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Happy (Belated) Birthday OS/2: A Multitasking Pioneer

As pointed out on Slashdot, IBM’s OS/2 turned 25 last Monday. As a long-time computer user, and not a fan of Windows, I do have some experience with the operating system. Unfortunately, I was pretty much anti-GUI for the longest time, so I missed out on OS/2 up until Warp 3.0. By then, the operating system had matured a great deal, and, had IBM done better marketing (it didn’t help that Windows was installed on PCs, including most of their own hardware), the computing world may be much different than it is today.

One of the things I remember most about OS/2, aside from the price tag, is the built-in voice recognition. I believe this as introduced into Warp 3.0 and, at one point in time, voice recognition was going to be the next greatest thing, and IBM had it integrated into their OS. Not only that, but it worked great! It did require a minimal amount of training, which I immediately did when I did my initial install, even though I had a cold at the time. Amazingly, OS/2 recognized what I was saying with what I am sure was greater than 99% accuracy. Even more amazing is that as my cold cleared up, the accuracy did not go down. IBM also marketed this voice recognition software as third-party software for other operating systems branded, I believe, as either VoiceType or ViaVoice. Regardless of the name, at the time I did not feel it worked nearly as well as it did in OS/2.

Another thing that I remember quite well was the multitasking. For the general population of computer users, multitasking was not something in great demand. However, for those of us who ran dial-up Bulletin Board Systems, good multitasking was the holy grail of computing. Back then, there were two real choices. Either you ran DESQview, or you ran OS/2. The final option was that you dedicated a computer to running your BBS, which was quite an investment back then. For many, this made the price tag of OS/2 worth every penny, especially since it was able to multitask DOS programs extremely well. Many of the multi-line BBSes of the time ran under OS/2.

Warp 3.0 also made it to market before what Microsoft eventually named Windows 95, but was code-named “Chicago” at the time. The TV commercial for Warp 3.0 is one of the earliest computer-related commercials that I can recall. Only because of the Internet’s constant reminders am I consciously aware of Apple’s “1984” commercial, and the only other part of a commercial that I remember from earlier than the Warp commercial is Apple’s tagline “and we even throw in the mouse” or some such for their commercial for, I believe, the 2e. The fact that IBM did not take advantage of this market lead illustrates just how poor IBM was at marketing OS/2. It didn’t help that many people considered IBM’s main competition to OS/2 was Windows NT. The running joke was that the choices were either half an operating system or a nice try. Even the “grassroots” Team OS/2 could not overcome IBM’s poor marketing.

The final thing that I recall about OS/2 was that it was (and in some cases, still is) installed on a large percentage of ATMs. I don’t know that I ever discovered why that was the case, but it’s one of those little useless tidbits of information that sticks with you over time.

And lest you think OS/2 is gone for good, it evolved into eComStation, which is published by Serenity Systems. There is still a small, but enthusiastic, community around it. Many open-source packages are available, from Mozilla’s Internet applications, to development tools, server software, games, and office suites.

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