Should IBM's OS/2 Be Open-Sourced?

A group of die-hard OS/2 users are petitioning IBM—again—to release the operating system's source code as open-source. The question may not be whether IBM wants to do so... but if it can. Not, I expect, that IBM will actually say this out loud.

I have some skin in this game. Or, rather, I have a lot of scrapes and bruises, and a few scars. For some years, I bet my career on OS/2: writing books (savvy readers will recall my recent mention of Teach Yourself Rexx in 21 Days), magazine articles (there was a solid chance that any tech article you read about OS/2 had my byline), teaching classes about OS/2 to corporate users, and as an activist in OS/2 user groups. I'm a Certified OS/2 Engineer. Until I moved into my new house, three years ago, I had the world's largest collection of native OS/2 applications—something over 300 of them, including a few that never saw the light of day. Yeah, I cared. I still care.

At a Comdex in the late 90s, I was in the press room chatting with three other computer industry journalists who had also written quite a bit about the OS. Jerry Pournelle wandered by. "Hey, Jerry," said Wayne. "We were just talking about OS/2." Jerry nodded and said, "Yeah, OS/2. Great operating system, with only one problem—"

And we all shouted in unison, "IBM!"

Technical Superiority

Everyone who tried it loved OS/2, especially OS/2 Warp. Technically, it was a wonderful operating system. It really multitasked. It was robust; yet, the OS would shoot itself before it would permit harm to come to a byte of your data. It had an attractive, truly object-oriented GUI (for its time; OS/2 2.0 screen shots make me wince, today). Sure, it had some technology weaknesses (I'm certain I can out-geek you on the details); but OS/2 was far superior to its competition. For me, at least, it was the first OS to achieve the Principle of Least Astonishment: when I didn't know how to do something, my first guess was generally correct. (Mac OS X later exceeded in this principle; after several years of using Windows XP, I still spend five minutes looking for the simplest things.)

But you'll note that I said technically. Between Microsoft's business behavior (&deity had better give me extra credit for that diplomatic phrase), IBM's inept marketing (which caused me to shout unprofessionally at perfectly nice IBMers who lacked the power to change things), and a computer press who'd been burned by OS/2 1.0 and believed Microsoft's as-yet-unreleased Windows 95 would be far superior (because, after all, vaporware has no bugs) — well, technical superiority didn't win.

OS/2 did get a new breath of life when IBM OEM'ed it to eComStation (eCS), which coincidentally has version 2.0 in beta. eCS is targeted primarily at enterprises that still rely on OS/2 for legacy software but need it to run on more modern equipment; yet, it still has a die-hard community of end-users who run eCS/OS/2 as their primary OS.

Get to the Open-Source Bit, Already

Anyhow. As I said, the committed OS/2 community sent a petition to IBM two years ago, with 11,613 signatures, asking the company to release the OS/2 source code (or whatever part IBM owns) under an open source license. "Sadly, IBM was ignorant enough to not answer our first letter, and this is why we sent a second letter to IBM," wrote Kim Haverblad, founder of the OS2 World Foundation. They've added a bunch more signatures, and I guess are pounding on the desks a little louder.

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