Retro-anniversaries for OS/2 and Windows 3.1
During the first days of April, anniversaries for two genuine pieces of the operating systems’ history took place, two different evolutionary lines of what should have been a single product born from the partnership between two giants of the PC industry. IBM OS/2 and Microsoft Windows 3.1 were initially destined to be merged in the graphical interface-based operating system by Big Blue, afterward history went in a different way and OS/2 sunk while the competing OS turned into the dominant platform on the market.
OS/2 was initially announced during the first days of April 25 years ago (1987): the operating system created by IBM and Microsoft must have replaced the then-dominant MS-DOS textual shell with a completely graphical environment, capable of taking advantage of the new Intel x86 processors advanced features (80286 and subsequent CPUs). At that time Microsoft was marketing a pretty limited and MS-DOS-dependant operating environment (Windows 2.x), and OS/2 seemingly represented the future of operating systems for the two long-time partners of the computer industry.
OS/2 could count on very advanced features for the time like support for the 80286 16-bit protected mode, multitasking, the Presentation Manager graphical interface - released with the 1.1 upgrade of the OS - “installable” file systems (like HPFS) supporting long file names (many years before Windows 95) and “Extended Attributes” similar to the modern alternate data stream technology. Plus, OS/2 retained compatibility with preexisting DOS and Windows applications.
What shattered the seemingly bright future plans of OS/2 were a poor technical execution and mainly the commercial hit of Windows 3.0: Microsoft foresaw the chance to outlive the transition from the command prompt to the windows-based GUIs with its own strength and IBM was left alone to (poorly) manage the project. In all these years OS/2 did never reach a noticeable market share among consumers, at best conquering a small stronghold in the enterprise market that still lasts nowadays.
In 2012 OS/2 is almost extinct but still lives and is daily used in the banking industry (ATMs) everywhere in the world, in the New York subway, in train transport automated control systems, on petroleum stations. The Serenity Systems International company sells an operating system deriving from OS/2 under the eComStation name, offering full support to OS/2 and related applications. Lastly, the OS/2 troubled story is the focus of an interesting (and highly recommended) in-depth article published by TIME.
The second anniversary of the month marks the first 20 years since the release of Windows 3.1, the last version of the operating environment for MS-DOS-based machines before the release of the Windows 95 operating system. After the Windows 3.0 big hit, Microsoft introduced important novelties like support for 32-bit disk access, the Program Manager and File Manager components for managing files and programs (afterward merged in Windows Explorer), True Type vector fonts, a primitive version of the Registry (now an essential component for Windows to work), a modular and customizable Control Panel, support for multimedia contents, the OLE (Object Linking and Embedding) technology for data sharing between applications.
The first version of Windows lacking support for the real mode of the original x86 processors (8088/8086) was also the first series of Microsoft GUIs to offer advanced networking capabilities, as far as supporting the TCP/IP stack of modern computer networks (Internet and LAN) in Windows for Workgroups 3.11. If OS/2 was an essentially self-concluding chapter of the operating systems history, Windows 3.1 has been an important evolutionary step of the Redmond OS that only in recent times ceased to exist as a stand-alone product for the embedded market.
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