OS/2 Observations, Rumors, & Tips from PC Expo

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Written by Marco J. Shmerykowsky

Please note that this is a historical article first published in August 1997

Last month large numbers of computer professionals and hobbyists descended on the Jacob Javits Center in New York City to see the latest and greatest hyped products. Despite the standard trade show hype, there didn't seem to be too many earth shattering announcements. Microsoft discussed its "Windows Everywhere" plan to put their operating system on everything from TVs (ie WebTV) to heavy duty servers. They also introduced their NetPC and Windows terminals in an effort to counter the push that Sun, Oracle, and IBM are making on the Network Computer concept. Perhaps the most interesting thing about PC Expo centered on the companies that didn't show up. There was no trace of Novell, Netscape, or Sun on the trade show floors.

The big question readers of EDM/2 have about PC Expo most likely is "what is IBM doing about OS/2?" I had the same question as I walked into the Javits Center. This article is essentially a compilation of small tidbits of information that I picked up as I talked to IBM representatives and a few "OS/2 aware" computer professionals. Although these aren't hard facts and are based unofficial discussions, I think it provides some indication of what IBM is planning to do.

One of the biggest areas of confusion with regard to OS/2 seems to revolve around the product's "target market". From my experience, many computer users define the computer market from the perspective of a single consumer. This user's computer essentially has the resources to be "self-sufficient". This computer can be used in installations ranging from a single user to a network of a few dozen users. Thus, the success of the product in the market seems to be defined by the availability of resources. For example, a user of Microsoft's operating systems can purchase a computer with a full office suite, and can purchase a wide variety of software at a local CompUSA store. While a Windows user can find compatible software or hardware without even trying, the OS/2 user has to work a little to find something suitable. Consequently, OS/2 users tend to feel that IBM is neglecting the OS/2 market. The accusation of market neglect is not entirely justified. In addition to the "desktop market", IBM has identified the "embedded systems" market and top Fortune 500 accounts as additional markets for OS/2.

The "embedded systems" market consists of machines such as Automatic Teller Machines (ATM) and cash registers. For example, one person at the show told me that the cash registers at Sears are running OS/2. The problem with these embedded systems is that they are not designed to run "general" applications. Thus this large installed base does nothing to benefit ISVs or the end user looking for applications. This also is why IBM would never turn OS/2 into a freeware product like Linux. The core OS/2 technologies are being used even if the trade press isn't advertising it. For example, at PC Expo I heard rumors that IBM is co-developing a consumer oriented "WebTV like" product which will use OS/2 technology as its operating system.

The Fortune 500 market is another one of those good news/bad news markets. The bad news is that these companies tend to develop their own applications and have their own special needs. IBM gears the development dollars towards these "special needs". Thus, if a corporation has no need for soundcards, then don't expect to see the latest greatest multimedia drivers on OS/2. The good news is that IBM is actively spending money on OS/2 because of these big corporations. Thus whatever benefits the big corporations will also filter down to the "single user". You can call it "trickle down computing".

While trickle down computing may not lead to a booming games market, it should result in proper development tools. For example, I spoke with one of the developers of Lotus' BeanMachine. This product lets people develop Java applets with knowing a single piece of Java code. It is strictly visually based. The developer affirmed my suspicions that this was the AppletAuthor program which was on IBM's alphaworks site (http://www.alphaWorks.ibm.com/Home/) last year. He also stated that an OS/2 version is under development and should be released this fall. Further discussions also resulted in a quick mention of IBM's purchase of Net Objects and the likelihood that IBM would port Fusion to the OS/2 platform. It seemed to be implied that IBM was following a cross platform strategy where major tools, such as the Visual Age products, would be ported to most of IBM's supported platforms.

Another piece of "good news" which is most likely due to pressure from those Fortune 500 accounts is the coming of a complete edition of Smartsuite 97 for OS/2. According to the Lotus' web site (http://www.lotus.com/smartsuite/os2) the product is targeted for the 4th quarter of 1997. The package will include new OS/2 versions of 1-2-3, WordPro, Approach, Organize, Freelance Graphics, and Lotus ScreenCam.

I also managed to get some news regarding Netscape's next generation browser. Although IBM and Netscape are developing the browser portion of Communicator for OS/2, it is not likely that OS/2 users will see components such as the HTML editor. One IBMer explained to me that the rule of thumb is that if IBM has a "home grown" product, then don't expect to see Netscape's version of it. Thus instead of Netscape's collaboration tools, you should look to OS/2 versions of Lotus Notes and Domino. Instead of Netscape's HTML editor, start looking for IBM's Homepage publisher. The product, which has leaked out onto the Internet as a Japanese edition, is evidently going to become a formal product.

For some more good news, OS/2 is evidently looking good on the server front. Sales of Warp server are growing respectably and "Bluebird" technology is being eagerly welcomed by some of those Fortune 500 customers. This technology, which has been in OS/2 for a while, allows an administrator to remotely boot a machine, load applications, and control the contents of the desktop. For example, the administrator could set all the "remote" machines to use a Web browser interface.

Another aspect of OS/2 which is receiving attention is the Java capability. While it has been said that OS/2 has one of the most stable Java environments, it is not one of the fastest. IBM is evidently working hard to improve OS/2's Java execution speeds. Furthermore, it is important to note that IBM is placing a massive amount of energy into Java development. Certain Java development projects are reportedly continuing 24 hours a day. As the workday on one side of the planet finishes, the "project" is shipped to the other side of the planet so that the second "daytime" shift can continue to work. IBM also seems to have a special Java developer's assistance plan. If a company is developing a Java application, then IBM will help the development effort by assigning seven developers to the company. The company creating the software must also assign seven developers to the project. Finally, more than one person mentioned that IBM will be in serious trouble if the Java push fails. This basically means that IBM is fighting the deciding battle of the war. Failure is not an option.

Finally, I'd like to pass along a technical tidbit which sounds intriguing. Many users have heard about OS/2 version 4's "hibernation" feature which allows a person to switch between operating systems without rebooting. The procedure basically works by storing a copy of all physical and virtual memory on the hard disk. When the OS is switched, the computer simply read the "snapshot" form the hard disk. Apparently the key to this feature is the use of a common file system. For example, Windows 95 and OS/2 could be installed on different partitions, but they must both use the FAT files system. It seems that this "trick" can also be applied to a Windows NT / OS/2 system. As long as both Windows NT and OS/2 are placed on either FAT or HPFS partitions, then you should be able to implement this. I'm guessing that a combination of Partition Magic & the HPFS file from WinNT 3.51 could be used to get this to work with Win NT 4.0. Reportedly, this "hibernation" feature can lower the time required to switch between operating systems from minutes to seconds.

In conclusion, my conversations at PC Expo seem to indicate that OS/2 has a very serious future at IBM. The Fortune 500 companies continue to use OS/2 because is well developed and reliable. Many companies that abandoned OS/2 to switch to Windows NT are coming back. IBM is pouring significant resources into Java development and OS/2 will benefit from this. The core OS/2 technology will find it's way into many computing products thus providing competition for the "Windows Everywhere" push. Finally, OS/2 will be a key component of IBM's network computing paradigm.

In general, OS/2 has been refocused to address the needs for the big business. This will result in developments which benefit a large number of OS/2 users through the "trickle down computing" theory. Whether or not this provides sufficient support for the small to mid sized businesses which exist in the world remains to be seen. At any rate, the operating system will be around for while and OS/2 users will continue to benefit from its strengths.