On April 2nd of 1987 (not April 1st, that wouldn’t do!), IBM and Microsoft jointly announced Operating System/2, the long-awaited protected-mode version of DOS.
However, OS/2 was not the only product announced on that day. OS/2 was merely one part (albeit very important one) of a massive product rollout blitz on both IBM and Microsoft’s part, purportedly the beginning of a new era of personal computing.
Perhaps coincidentally, this is also the 20th anniversary of the release of OS/2 2.0, the first mass-market 32-bit operating system for PCs. Not to the day (the official release date was March 31st, 1992; still the first quarter of 1992) but close enough to be significant.
In April 1987, IBM most importantly rolled out the Personal System/2 line of computers, including (finally) a 386-based Model 80. High-density 1.44MB 3½” media were introduced, along with PC DOS 3.30 update to support the new hardware; VGA and the 8514/A high-resolution graphics accelerator were announced; and a slew of updated networking hardware and software was rolled out. Among the more interesting IBM announcements was AIX for PS/2, IBM’s BSD-derived UNIX variant originally used on the RT PC. OS/2 was one of the biggest items, and the announcement included Presentation Manager and OS/2 Extended Edition with database and communication capabilities.
On Microsoft’s side the announcements were no less important. OS/2 (including the Presentation Manager) was again the big ticket item, but there was also MS-DOS 3.3, Windows 2.0, XENIX System V/386, and LAN Manager.
The announcements were interesting in that many of them concerned products still a year or more from completion. IBM’s PS/2 systems, DOS 3.30, and networking hardware and software were mostly available immediately or within weeks. For AIX on the other hand IBM merely announced that an announcement regarding future availability would follow in Q4’87. IBM OS/2 1.0 SE was announced to be available in Q1’88, and OS/2 1.1 with Presentation Manager towards the end of 1988.
On Microsoft’s part the announcements were almost exclusively vaporware. Only 3½” media support (existing products shipped on the new format) and PS/2 mouse drivers were scheduled to arrive within weeks.
XENIX for the 386 was supposed to be available for licensing by OEMs in Q2’87, but that turned out to be overly optimistic. At any rate, this was probably Microsoft’s last major XENIX-related announcement. UNIX in general turned into an enemy, even though Microsoft owned a significant chunk of SCO.
MS-DOS 3.3 was expected to be shipped by OEMs sometime in 1987, with the timing obviously not entirely under Microsoft’s control. Windows 2.0 was scheduled for 3Q’87 which did in fact happen with Windows/386 for COMPAQ.
Microsoft expected OS/2 1.0 to be available to OEMs sometime before the end of 1987 (which did happen, barely) and OS/2 1.1 with Presentation Manager sometime in 1988 (again barely happened). For LAN Manager, Microsoft didn’t even provide any estimates; the product was clearly very far from completion.
The most fleshed out product on Microsoft’s side was the OS/2 SDK, planned to ship on August 1st, 1987; the kit would set back prospective OS/2 developers by $3,000. In the product Q&A, to the question “Why is the SDK so expensive?” Microsoft provided the humorous answer “The SDK is not expensive” and went on to explain that their costs were high and really, developers should be dying to develop for the next generation OS. We know how that turned out.
It’s interesting to consider how complete the products were at the time of the April 1987 announcements. The OS/2 “kernel” (OS/2 without Presentation Manager) was likely quite usable, judging from the first OS/2 SDK (completed between April and June 1987). The Presentation Manager on the other hand was probably very incomplete (it’s doubtful Microsoft had anything working at the time), although the specification was probably complete. LAN Manager was most likely merely a glint in Microsoft’s eye, and even the specification was far from being completed.
The big OS/2 announcement was the first not-yet-tangible product of the IBM-Microsoft Joint Development Agreement (JDA). It was meant to usher a new era of PC computing, but in retrospect it was more like the end of the IBM PC (with emphasis on IBM). The PS/2 systems, while technically excellent, turned out to be a dead end. Rather than helping IBM regain control of the PC market, they led to IBM’s irrelevance. For IBM’s PC business, it was the beginning of the end, for Microsoft it was merely the end of the beginning.
Five Years Later
Almost exactly five years after OS/2 had been first announced, IBM shipped OS/2 2.0. A 386 version of OS/2 was anticipated in the April 1987 announcements, but the project was seriously delayed. Microsoft shipped the first 32-bit OS/2 SDK at the very end of 1989. IBM picked up the pieces in 1990, but that delayed the release by at least a year.
The PC industry landscape in April 1992 was very, very different from April 1987. The 800-pound gorilla was now Microsoft, not least thanks to the huge success of Windows 3.0. IBM was still a major OEM, but no longer a driving force of the industry. The PS/2 line, though not unsuccessful, ended up isolating IBM instead of helping it regain its leading role.
Microsoft had given up on OS/2, and by the time OS/2 2.0 was released, more or less pretended that it had never been involved. Microsoft may have been impatient (later, it took NT quite a long time to become a major force; and the situation was hardly different with 16-bit Windows), but the relationship with IBM was poisoned and probably couldn’t work.
It’s clear that Microsoft wanted to be in the driving seat. The JDA was merely a hedge, an insurance against some other company being anointed by IBM. To make matters worse, there was a major culture clash between Microsoft and IBM. While IBM was a very structured, process driven company, like most corporations that have been around for a few decades, Microsoft had much more of a startup mentality where only results matter and the process be damned (including things like writing formal specifications and test cases). By 1990, Microsoft viewed IBM as a major drag and decided to go it alone, with fairly spectacular results.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to say whether the future had already been decided in April 1992. Perhaps OS/2 would have had a chance had Microsoft not engaged in numerous underhanded anti-competitive practice. Then again, perhaps IBM never stood a chance.
25 years later, OS/2 is more or less completely gone while Windows remains the number one PC operating system with no serious competition. Ironically, the Microsoft of 2012 is probably much closer to IBM of 1987 than it is to its former self. The future of Windows also doesn’t look nearly as bright as it used to, and in the so-called post-PC era Windows may well go the way of horse and buggy. Twenty-five years from now, we shall be much wiser.