December 20, 2018

The true believer (6/7)

In Silicon Valley, an "evangelist" shares many characteristics with his religious counterpart, preaching the good word of the new technological doctrine while demonstrating an unflagging faith in the utopia sure to come if only all within earshot would only convert to the cause.

PC Magazine columnist William Zachmann was one such evangelist, zealously devoted to the gospel of OS/2 as the one true software sect in the church of the x86 PC.

During the 1980s he was hardly a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Microsoft and IBM were working hard to make OS/2 the 32-bit multitasking operating system that would replace MS-DOS. In the 15 March 1988 issue of PC Magazine, Gus Venditto reported that while Microsoft CEO Bill Gates did not expect DOS

to give way to OS/2 for many years more, he outlined a timeline in which 15 percent of new PCs were running OS/2 in 1989, growing to 50 percent by 1991.

One can hardly fault Zachmann for agreeing with Bill Gates.

A month later, launching a new column dedicated to programming for OS/2, Charles Petzold predicted that "everybody currently using DOS on an 80286 or 80386-based machine will eventually consider upgrading to OS/2" for the simple reason that "Microsoft expects OS/2 to establish the foundations of PC operating systems for the next decade."

But a year later, convictions began to waver. In the 28 March 1989 issue, Gus Venditto counted up "2 million copies of Windows sold to date." In his 11 April 1989 column, Jim Seymour concluded that, a year after the introduction of the PS/2 and OS/2,

DOS is livelier than ever. And the original PC bus and especially the PC AT bus are robust and dominant in the market. [As for OS/2], it is mired in high costs and little value for the PC user—a fatal pairing.

But William Zachmann stuck to his guns, claiming in his 28 November 1989 column that the upcoming release of Windows 3.0 would "make the transition from Windows to OS/2 easier. The future lies with OS/2. And it is just around the bend." Then in the 16 January 1990 issue he predicted that

OS/2 will take off. By the end of 1990, many more users will be running OS/2 than most pundits predict. The speed of its acceptance is just as surely underestimated today as it was overestimated in 1987. Windows is strictly a transition product. Whatever Windows does, OS/2 will do better.

Released in May 1990, Windows 3.0 immediately raced to the top of the bestseller charts. In his August 1990 preview of the OS, Gus Venditto concluded that "A funny thing happened on the road to OS/2. Microsoft Windows has turned into the dazzling multitasking operating system that OS/2 is still struggling to become."

Countered Zachmann in his 25 September 1990 column, "Windows 3.0 will light the way to OS/2, not eclipse it. And that's really what Microsoft always wanted."

What Microsoft wanted at that point was to dump the whole OS/2 mess back in IBM's lap. The pair of September 1990 press releases hinting at but not directly announcing the breakup between the two companies had turned into a Rorschach test.

In the last issue of the year, Zachmann had to admit that the "smashing success of Windows 3.0 rolled mercilessly over my prediction [that OS/2 would take off in 1990]." And yet he remained convinced that "The renewed cooperation between IBM and Microsoft announced in September should help pave the way for OS/2."

In the same 15 January 1991 issue in which Ray Duncan methodically explained why IBM and Microsoft were not getting back together, Zachmann again miraculously managed to find the silver lining.

A significant number of desktops running Windows 3.0 will switch to OS/2 once 2.0 is first released. Windows and OS/2 will be made truly complementary to one another by both Microsoft and IBM. Windows will not compete with OS/2 but become an option on top of OS/2.

Even John Dvorak spent the first several months of the year dismissing Wall Street Journal reports that Microsoft would indeed drop OS/2 development.

But by May, Zachmann was also reporting on Microsoft's System Strategy Seminar and its undeniable message: "Forget about OS/2 2.0 and stick with Windows." In June, Dvorak concluded that the feud between IBM and Microsoft was real. And finally, in his 29 October 1991 column, William Zachmann conceded the now obvious.

Microsoft and IBM aren't merely "divorced"—they are at war. What started as a difference of opinion escalated through growing levels of mutual mistrust and suspicion into what amounted, by the middle of the year, to overt hostilities. Microsoft has all but completely disavowed OS/2.

Somehow this was all the more evidence, as far as Zachmann was concerned, that IBM was destined to triumph. He warned in his 12 November 1991 column that

Microsoft made a big mistake going to war with IBM over Windows and OS/2. Microsoft could lose this war—and lose big. If OS/2 2.0 delivers as promised, Microsoft will be in tough shape trying to use the mere promise of Windows NT to hold the line with Windows 3.0. Momentum will shift dramatically away from Windows and toward OS/2.

In the meantime, the editorial board of PC Magazine was making its biases clear. The Letters editor in particular seemed to enjoy poking Zachmann in the ribs, and for the past four years had run letters every few months like the following from computer consultant Jim Barrett:

I would be on welfare if I were making my living on PM. While OS/2 and Presentation Manager articles abound in the industry journals, I wonder if anybody actually reads them! Never have I see so much written about so little for so few.

The editorial content of the magazine approached the issue with more tact but came to similar conclusions.

In their 30 June 1992 analysis, Bill Bettini, Joe Salemi, and Don Willmott concluded that "OS/2 isn't a better Windows than Windows, but it could be called a potentially safer Windows than Windows." And OS/2 was a "better DOS than DOS" only because of the caching software, an advantage that disappeared when using updated Windows 3.1 drivers.

Later that year, in a head-to-head face-off between OS/2 and Windows 3.1 published in the 10 November 1992 issue, PC Magazine gave its Editor's Choice to Microsoft Windows 3.1 "for its ease of use, solid performance, and rich selection of high-quality applications in every software category."

But William Zachmann was not about to abandon his 30 June 1992 prediction that OS/2 was on its way to being the software hit of 1992. "OS/2 2.0 is even better than I'd expected. Windows 3.1 is much worse. The result will be a more rapid "paradigm shift" from Windows toward OS/2 than I'd dared to expect."

Five months later, he was only more confident that the "shift from Windows to OS/2 that has already begun on a small scale will gather momentum." And in his 22 December 1992 column, his last for PC Magazine, Zachmann predicted "Growing success for OS/2 and the Macintosh and competitive losses for Microsoft and Windows over the next two years."

A true believer to the end.

In fact, OS/2 never gained more than a fraction of the market share of even the Macintosh. And Apple's share of the market declined over the next four years. Its financials were not reversed until Steven Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, accompanied by a $150 million investment by Microsoft in non-voting Apple stock and a pledge to support Office on the Macintosh.

But as a parting gift, in that same December issue, PC Magazine gave OS/2 2.0 its Award for Excellence. And perhaps for a short period of time at the end of 1992 OS/2 was the better operating system.

But OS/2 had few software solutions for the average consumer that didn't run better and cheaper under DOS and Windows. And with DOS and Windows pre-installed on practically every PC sold, the average consumer had no practical reason to buy OS/2. And so practically none of them did.

Related posts

The future that wasn't (introduction)
The future that wasn't (1/7)
The future that wasn't (2/7)
The future that wasn't (3/7)
The future that wasn't (4/7)
The future that wasn't (5/7)

The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS

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