IBM OS/2 Warp was better than Windows
A better DOS than DOS, and a better Windows than Windows.
In 1995 I switched away from my beloved Atari Mega STe to a PC. The sacrilege! But as much as I did love the Mega STe, it was missing a couple features I was getting used to as I worked on PCs for my job: a much higher resolution “SuperVGA” color display and faster performance. Plus I really wanted to play Doom!
However, I also knew that Microsoft Windows 3.1 was terrible. I knew this because that is what I used every day at work. Windows 3.1 was awkward, crashed a lot and needed funky configuration to properly use all available memory.
So I knew I wanted something different. It turns out that a new OS had been getting a big marketing push: IBM OS/2 Warp. This was v3 of OS/2 and let’s get into its history a bit.
Most people know this story by now, but I’ll briefly repeat it. When IBM was designing the first IBM PC, they needed an OS. Since they were essentially building the PC using off-the-shelf parts, they figured they would also use an off-the-shelf OS. IBM first went to Digital Research to get a license for CP/M (Control Program for Microcomputers), which was a commonly used business computer OS. This made logical sense.
However, Digital Research did not proceed quickly enough for IBM and thus Microsoft, who had already agreed on a deal to provide IBM with a license for BASIC and other programming languages, convinced IBM that they also had an OS they could provide.
Microsoft acquired a product called 86-DOS (sometimes called Quick&Dirty DOS) from a Seattle company, and after some modifications licensed it to IBM as PC-DOS. In one of the most lucrative business decisions of all time, Microsoft kept the rights for DOS to themselves and thus were able to later make MS-DOS available to PC clone makers.
The IBM shipped with PC-DOS and it became the standard, even more so when the clone makers started licensing MS-DOS. Eventually CP/M was also made available for the PC, but it was too little, too late.
IBM and Microsoft Team Up
As its name originally stated, DOS was quick and dirty. It was made to emulate many of the CP/M APIs, but even that was an old design. DOS 2.0 greatly improved things, but both IBM and Microsoft knew that it would not last forever and a replacement would be needed.
So a new joint development project between Microsoft and IBM was started in 1985: Operating System 2, or OS/2. It would be a joint effort between Microsoft and IBM to build an all-new, next-generation operating system for PCs.
Progress was slow. There were lots of disagreements as to how things should proceed.
During this time, Microsoft was also working on its own Windows product.
In 1987, OS/2 v1 was released. This version of OS/2 was essentially a substitute for DOS as it was only text-based. But it was much better designed than DOS with device independence and improved memory management.
Released alongside the next-generation IBM PC, the PS/2, it didn’t exactly set the world on fire.
The next year OS/2 v1.1 added a GUI, the Presentation Manager, which looked a lot like Windows, but no one really cared.
Development continued on the next versions of OS/2 with IBM taking the lead on what would be v2 and Microsoft working towards what would be v3.
But Microsoft was also putting a lot of energy into Windows and in 1990 Microsoft released Windows 3, and it started getting some real traction which irritated IBM, who (correctly) felt that Microsoft was not focusing enough on OS/2.
The two split up with IBM continue to work on OS/2 and Microsoft focusing on its Windows products, using its work on OS/2 v3 as a basis for what would be renamed as Windows NT (New Technology).
In 1992, OS/2 2.0 was released as a 32-bit OS (beating Microsoft’s Windows NT by about a year). It was touted as a “A better DOS than DOS, and a better Windows than Windows.”
OS/2 could run 16-bit Windows apps, DOS apps and native 32-bit OS/2 apps.
OS/2 v3 (Warp)
In 1994, OS/2 3.0 was released with a big marketing push by IBM. Part of this was the new branding to refer to it as OS/2 Warp to help highlight its speed and probably also to be a bit catchier than the stodgy “OS/2” moniker.
