OS/2 1.1

The GUI Has Arrived—The first release of the Presentation Manager

IBM announced OS/2 1.1 on April 2nd, 1987—at the same time when OS/2 1.0 was announced, and long before OS/2 1.1 (or even 1.0) was released. The actual ship date for IBM’s OS/2 1.1 (Standard Edition) was October 31st, 1988, over 18 months after the initial announcement. The Extended Edition version of OS/2 1.1 followed on November 30th, 1988.

In a way, OS/2 1.0 was a stopgap product, useful in its own right but not representative of Microsoft’s and IBM’s vision for a modern desktop OS. Only with the release of the Presentation Manager was the initial implementation of that vision complete.

Differences from OS/2 1.0

The major difference was naturally the addition of Presentation Manager, the windowing GUI subsystem. But there were other differences as well.

OS/2 1.1 could use larger than 32MB partitions, in a manner compatible with DOS 4.0 (OS/2 1.0 and DOS 3.x could not access the large partitions). However, FAT was still the only supported filesystem, with all its limitations.

Support for named pipes was added to the base OS. This feature was important for Microsoft’s LAN Manager and its IBM-branded cousins, the LAN Requester and LAN Server.

The print spooler was also enhanced, with new GUI control capabilities. This change was related to the Presentation Manager, but also affected printing from non-GUI applications.

A full-screen editor, E.EXE, was added; users could finally adjust system configuration files without needing to supply their own editor or having to resort to EDLIN.

Presentation Manager

The real difference between OS/2 1.0 and 1.1 was the addition of Presentation Manager, a graphical windowing system. Presentation Manager (PM) entirely changed the look and feel of the OS.

Presentation Manager’s closest relative was Microsoft Windows 2.0, and as such it was significantly different from both the Mac and the X Window System. However, the similarity to Windows was both striking and deceptive. PM and Windows were clearly built around the same concepts, but the implementation was in some areas significantly different.

It should be noted that the Presentation Manager specification was completed before the release of Windows 2.0. And while Windows 2.0 was intended to be strictly upwards compatible with Windows 1.0, Presentation Manager was a “clean slate”. Its developers took it as an opportunity to clean up and improve the Windows API, without being concerned with either binary or source compatibility; the approach Microsoft later took with Windows NT was radically different.

One of the larger differences was in the drawing subsystem. Windows 2.0 used a relatively simplistic drawing engine with limited device independence. Presentation Manager used GPI (Graphics Programming Interface), developed by IBM, a much more advanced but also more complex system. One of the differences which in retrospect seems entirely gratuitous was an inverted coordinate system.

A smaller but still significant difference was in the composition of application windows. Where Windows used a single window with frame controls and a “client area”, PM employed a frame window with several separate child windows that included the window controls as well as the client window.

As a result, programmers who could design Windows applications could also design PM applications and vice versa, but porting applications between Windows and PM was still a non-trivial task.


For this article, Microsoft OS/2 1.1 was installed in a virtual machine, using VirtualBox 4.0 with a small modification to let OS/2 read high-density floppy images.

The version used was an AST OEM version from September 1989, released relatively late in 1.1’s life cycle. This version was delivered on seven high-density 3½” floppies. As usual, the installation diskette needed patching to avoid crashing on fast CPUs (where anything better than a 486 counts as “fast”), and a relatively small virtual disk was used to avoid IDE geometry problems.

Some non-IBM releases of OS/2 1.1 supported dual booting with DOS. As mentioned earlier, OS/2 1.1 could utilize larger than 32MB disk partitions; in that case, DOS 4.0 had to be used for dual booting, since earlier versions would not recognize the larger partitions. The ability to coexist with DOS could be useful when OS/2 was rendered inoperable for some reason. Because DOS used the same file system, DOS-based tools could be used to repair damaged files.


The Presentation Manager itself was not a killer app. It was certainly useful, and offered new capabilities such as running multiple console windows simultaneously. But to be truly useful, the Presentation Manager needed a new breed of graphical applications. And those applications were slow in coming.

In hindsight, the slow uptake was not a surprise. Developing a Presentation Manager required a very different mind set than developing a DOS application. Much of the existing DOS code was not easily portable. Development tools were very expensive and somewhat slow in coming. Last but not least, not every application benefited from a large address space or a GUI.

Among the first Presentation Manager applications available was Borland SideKick, a popular utility very successful in the DOS market. The Presentation Manager version of SideKick came with a phonebook, organizer, notepad and a calculator.

The first office applications were Microsoft Excel and the DeScribe word processor. Microsoft Excel 2.2 was a port of the Windows version, which itself was a loose port of the original Mac application. DeScribe was a word processor developed specifically (and only) for OS/2 by a small start-up company.

One of the applications which needed both a graphical interface and lots of memory was PageMaker 3.0 by Aldus, again a port of an existing Mac application. A version of PageMaker that could run on OS/2 1.1 was unfortunately not available for this article.

Unfortunately for Microsoft and IBM, even when these applications started actually shipping, customers still had reasons not to switch to OS/2. Applications like PageMaker were severely hampered by lack of printer drivers. Microsoft even shipped updated printer drivers with Excel. High-resolution display drivers were likewise in short supply.

