OS/2 Warp was my operating system of choice for most of the 1990s. It never achieved mass appeal, and I think I know why. But I still liked it anyway. Here’s a look at its advantages and disadvantages.
What OS/2 Warp had to offer
I bought a Compaq 486 in the summer of 1994, using the overtime money I got opening one of those oversized Best Buy stores the size of a 1970s shopping mall. I’d been an outspoken Amiga user, but Commodore was out of business and Amiga’s comeback was about as much of a long shot then as now. So I switched.
Windows 3.1 was underwhelming to say the least. The icons were a bit more polished and professional looking than an Amiga, and there was a lot more software. But the multitasking was sluggish and it crashed all the time. People complained about Amiga stability, but I routinely kept several apps open at a time without a problem on my Amiga. When I tried to use Windows 3.1 like an Amiga, it was a no-go.
I went out with a friend over Thanksgiving break to get a copy of OS/2 Warp, then watched as he installed it. It floored me. Full pre-emptive multitasking. Perfect DOS and Windows emulation. Stability. It wasn’t as fast as my Amiga, and it needed a ton of memory, but I was sold. Spending about 30 minutes with it was enough to convince me to go buy a copy of my own.
I used it as my primary OS for almost four years. Yes, even after Windows 95 was released. It wasn’t really until Windows XP that I stopped missing OS/2. Windows XP Service Pack 2 at that.
Where OS/2 Warp came from
Microsoft and IBM developed OS/2 jointly in the late 1980s to give the IBM PS/2 series something better than DOS. Those early versions were late and didn’t work all that well. It had a faster, more efficient and more reliable file system and multitasking, but little else going for it.
The plan was for IBM to develop OS/2 2.0 and Microsoft to work on version 3.0. Then Microsoft decided to jump ship and go on its own. The OS/2 3.0 codebase became the basis for Windows NT. IBM went ahead with OS/2 2.0 and 2.1. BBS operators loved it, because it allowed them to run multi-line boards, do maintenance without kicking people off, and even run a BBS in the background while they did other things on their personal PC, so they didn’t have to tie up a second PC on their BBS anymore.
One last attempt at commercial success
When IBM released a new, performance-enhanced version of OS/2 in 1994 with a new OS/2 desktop called the Workplace Shell, they called it OS/2 Warp, hoping the name would be a bit more marketing friendly. It was more successful than earlier versions of OS/2, and it gained a cult following. But it was a small cult following. Maybe its popularity approached that of the Amiga.
I think the problem was that most people learned not to push their PCs as hard as I pushed my Amiga. And if your idea of multitasking was pulling up the calculator app without closing Word, Windows 3.1 was fine. If you expected to have a word processor and spreadsheet open at the same time and drag data from one over to the other for hours on end without bluescreens like an Amiga could do, Windows 3.1 wasn’t going to do it. OS/2 could. But when I showed people that capability in the store, I usually got weird looks.
It wasn’t until Windows 95 came out and Bill Gates gave the masses permission to multitask that people placed any kind of value on true pre-emptive multitasking. But some companies used it because of its stability, until Windows 95 was ready. It mostly fell out of favor in large corporations once Windows 95 and especially NT4 hit the streets.
And to be honest, in 1994, IBM didn’t have the best image. People remembered the PS/2 and associated the IBM name with lock in. Corporations still saw IBM as safe, but consumers sure didn’t.
OS/2’s secret weapon
OS/2 was a full 32-bit operating system with memory protection and multitasking. It ran DOS and Windows in a separate virtual machine, which protected it from the rest of the system. Well, mostly. Occasionally the Windows subsystem could crash the whole machine, but it was pretty rare. I could run the system for weeks or months on end without any crashes or reboots. If I stuck with native OS/2 apps, I could run indefinitely.
I still don’t know exactly why, but a lot of the DOS games I liked ran faster in OS/2 than they did in real MS-DOS. Some of it was probably due to the better file system and disk caching, but the graphics performance was faster and smoother too. I couldn’t run the DOS game in a window like Windows 95 often allowed, but I could still switch back to OS/2 to check on something if I wanted.
Why OS/2 Warp failed
OS/2 Warp ran 16-bit Windows applications rather well, but 32-bit Windows 95 applications weren’t compatible and IBM didn’t have a good way to make them compatible. Without comparable native OS/2 32-bit applications, OS/2 Warp was going to be a dead end if Windows 95 caught on. Given that people lined up outside stores late at night on August 23, 1995 to be among the first to buy it like it was a hot new Apple product, Windows 95 was going to catch on.
IBM didn’t do as much to encourage OS/2 development as Microsoft did Windows development. Even though IBM owned Lotus, even the OS/2 version of Lotus Smartsuite was late to market and seemed a bit underwhelming. Of course Microsoft never ported its 32-bit office suite to OS/2, and neither did Wordperfect.
IBM’s approach to running DOS and Windows applications probably seemed a little clunky. Where Microsoft implemented a subsystem it called Windows on Windows, IBM’s virtual machine was higher overhead. You noticed that it took longer to load Word on OS/2 than it took on any version of Windows. Once it was loaded, it was amazing, but nobody wanted Commodore 1541-like load times in the mid 1990s.
And IBM’s marketing was pretty bad. I remember PC/Computing’s editor in chief, Paul Somerson, writing in an editorial in the mid 1990s that if IBM had invented sushi, it would have called it raw dead fish and wondered why no one bought it. That’s about right.
OS/2 Warp after Windows 95
OS/2 died a long, slow death after Windows 95 came out. IBM released a new version, Warp 4.0, after Windows 95 and Windows NT 4.0 came out. It added speech recognition but it was really too little, too late. If you wanted to multitask and play games, you ran Windows 95. If you wanted OS/2-like stability, you ran Windows NT 4.0.
The main holdout was the banking industry. My first real job with benefits was as an OS/2 administrator, and after they scrapped OS/2 at my first job, a guy I went to church with who worked at a local bank was very interested in hiring me. I wonder sometimes what might have happened if I’d taken that job, but it was obvious even then that Windows NT was the future. Still, OS/2 powered automated teller machines well into the 21st century, because it was reliable and stable, and by late 1990s standards, low overhead.
But even outside the banking industry, some companies used it in niche applications. I found it running as a print server in a Fortune 20 company in 2014. And when I tell that story to security professionals, they can usually counter with an OS/2 story of their own.
I once loaded OS/2 Warp 4.0 on a 266 MHz Pentium II machine that could barely run Windows NT 4.0. It was a powerhouse running OS/2.
Free the code!
A few outspoken people, John C. Dvorak chief among them, have called for IBM to release OS/2 as open source. There’s enough code in OS/2 still owned by Microsoft that IBM probably won’t ever be able to do that. IBM licensed the OS/2 technology after it discontinued OS/2 Warp,and it gave rise to two products in this century: eComStation and ArcaOS.
I guess I’m not surprised. I was an Amiga guy and I was an OS/2 guy. Maybe not a lot of people understand, but I do.