OS/2: The Forerunner of Linux

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

Oct 30, 2015 GMT
Bruce Byfield

Today, OS/2 is mostly a footnote in computer history. If you are under thirty, you may never have heard of it. Yet OS/2 was in many ways the direct predecessor to Linux, and I suspect that its decline produced many of Linux's early adopters.

OS/2 was originally a collaboration between IBM and Microsoft to create the successor to DOS. However, the two corporations quarreled over coding methods and their visions of the future, and by 1992, OS/2 was the leading alternative to Windows and DOS, running many Windows and DOS programs, as well as native OS/2 programs. It never managed to come anywhere near Windows for popularity, but by 1994, with the release of OS/2 (codenamed Warp), it had a growing reputation for technological superiority.

However, development costs were nearly a billion a year, and IBM examined Windows 95 and decided not to compete. In a move that is still often considered a betrayal of loyal users, IBM slashed OS/2's budget and promotion. By 1997, OS/2 was on the way out, although it continued to be used in automatic tellers and subway systems as late as 2011. Today, Serenity Systems continues to resell OS/2 as eComStation. A few corporate customers remain, but today eComStation is best known as a hobbyist's operating system rather than a major commercial player.

Technological Alternatives
OS/2 has never been free software, although a few years ago, users petitioned IBM to release its code. But in OS/2's heyday, few users had heard of Linux, whose 1.0 version was released in 1994, or the GNU General Public License, whose second version was released in 1991.

So where does the connection come in? The answer is that OS/2, like Linux today, attracted technical users unhappy with Microsoft or Apple. The fact that a product written by a mega-corporation like IBM could be considered an alternative in the early 1990s only shows how desperately some users wanted another choice.

In fact, OS/2 was not only an alternative, but an alternative with serious claims to technical superiority. It released a mostly 32 bit system several years before Windows 95, and its Presentation Manager desktop was far in advance of Windows 3.x or Windows 95, especially in its abilities to multitask.

Many of OS/2's features will be familiar to modern free software users, including the dual-booting of operating systems and an alternative file system (HPFS). OS/2 was also the original platform for PartitionMagic, the first commercial partition editor, as well as Describe, an alternative office suite to MS Office and WordPerfect whose styles-oriented approach would have reminded modern users of LibreOffice.

You might even see the origins of virtualization in OS/2. Advertised as "a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows," OS/2 made good on that claim more often than not. Each DOS and Windows application installed in OS/2 had over two dozen settings to fine-tune its performance. I particularly remember WordPerfect 6.0 for DOS, which crashed regularly under Windows, but which OS/2 ran flawlessly. Admittedly, OS/2 included full versions of DOS and Windows, so it was not virtualization as we know the concept today, but at the time, no one had tried anything like its individual tweaking of programs.

Looking for a rallying point
Perhaps even more important than any technical innovations is the fact that OS/2 created a group of technical dissidents. When Linux started development, many OS/2 supporters were ready to explore it, and OS/2 bulletin boards were carrying the first news of Linux to less technically-knowledgable users like me (I thought it it interesting, but quixotic, and probably something I would need to learn much more than I knew before I even tried it).

For several years, users supported both OS/2 and Linux. However, when IBM withdrew its support for OS/2, many were outraged. OS/2 users, remember, had been partly motivated by a distrust of Microsoft and Apple, and, then, suddenly, IBM, which had been providing a refuge, was proving unworthy of trust as well.

Edwin Black, the editor of OS/2 Professional, was so coldly furious that he went on to write several well-researched books detailing IBM's dealings with Nazi Germany and its involvement in the Holacaust. Other OS/2 users were not in a position to exact such a revenge, but as the extent of IBM's about-face became obvious, the resolution emerged in many never to be dependent on a corporation again.

As the operating system died, many OS/2 users like me went back to Windows for a year or two, grumbling all the way. Others found free software an alternative that would free them from the whims of corporations. By 1999, the first desktops made Linux ready for early adapters, and users like me started moving over to Linux for similar reasons.

Admittedly, no one has ever counted how many early free software advocates served an apprenticeship in OS/2, but from my own informal head counts, it must have been a significant number. I suspect that, without IBM's betrayal, the Dot.com Era (1999-2001) would not have happened. As things were, disaffected OS/2 users seem to have found exactly what they were looking for in Linux and free software.

In microcosm
When I looked at eComStation a few years ago, it seemed unbearably primitive, mostly because of its unaliased fonts. Yet twenty years earlier, it had seemed the most advanced desktop environment available. I remember calculating that its ability to run three operating systems made it a sensible alternative to Windows.

Of course, I had not reckoned with commercial considerations. Yet, even so, that calculation helped to shape the course of my life. The first articles I sold were about OS/2 software, and OS/2 collapse made me jump at the chance to work with Linux commercially. I learned, too, to appreciate copyleft licenses, recognizing at once that they would prevent software corporations from having the control over my computing that I had given to IBM.

By modern standards, OS/2 had some strange features. For instance, its desktop was designed as a replacement for the command line, so that deleting an icon meant deleting the file as well. Yet, without OS/2 to make mistakes beforehand, I wonder if either free software or my own life would have been the same.

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