Is IBM considering an OS/2 redo?

IBM insiders want to relaunch the venerable OS/2 operating system, sources say. The question is whether it's a solution in search of a problem.

Should IBM consider a return of OS/2?

A systems integrator close to the computing giant swears there's a move afoot inside IBM to reintroduce the operating system -- revered by some, reviled by many --before it faded out more than 10 years ago. He has heard this from inside Big Blue itself.

This will mean nothing to young'uns who do not remember the great OS war waged between IBM and Microsoft after their joint development of OS/2 fell apart. Running on both PCs and servers, OS/2 was object-oriented and CORBA-compliant, could multitask and sported a neat graphical user interface. People liked the OO Workplace Shell GUI very much.

First, a refresher: During the mid-1980s, IBM and Microsoft teamed up to make OS/2 the next-great graphical PC client and server operating system. But by 1990, the collaboration had fallen apart; OS/2 earned the reputation as too resource-intensive for many users. Further, the Microsoft camp saw IBM as too focused on crafting OS/2 for IBM hardware, while Microsoft wanted to build an OS for all sorts of PCs. Microsoft regrouped around Windows, and IBM continued to push OS/2. Windows prevailed.

Why would anyone want OS/2 services at this late date?
OS/2 veteran,

According to the integrator, IBM's nascent plan is to repurpose OS/2 "services" atop a Linux core.

The obvious question is why? And the answer is despite Windows' spanking, IBM shops still run quite a bit of OS/2 -- not that they've advertised that fact. In theory these companies can drop this Linux-OS/2 amalgam in to replace aging installations with minimal disruption.

Interested constituencies would include "AS/400, and S390 users that love OS/2 Communications Manager, SNA [Systems Network Architecture] and newer LU/PU-style connectivity, even some on isolated APIPA [Automatic Private IP Addressing] subnets," the integrator said.

"There are OS/2 diehards and still many customers running legacy OS/2 boxes on the Net or behind company firewalls," he said. Still, the number is tiny compared with the Windows and Unix and Linux installed bases.

Point: OS/2 redux not a bad idea for Big Blue shops
Interestingly, IT pros who were asked for comment did not fall on the ground laughing at the prospect of OS/2 redux.

Frank Basanta, the COO of Systems Solutions in New York City, said OS/2's graphical user interface, Presentation Manager, could easily rival both KDE and Gnome GUIs of the Linux world.

If IBM wanted to take another run at Microsoft on the desktop--and believe it, there are still people hurting from the last go-round--this could be one way to make Linux more user friendly Basanta reasoned. The reason people use Windows and the Mac is they're easy to use. One of the last hurdles to broad-scale Linux desktop adoption is analogous ease of use, he said.

Grafting services atop Linux has precedent. Novell essentially did the same thing with NetWare, layering its services atop SUSE Linux in Open Enterprise Server a few years back.

IBM software people had no comment. An IBM insider said he'd heard zero about this--but acknowledged that IBM is a large company with many constituencies. In short: Who knows what's going on in every group?

Counterpoint: No reason for OS/2 redo
When queried about a potential rebirth of OS/2, however, a veteran of the OS/2-Windows wars guffawed. "Why would anyone want OS/2 services at this late date? They're more than 10 years old. If you're going to move, move already!"

But even he conceded that there's no telling what's going on deep inside the computing giant.

"Look, I'm sure someone at IBM is fighting this old battle. … Someone who wants and hopes this will happen. The question is whether that person has the power to make it happen? I doubt it," he said.

When Robert Rosen, now the CIO at the National Institutes of Health, used OS/2 back in the day, when he found it "much better than Windows." And yet he doesn't expect any sort of do-over. "That would be a shocker. …I can't think of any reason IBM would do that."

Rosen suspects that the real story is that IBM still offers eComStation (the descendent of OS/2 maintained by Serenity Systems International) and that eComStation might be getting a rewrite to run atop LInux.

Another data center pro who ran OS/2 during the early 1990s said there would be next to no interest in OS/2 at his financial services company.

On the flipside, one of the biggest too-big-to-fail financial institutions in New York still runs its payroll on OS/2. If there's one application folks don't want to mess with, its payroll.

Barbara Darrow is the senior news director. Write to her at [email protected]. Mark Fontecchio and Matt Stansberry contributed to this report.

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