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Remember OS/2? If not, you probably came of age after the Microsoft (MSFT) Windows monopoly had set in in the 1990s. But if you were around for the heyday of OS/2—the operating system developed by IBM and Microsoft beginning in 1985—you may be interested to learn that OS/2 remains alive today, and may soon become available in a form that can be booted from a USB stick.
September 16, 2015
Remember OS/2? If not, you probably came of age after the Microsoft (MSFT) Windows monopoly had set in in the 1990s. But if you were around for the heyday of OS/2—the operating system developed by IBM and Microsoft beginning in 1985—you may be interested to learn that OS/2 remains alive today, and soon may be available in a form that can be booted from a USB stick.
A little history lesson: In 1985, IBM and Microsoft entered into an agreement to work together to build a new operating system, which was supposed to replace MS-DOS and other DOS-based systems as the platform of choice for PCs. One of OS/2's headline features was support for protected mode, which let it take advantage of special features in the x86-compatible computer chips that were exploding in popularity at the time.
The first edition of OS/2 appeared in 1987. The next year, Microsoft and IBM added a GUI to the platform. By 1989, the system sported the HPFS file system—a vast improvement over FAT, which remained the basic file system in other Microsoft platforms well into the 1990s—as well as database software targeted at the enterprise market.
OS/2's promising start stalled by 1990, however, when Microsoft and IBM ceased collaborating. Microsoft shifted its efforts to selling Windows 3.x, and IBM had little success marketing OS/2 on its own. IBM maintained the operating system and support for it in one form or another until 2006, but OS/2 never realized the potential it seemed to hold early on.
Now, however, a Dutch company named eComStation, which sells an operating system derived from OS/2 with updates that allow it to run on modern hardware, may give the ill-fated project new life as a standalone system that can run from a USB stick. The tool's purpose would be to help in repairing computers, testing the operating system and collecting system information, according to the company.
eComStation is currently seeking feedback on the solution. It is not clear when it might arrive.
We doubt OS/2 is ever going to make real headlines again, even if it becomes available in USB-bootable form. But the system's enduring commercial presence nearly three decades after its launch—despite committed efforts by Microsoft in the 1990s to bury it—is a testament to just how hard operating systems die.
Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.
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