What Ever Happened to OS/2
…and OS/2 REXX ?
by Howard Fosdick © 2012
Remember OS/2? It was the joint IBM-Microsoft operating system that was presented as the follow-on to DOS. As DOS aged in the late 1980s, OS/2 was anointed its heir. All PCs would eventually be sold with OS/2.
But we all know it turned out differently. IBM and Microsoft fell out and became competitors. Microsoft triumphed as its Windows family of operating systems gained a near-monopoly on personal computers.
This had big implications for Rexx. Rexx was distributed with OS/2 as the official, built-in scripting language for the operating system. This was because DOS did not have any bundled scripting or command language beyond its very primitive “batch” language. Designers realized that modern desktop operating systems required a powerful but easy to use language. Rexx fit the bill.
When OS/2 took a marketplace dive, so did desktop Rexx. The language that was to be distributed with every PC… suddenly wasn’t.
Beyond OS/2, Rexx was also distributed with all versions of the Amiga operating system (AmigaOS, MorphOS, and AROS). It also came with the later releases of IBM’s PC-DOS (PC-DOS 2000 and PC-DOS 7).
But even combined with substantial OS/2 distribution, the limited total market share of these three desktop operating system families meant a lot less Rexx on PCs than if OS/2 had won the “OS wars” against Windows.
Since Windows needed a scripting language, Microsoft included Rexx (an early Regina Rexx interpreter) in all Windows Resource Kits. They continued this practice through Windows 2000. But while Microsoft offered Rexx with one hand, the company worked very hard at displacing it with the other.
Microsoft believed that their OS monopoly required control of the scripting language on their platform. So they promoted their proprietary Visual Basic family of languages: Visual Basic (VB), Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), VBScript, and Windows Scripting Host (WSH). These took the place of Rexx and other scripting languages on most Windows desktops. Eventually Microsoft released the PowerShell, yet another proprietary scripting language. Rexx had a role in all this, but a minor one. Mainly the cognoscenti (such as Windows Systems Administrators) used Rexx on Windows.
So What Happened to OS/2 ?
While OS/2 never challenged Windows for desktop dominance, many, many copies of the operating system were sold in the 1990s and early 2000s to important institutional customers. Sales to new users slumped after the turn of the century.
OS/2 continues to have loyal users in the U.S. They cluster in the banking, finance, and insurance sectors. Geographically, they cluster on the two coasts.
OS/2 is much more popular in Europe, especially in the central European nations and Scandinavia. The red areas of this map show how OS/2 use is distributed—
(map courtesy of OS/2 World)
Several heavily-patronized OS/2 web sites serve this active OS/2 community. OS/2 World receives many thousands of unique visitors per month to its web site. OS2.org and OS2 Voice still draw big. Underscoring its European popularity, many OS/2 web sites are multilingual or use spoken languages other than English (this Russian-hosted web site is an example).
OS/2 developers have access to tons of free Rexx code through both the Hobbes Project web site and through Norloff’s OS/2 Shareware BBS. Rexx developers for other platforms can draw upon these resources, too.You’ll find lots of generic Rexx code you can use on any platform.
A company called Serenity Systems International resells its own form of OS/2 called eComStation (or eCS). eCS includes Rexx just like IBM’s OS/2 and it offers users vendor support. Serenity Systems appears to be making a good business of it. They released version 2.1 in May 2011.
So, there are still many active OS/2 and OS/2 REXX users out there. Some are on OS/2 itself, while others use eCS.
Crisis in OS/2 Land
IBM officially terminated OS/2 sales at the end of 2005. They ended standard customer support for OS/2 at the end of 2006. (The company continued special support for those customers having the SE (service extension) or TCO (total content ownership) plans).
The OS/2 community ad several responses to IBM’s de-support—
Some adopted the eComStation alternative, with its ongoing vendor support
Some joined the osFree project, an attempt to create a fully open source operating system that is base-compatible with OS/2
Some asked IBM to continue standard support for OS/2, if not development
Thousands petitioned IBM to open-source OS/2
The open-source alternative has appeal. IBM likes to open-source products and has done so many times – for example, with Open Object Rexx and NetRexx. The difficulty here is that OS/2 contains significant third-party code, much of it owned by Microsoft. Microsoft, of course, wants to kill OS/2 as a potential competitor and has no interest in allowing an OS/2 open source effort.
Read more about OS/2’s possible alternative futures in Wikipedia’s OS/2 entry.
Computer professionals who use OS/2 systems will continue to employ Rexx as their favored scripting language -- whether they run eCS, osFree, unsupported OS/2, a virtualized OS/2, or whatever. All these many years later, the OS/2 family of operating systems is still a niche in which Rexx provides value to many thousands of users daily.