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.

47 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.

  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.

  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.

  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. 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.

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