, innate security(with a ring-fenced kernel). It’s only real competitor and detractor in the business world(where it was designed to be), was IBM’s PC Company who had taken the decision to ship Win95 in preference to OS/2 Warp. And IBM’s failure to open the doors and allow third party H/W companies to build PS2 systems, this gave the other hardware manufacturers little option than to get into bed with MS. Had IBM taken the shackles off of PS2 and the MicroChannel Architecture(a far, far superior hardware design to IDE, etc.), they could have broken, or at least opened up the viable competition options. And maybe OS/2 could have had a decent chance in the business arena. As for the domestic future, it never really had one as IBM never did, and never would understand the value of software outside the business world.

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