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.)

An ad for the IBM OS/2 in a magazine.
A 1987 magazine ad for IBM PS/2 computers. IBM

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.

RELATED: Windows 3.0 Is 30 Years Old: Here's What Made It Special

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 the near-simultaneous releases of OS/2 2.0 ($195) and Windows 3.1 ($150) in 1992. Consumers perceived OS/2 as a product specifically for IBM machines (which were generally more expensive than clones). Windows 3.1, however, could run on cheaper, mass-market machines.

Also, OS/2 had a chicken-and-egg problem. Its best selling point was its compatibility with MS-DOS and Windows applications. However, this meant few developers took the time to write OS/2-native apps. So, why run OS/2 at all?

Microsoft also developed best-selling productivity apps, like Word and Excel, that (suspiciously) seemed to run better on Windows than OS/2.

Still, IBM didn’t give up. In ’94, when OS/2 Warp was released, the public battle between the two firms became quite heated. Veterans of that era might recall how bitter OS/2 advocates were when Microsoft’s supposedly “inferior” products won the day.

This opinion is still common among those who used OS/2.

OS/2 Lives on!

IBM OS/2 Warp 3.0 Logo
Retail box art for IBM OS/2 Warp 3 (1994). IBM

The success of Windows didn’t immediately spell the end for OS/2. IBM continued to support it until 2001. It was heavily used in ATMs and other embedded applications due to its stability.

Even today, OS/2 is used widely enough that it lives on via OS/2-based operating systems sold and supported by vendors like eComStation and Arca Noae. The New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) still uses OS/2 to power elements of New York City’s famous subway system. A project called Warpzilla also maintains ports of semi-modern web browsers for OS/2.

If you consider OS/2’s stability and longevity, IBM must have done something right, even if it was overshadowed by Microsoft’s marketing muscle. Rather than considering it just an “also-ran,” perhaps it’s time OS/2 got a little respect.

Profile Photo for Benj Edwards Benj Edwards
Benj Edwards is a former Associate Editor for How-To Geek. Now, he is an AI and Machine Learning Reporter for Ars Technica. For over 15 years, he has written about technology and tech history for sites such as The Atlantic, Fast Company, PCMag, PCWorld, Macworld, Ars Technica, and Wired. In 2005, he created Vintage Computing and Gaming, a blog devoted to tech history. He also created The Culture of Tech podcast and regularly contributes to the Retronauts retrogaming podcast.
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