Dead OS Walking

While IBM officially discontinued support of its long-suffering OS/2 operating systems in December 2006 (I know that to many, it seems like it's been years), there are still those zealots out there who keep trying to open its crypt.

The latest attempt comes from OS2World.com, a seven-year-old site founded by Kim Haverblad, that serves as a source for the latest news about OS/2, along with a number of technical forums where IT pros, third-party developers and other longtime loyalists can exchange information and ideas about the product. Haverblad and friends petitioned IBM last month again (the first time was in 2005) to make the "much-loved OS/2 technology" freely available by taking it open source.

The group acknowledges that there are inherent problems with IBM doing this because of the third-party code still stitched in the product. But, to that end, the group says it's willing to "contribute its own efforts" if it will convince IBM to release the code. The petition goes on to say that making OS/2 open source would prove beneficial to Big Blue's larger customers. Another more subjective reason for making the decision is "that OS/2 is an important part of the history of the operating system and, furthermore, it still contains values that the computer science field considers unique." Hmm, OK. Well, there's a lot of room for debate on that one.

There have been many attempts by different groups over the years to bring OS/2 back to life: large corporations -- most notably banks -- that are heavily invested in the product, hardcore user groups, and vocal and influential individuals. None of these grassroots lobbying efforts got very far, though.

OS/2 was certainly an admirable undertaking in its day, racking up more than a few technology firsts for a 32-bit desktop operating system. But it was too chunky to run well on the vast majority of desktop systems back then, and was poorly positioned as a product. (It should've been positioned as a high-end workstation OS, and not as a direct competitor to Windows. Remember the "Better Windows than Windows" campaign?)

But looking at all the time and money spent on getting Windows Vista to market -- and all the criticisms leveled at it from every quarter in its first year of availability -- it makes you wonder what sort of product OS/2 would be today if IBM and Microsoft had worked cooperatively on it over the past 17 years. I have to believe that the state-of-the-art in desktop operating systems would be much more evolved today than what we see in Vista.

It's way too late for OS/2 to make any sort of real comeback now, but by making the product available to the open source community, there's no telling what ideas and projects could spring up, resulting in inexpensive but practical solutions for at least some IT shops. Given IBM's already substantial contributions to the open source community, maybe it should give the folks at OS2World.com a call and see what sort of arrangements can be worked out. And if anyone out there can show me where I can either download a copy of the latest version or how I can get my hands on a CD, let me know at escannell@redmondmag.com. Even though I haven't written a story on OS/2 since May 2000, I'm curious to see what sort of laps it can still run.

Posted by Ed Scannell on 12/13/2007 at 1:23 PM


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