This is where things start to match up with my timeline. Because of the marketing push, I had heard about OS/2 Warp and new that it ran both DOS apps, Windows apps and OS/2 apps. I new that Warp was a preemptive multitasking OS. Coming from an Atari ST, I had no problem jumping to something that was not standard, but I also knew that Warp could run Windows apps if necessary.
So I started researching PCs that would be able to run Warp easily. This was no small task. At the time, any PC you could buy would come with Windows pre-installed. That meant that all the necessary drivers were already in place.
Warp was a separate purchase and did not have nearly as many drivers for things like video cards, CD-ROM drives, sound cards, etc. So you had to make sure the PC components worked with what Warp supported.
Eventually I settled on an AT&T PC that used the original Pentium 60 processor. I’ve been digging around a bit and I think the exact model is the AT&T Globalyst 580 Pentium 60mhz. I can’t find any pictures of it, but I recall that it looked similar to this slightly later model:
As you can see it was a pretty bog-standard, generic-looking PC. It’s sad to look at, actually.
I then purchased OS/2 Warp, which was available in two packages: blue and red. The blue version came with Windows, the red version did not and would instead work with the version of Windows already on the PC. I bought the non-Windows version ("red spine") because my PC came with Windows.
I also purchased the floppy disk version instead of the CD-ROM version because I was not entirely sure the CD-ROM drivers would work. Of course, I still have the box and everything:
There are 12+ diskettes in there! Installing this took quite a while.
But it worked and I used OS/2 Warp on that PC the entire time I had it.
I liked Warp so much that I even got permission to switch my work PC from DOS/Windows 3.1 to OS/2 Warp! I remember going in on a Saturday and spending the day updating my computer so that it would be ready by Monday.
OS/2 was wonderful for work, especially because I was primarily doing DOS development at the time. With Warp you could run DOS in separate windows more reliably than you could in Windows itself and I really appreciated that.
I used Warp for the better part of a year, but it started to lose its luster after Windows 95 came out. Windows 95 had support for 32-bit Windows apps and Warp could only run 16-bit Windows apps. So as more 32-bit Windows apps became available, it made Warp less and less useful. I eventually switched from Warp to Windows NT 4, because it had the pre-emptive multitasking capabilities I wanted with full Windows support.
Post-Script: OS/2 v4 (Warp 4)
Although OS/2 effectively left the public consciousness after v3, it still hung around for a while longer. In 1996, IBM released Warp 4 (note the dropping of OS/2 from the name).
Warp 4 lasted a surprisingly long time, apparently as the basis for many ATM machines of that era. But in 2006, IBM officially ended all support for OS/2 after stopping selling it in 2005. The final version was 4.52, released in 2001.
Its life was extended slightly (to 2011) as eComStation.
Today OS/2 lives on ArcoOS, which is still developed and sold.
For more detailed information, be sure to read the wonderful (and long) article about OS/2 on Ars Technica.
Of course, Microsoft eventually won this war as all versions of Windows today can trace their heritage back to Windows NT.
As all PCs did back then, something that would eventually get Microsoft into a lot of trouble with the Justice Department in the US.
OS/2 Warp was also the OS that the Associated Press used for their digital photo distribution network for many years. Every daily newspaper in America had at least one OS/2 Warp PC for the photo editors to download wire photos from AP. The IT guys at the San Diego Union-Tribune were always whining about having to support OS/2 Warp when it only ran on 2 machines ...
But when Windows 3 and even 3.1 were out, I was running Digital Research's GEM desktop on top of DOS rather than Windows. It was not quite as integrated as the version of GEM on the Atari line of 16 and 32-bit PCs, but it was still head and shoulders above Windows 3, and you could launch your DOS programs right from GEM. And even after Windoes 95 and then 98 came out, I kept GEM on my PCs just so I could use the GEM file manager which was 2-3x faster than the Windows file manager.
I think the world really missed out when DR lost the IBM deal. Suspect Gary Kildall would likely have succeeded with real innovation & collaboration. Microsoft where just an acquisitions company & hard nosed business vultures.