For the most part, printer and display drivers were available for IBM hardware, but support for popular hardware such as the HP LaserJet was slow in coming. IBM naturally supplied drivers for its own hardware, not expecting anyone else to do the job for them. Microsoft likely underestimated how difficult it would to be to get OEMs to write drivers for a platform with only a few useful applications, and how hard it would be to get ISVs to write applications for a platform with only a few useful drivers.

In the end, OS/2 1.1 was a relatively short-lived product, with less than a year of useful life. By the time version 1.1 started nearing usability, OS/2 1.2 was released. In that version, both the Presentation Manager and the base operating system were improved enough that OS/2 1.1 was immediately obsolete, and there was little point in supporting it anymore.

12 Responses to OS/2 1.1

  1. Pingback: Pushing Windows/386 out the door… | Fun with virtualization

  2. Richard Wells says:

    I think the Borland Sidekick for PM was one of the more harmful products to OS/2 especially the text editor. It was slow and used lots and lots of memory while not being as useful as the DOS Sidekick utilities. I remember people extrapolating from Sidekick for PM as to how poor other PM programs would be. However, the samples from the Petzold book did a much better job of showing how good PM could be.

    One related point was I thought that a mistake was made with the compatability box. The box could be saved to disk when the system was totally focused on OS/2 applications. Win 3 in standard mode used a similar save the DOS session on a 286 but would let multiple DOS sessions to be started and switched between. I believe OS/2 1.x could have done the same and allowed multiple DOS sessions. The result would be slow as DOS sessions get reloaded from disk when the user switched back to a DOS session. But one session could have TSRs and a small application while a different session could be clean to provide the room for larger DOS applications.

  3. michaln says:

    Interesting to hear about Sidekick. One disadvantage of looking at 20+ year old software is that it’s very hard to judge performance… everything is just blazingly fast. I do recall that e.g. running Microsoft C 5.1 on a 386 isn’t much fun.

    OS/2 1.x did support swapping out the DOS box to disk, but I believe that was only added in version 1.2, if not 1.3. The DOS support was definitely a weak point of OS/2 1.x. In my (very limited) experience, the DOS support wasn’t bad per se, but it was very restricted; there was no support for EMS/XMS and there was often not much conventional memory available, which seriously limited the usefulness of the OS/2 DOS box. Microsoft had the multitasking DOS technology in Windows/386 back in 1987, but that only showed up in OS/2 2.0 in 1992. I believe that Microsoft (and probably IBM to a lesser extent) underestimated the need for DOS compatibility, or at least underestimated how much inertia there was in the DOS market. They expected everyone would be eager to write OS/2 applications, and when that didn’t happen, there was no plan B.

  4. Yuhong Bao says:

    The sad thing is that if OS/2 was finished in year 1985 instead of year 1987, EMS/XMS would probably be unnecessary.

  5. michaln says:

    What would OS/2 in 1985 look like? If it looked like multitasking DOS 4.0, it would have almost certainly been the same disaster. If it looked more like OS/2 of ’87, it certainly wouldn’t have prevented the EMS standard from emerging, because EMS was useful to those millions of IBM PCs, PC/XTs, and compatible systems which couldn’t run OS/2.

  6. Yuhong Bao says:

    Yes, I mean developing the multitasking DOS 4.0 for 286’s protected instead of real mode, which existed even in 1983.

  7. Pingback: Microsoft Windows/386 | Electric Thrift

  8. Andreas Kohl says:

    It should be noted for differences, that Version 1.1 of IBM’s Extended Edition was also shipped in national language versions. OS/2 1.0 EE was only available in US English. This explains the different upgrade options from the announcement letter.

  9. James says:

    I have Microsoft OS/2 1.1 for Fujitsu in original shrink wrap (3 3.5″ floppy set). Would this be the same as IBM OS/2 1.1? I am hesitant to open and use, as I am not sure if it would work in a virtual machine. TIA.

  10. Michal Necasek says:

    It’s hard to say without having at least some idea what hardware the Fujitsu version supported. Judging from other MS OS/2 OEM releases I’ve seen, there is a good chance it’ll work on regular PC hardware and in a VM.

    And no, it’s not going to be quite the same as IBM OS/2 1.1, although it should support the same applications. The drivers included will be different and there’s not going to be PS/2 (ABIOS) support at all.

    I’d be quite interested in photos/scans. And if you do decide to open the package, also floppy images 🙂

  11. Irineu says:

    Hi Everybody..

    I found a solution to install the OS/2 1.1 Novia version in a virtual box (VM Machine)

    First of all

    I got different errors like ( CX: 00000 ) and 89039

    In virtual box 5.2.0 choose OS/2 machine – model 1.x and in the configuration, system, go to processor and choose 1% of restriction.
    After go to accelaration and choose none.

  12. Michal Necasek says:

    I assume Novia is Nokia. 89039 represents the date when the kernel was built (39th day of 1989), there’s certainly more than one.

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