What Was IBM’s OS/2, and Why Did It Lose to Windows?

by Benj Edwards

An ad for IBM OS/2.

IBM’s OS/2 operating system, first released in 1987, occupies a strange place in PC lore. If you were around back then, you probably heard that it was once better than Windows, yet few people used it. So, what was the deal with OS/2? Let’s find out!

OS/2 Was Intended to Replace DOS

OS/2 (Operating System/2) debuted in 1987 with the IBM PS/2 line. This line was designed to take IBM’s PC series to new heights with new standards, like VGA, the PS/2 mouse and keyboard interface, and the Micro Channel architecture (MCA) bus. It made sense to have a new operating system, as well, and OS/2 fit the bill.

(Ironically, the best-selling lower-end models of the PS/2 line didn’t have the cutting-edge hardware features and ran PC-DOS with Windows, instead.)

Development of OS/2 started in 1985 as a joint project between IBM and Microsoft, which developed the PC-DOS operating system that shipped with IBM machines. The partners intended to replace DOS with an advanced 32-bit protected mode operating system that would provide the software framework for advanced future applications.

For a time, Microsoft primarily developed OS/2, and even released its own private label version called, unsurprisingly, “Microsoft OS/2.” However, after the massive success of Windows 3.0 in 1990, the partnership between IBM and Microsoft ended. IBM developed future versions of OS/2 on its own, and the product line diverged significantly from Windows.

Still, OS/2 remained notable during the early-to-mid ’90s for being a 32-bit protected mode operating system (starting with version 2.0) for IBM PC compatibles. This allowed preemptive multitasking of multiple OS/2, DOS, or Windows apps simultaneously in a rock-solid way.

It also did this at a time when Microsoft’s MS-DOS and Windows ecosystem was, generally, less stable and less full-featured. Those capabilities won OS/2 many fans, but it still never had the same market impact as Windows.

Notable Versions of OS/2

The IBM OS/2 Warp 4 desktop.
The IBM OS/2 Warp 4 desktop. Nathan Lineback/ToastyTech

From 1987-96, IBM released the following major versions of OS/2 (some with notable revisions) and continued to update it with bug fixes until 2001:

  • OS/2 1.x (1987-90): Similar to MS-DOS, the first version (1.0) was command-line only. But version 1.1 (1988) included a graphical window interface, similar to Windows 3.0, which came along later.
  • OS/2 2.x (1991-94): The first 32-bit version developed without Microsoft (although legacy code was used). It was also the first version to include the Workspace Shell GUI.
  • OS/2 Warp 3.x (1994-95): Warp was an attempt at a cool marketing angle for IBM. This version streamlined OS performance by reducing memory usage. It also included internet connectivity components for the first time.
  • OS/2 Warp 4 (1996-01): This release further integrated internet support, updated the Workspace Shell appearance, and included support for technologies, such as Java and OpenGL. The basic framework of Warp 4 still receives updates and software support from third-party vendors.

OS/2 vs. Windows: A Fierce Battle

So, why did Microsoft win? Opinions on this are varied and controversial. According to IBM veterans (like Dave Whittle in this detailed answer), Windows undermined OS/2 through a combination of intense marketing, dirty tricks, and relentless support of lower-cost, low-end machines.

To be fair, though, IBM’s marketing blunders probably didn’t help.

Five windows open on IBM OS/2 version 2.
IBM OS/2 Version 2.0. Nathan Lineback/ToastyTech

A deciding factor in the battle came with . .

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