Tech Time Warp of the Week: When Czech Nuns Loved IBM OS/2

Ever wondered what nuns do when no one’s looking?

Well, if you trust this classic commercial from IBM (see above), they spend their off hours reading WIRED and coveting the latest computer operating systems.

In the commercial— which aired in the U.S., but takes place in the Czech Republic, just because there are nuns there—one nun says she’s having a hard time getting her hands on an operating system called “Chicago,” which keeps being delayed. But another nun has a better suggestion. “That new OS/2 Warp from IBM sounds pretty hot,” she says. Hot meant it offers true multitasking and easy access to the internet.

The whole thing is really just IBM trying to stick it to Microsoft. Microsoft’s Windows 95 was originally codenamed “Chicago.” It was scheduled for released in 1993, but didn’t arrive until 1995. Meanwhile, IBM offered a competing operating system called OS/2, after breaking off its partnership with Microsoft, and in 1994, IBM released a new version called OS/2 Warp, launching an ad campaign that tried to capitalize on the Chicago’s delays. It was a (semi-)amusing campaign. But OS/2 still flopped. In a big way.

The Break-up

OS/2 started out as a joint venture between IBM and Microsoft. They had a working partnership that dated back to 1980, when IBM contracted Microsoft to provide an operating system for its burgeoning PC line. Microsoft, in turn, licensed an operating system called PC-DOS, which became the foundation of MS-DOS.

But by 1985, MS-DOS was looking a bit long in the tooth. It couldn’t take full advantage of more powerful hardware, it didn’t have a graphical interface, and like the nun said, it couldn’t do true multitasking. Microsoft had already released the first version of Windows that year, but it’s important to understand that in those days Windows wasn’t an operating system. It was a graphical environment that ran atop MS-DOS. And it sucked. So IBM and Microsoft began a collaboration to create the operating system of the future.

When the first version of the OS/2 shipped in 1987, the two companies were still chummy as could be. “I believe OS/2 is destined to be the most important operating system, and possibly program, of all time,” Bill Gates wrote in the introduction to OS/2 Programmer’s Guide that year.

But though OS/2 struggled to find a foothold in the market when it was released in 1987, Harry McCracken explains in his history of the operating system for Time . It was buggy and hard to use, and it only ran on high-end equipment.

Meanwhile, Microsoft kept working on Windows alongside OS/2. In 1990, it released Windows 3.0, the first widely successful version of the platform. It provided a graphical experience, not unlike what you’d find on OS/2 or on a Mac, but ran on much cheaper hardware. Then, that year, Microsoft ended its relationship with IBM and OS/2.

Warp Speed

Although demand for Windows outpaced that of OS/2 over the next few years, OS/2 kept improving. It quickly garnered a reputation as a powerful and secure operating system that almost never crashed. So when Windows Chicago fell behind, IBM recognized its chance to catch-up. It rebranded OS/2 as “Warp” and launched an expensive ad campaign—including that nun commercial—dedicated to convincing the world that it was time to switch to OS/2. One forward thinking ad featured a woman accessing her e-mail wirelessly from her laptop in the jungle, and another just tried to make it look like something typical office workers might use.

But it wasn’t enough. Just before Windows 95 was released, IBM CEO Lou Gerstner admitted to the New York Times that the company had already lost the consumer desktop wars and would be focusing on large corporate customers.

Then another Times reporter quoted IBM’s OS/2 evangelist Dave Barnes saying that he was going to install Windows 95 on his home computers. McCracken points out that Gerstner later revealed in his memoir Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance? that he had already given up on OS/2 by the time Warp was actually released.

Needless to say, Warp never displace Windows as the reining champion of desktop operating systems.

Tech Dies Hard

Though forgotten, OS/2 never really went away. It wasn’t the breakout success on desktops that IBM had hoped for, but thanks to its security and stability it did find a niche on specialized hardware, such as ATMs. You can think of it as one of the first operating systems for the Internet of Things. And because it’s so expensive and difficult for these customers to migrate all their applications and data to a new platform, many are still using OS/2 to this day.

McCracken reports that as of 2012 the software was still running the New York City’s metro card reader system, Safeway’s checkout systems and even a few ATMs. That means that many of us are still using OS/2 every single day without realizing it. Although IBM stopped supporting the software in 2006, a company called Serenity Systems has stepped in to support a new version of the platform called eComStation.

And some of OS/2’s DNA survives in another unexpected place. Microsoft turned its version of OS/2 into Windows NT, an operating system that was originally designed for workstations and servers. But Windows NT went on to become the foundation of Microsoft’s desktop operating systems as well, including Windows XP, Windows 8 and, yes, Windows 10. Good technology often lives longer than you think.

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