OS/2 – A Good Idea That Could Have Been Great

I loved OS/2, I really did. OS/2 version 1.3 was, in my opinion, the best small multi-threaded OS ever created. Period. Gorden Letwin and his team did an amazing job with it. Those who are interested might want to scrounge up a copy of “Inside OS/2” by Letwin and give it a read.

IBM’s versions, from 2.0 onwards, extended the OS with better GUI support, real multi-platform interoperability and backwards compatibility. I was an OS/2 developer from 1.0 through 2.1, and a participant in IBM’s OS/2 developer’s program (I even purchased several big PS/2 machines, very nice for their day, and gave presentations about it). I was also heartbroken when IBM pulled the plug on OS/2 and effectively doomed it to obscurity. But, I’ve since moved on to Linux and FreeBSD, and I haven’t looked back. At least not very often.

Every now and again one hears of a petition to open-source OS/2. Unfortunately I think it’s really just wishful thinking. If OS/2 was going to be open-sourced, I think the parts of real interest would be the pre-2.0 code and some of the 2.x kernel extensions. But, so far as I know, 1.x is mostly MS code, and will never see the light of day. I don’t know if there’s enough of the 2.x that isn’t legally encumbered to be of interest to anyone. It’s a pity, though, because it could have been what Windows always wanted to be. But, that could be said for NextOS and BeOS as well.

There is probably enough information in Letwin’s book and in surviving documentation (Microsoft and IBM both handed out a lot of interesting documentation to OS/2 developers) to make a start at implementing an open-source version of the OS. Letwin did it with a tiny team, and although OS/2 V1.0 isn’t anything to get really excited about it still had the basics upon which later versions were built. That would be a good starting place. It would also make for a kick-ass embedded OS where a GUI isn’t necessary.

But, in any case, the story of OS/2 goes to show that just because something is a good idea doesn’t mean it will enjoy success in the real world.

Update: 8 July 2009

I’ve found out there is some movement towards creating a binary compatible open-source work-alike for OS/2. One such web site is here: http://www.osfree.org. Personally I think their goals are rather ambitious, since I have a good idea of how many people IBM had working on OS/2 at both the Boca Raton and Austin facilities. But I wish them luck with it.

Another group is aiming for even broader compatibility, along the lines of NT 4 with its support for OS/2, DOS and Windows applications. It’s called ReactOS and their web site is here: http://www.reactos.org/en/index.html.

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