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September 1999

Editorial: Myths versus Reality

Phil Butler Phil@qpdbcom.force9.co.uk

The other day a news item appeared on zdnet.com about OS/2 client sales exceeding IBM's expectations. The article,SHHH! IBM's still selling OS/2, by Esther Schindler can be found at http://www.zdnet.com/sr/stories/news/0,4538,2326830,00.html Even IBM was surprised (so the report said) that sales were higher than expected - 34 percent higher, in fact. Of course, statistics like these are open to interpretation on the "cup half empty or cup half full" principle and when I looked at the feedback it was about even pro and con. A few Microsoft zealots - some rumoured to be on the payroll - kicked off with the hackneyed myths that we've all heard before. There was, for example the infamous - and untrue - "OS/2 is based on the Win 95 Kernel so it isn't any improvement" which delights the conspiracy theorists because it explains why IBM does not want to sell OS/2; they do not want to pay royalties to Microsoft. Oh yeah- like they would rather pay for NT licences and give even more royalties to Microsoft! The truth is that the first, 16 bit release of OS/2 was indeed mostly composed of Microsoft code - and was as lame, slow and broken down as anything to come out of that stable. But subsequent versions of the 32 bit OS/2 used less and less Windows code and in fact used a totally different concept - the System Object Model. NT has been trying to copy its performance standards ever since - with little success. OK, so then we get the critics who concede this but trot out the spineless "When are these OS/2 freaks going to shut up and accept that even if it's crap, Windows is king" style of argument. So, they are going to let anyone with a bigger stick walk over them? Or then there's the "Sure big corporations use OS/2 - they're out of touch dinosaurs heading for extinction." I hope you all got that! That's the global banking system heading for extinction!

Some of the criticisms had some validity - once upon a time. "OS/2 is hard to install and configure"; well when I first bought OS/2 - Warp 3, that is - yes, it did take longer to install than DOS and Windows... and I kept running into problems trying to install it over DOS and Windows until I said "the hell with it" and reformatted the partition! Once set up it needed far less tweaking than the Windows 3.11 it replaced! It was also several times faster and capable of real multitasking! Warp 4 was much easier to install. OK, maybe configuration can be a problem - but I've seen people struggle with Windows 9* too!

"There are hardly any apps" moans one windophile. I would like to see some serious comparisons between the apps available for OS/2 and WIndows. Apart from games - which, to be fair, Windows 95 does have the edge on - how many Windows apps are just redundant entries, competing versions, or just plain useless. On the other hand, how many of the many excellent object based programs written especially for OS/2 can be found in Windows versions? New OS/2 apps are appearing all the time. Many are free, quite a lot are shareware, and there are some shrinkwrapped ones too. Of course, to the many people who came new to computers some time after Windows 95, the shiny, brightly coloured boxes have an attraction that cannot be equalled by downloaded zip files requiring a little skill - not to mention an understanding of what one is downloading. If you are buying shrink wrapped software from a store, you can hold the box and let your techno lust get the better of you. A sales person can lean over your shoulder like some demon and whisper seductive mumbo jumbo in your ear. Or you can read the review in the computer press. And what reviewer is going to encourage an operating system that does not run the kind of software that they normally review? This brings me to another, persistent myth... One of the correspondents told how someone on the inside of IBM had told a friend of his that he had actually seen the alpha of Warp 4 running Windows 95 programs. What was more, on speed, stability, and memory management Warp 4 could blow WIndows 95 out of the water. IBM were all ready to release Warp 4 complete with "better Win32 than Windows 95" when they suddenly decided that - horror of horrors - if they did that, OS/2 development would die in favour of Windows 95 development - even though Warp was bound to outsell Windows 95. Oh yeah? So IBM dropped support for Windows in order to encourage third party OS/2 developers? Sure they did, just like they installed NT on Quad XENIX servers so that people would buy expensive, overpowered Quad Xenix rather than cheap 486s which would do the job just as well - providing they were configured with OS/2.

There were lots of other contributions. One writer suggested that IBM dare not market OS/2... dare not flag up their success with OS/2 sales in case the DOJ ruled that IBM was a viable competitor and that could only mean that Microsoft was not a monopoly. The trouble is that IBM's weak marketing goes back a long way.

Central to IBM's philosophy is that the PC is a passing fad. They got their fingers burned on this one quite badly. Conceding - belatedly that the PC was more than a toy for the rich they attempted to regain lost ground by bringing out a new standard - the PS/2. But they were too late, the market inertia saw to that and we are still stuck with the cobbled together heap of junk that is the PC. IBM shrugged its shoulders, and concentrated on what it at least felt it did best - servers, mainframes, and specialised software solutions because, deep down, it hates the desktop. Call it my own crackpot theory if you like, but I really think that the suits at IBM believe deep down that, one day this fad for itsy bitsy computers any Tom, Dick or Harriet can use will blow over and everyone will go back to mainframes, servers and thin clients...

So, after all the rumours and the name calling has died down, where does this article leave us? Is it just a blip? Is it some statistical anomaly? Well, not quite. Some of it can be explained as the result of people upgrading to Warp 4 in readiness for 2000. They could, by the way, simply upgrade Warp 3 by adding fix packs, but I suspect a lot have decided they may as well give Warp 4 a try. I wouldn't be surprised if the subsequent fall off in 1999 was due in part to the anticipated arrival of Warp 5 client. Why buy Warp 4 if 5 is on its way? Maybe...

I was not surprised to hear that sales of Warp client were better than IBM expected. There is, I feel, a gradual shift in mood. People are willing to give something else a try. Microsoft has outrun its welcome. At one time, even when sales of OS/2 were at their highest, going against the tide was unthinkable. I remember telling people I was dropping Microsoft, removing it from my PC. Some expressed incredulity. How would I be able to manage without Microsoft? Now, the same sentiment draws little comment other than, perhaps, a mention of Linux. People understand Linux - or think they do. Linux does not have a big company behind it... just Linus Torvald's garden shed. The idea of Linux beating Microsoft has something of David and Goliath about it. It may never happen, because Linux is vulnerable in a way that OS/2 is not. If Microsoft wanted to defeat the Linux dream they need only release Microsoft Office for Linux and cram it full of predatory add-ons. Then in no time at all Suse and Red Hat are competing with MS Linux. At least Bill Gates is hardly likely to legitimate OS/2 by selling Word for Warp!

I think we are seeing a gradual sea change in computing. The first whiff is coming in news reports like the one in zdnet.com. When I first bought OS/2 back in 1995 I felt alone, deserted, isolated and - well, laughed at, sometimes. Why did I persist and even buy the expensive upgrade to Warp 4? Because it worked, and the alternatives were awful! I just did not want to go backwards, that is all. Since then, I have seen the OS/2 community grow in strength and purpose - even if we lost some dead wood along the way. If the support, organisation and camaraderie we have today had been there in 1995 I think we might have given Windows 95 a run for its money. Now we have a developing set of applications that Linux and BeOS and even Windows users might envy. I believe Warpstock '99 in Atlanta, will show the only really viable alternative to Windows. The chance to seize the future will be before us then. We must take it with both hands.

When not working for an IT department of the British Government Phil Butler writes thoroughly warped fiction on a thoroughly warped computer.

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