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Fiddle Sticks- by Dan Porter

We often hear the lament that OS/2 will succeed despite IBM. Fiddle sticks. OS/2 will succeed and it will do so largely because of IBM's commitment to it. This commitment was clearly demonstrated at the OS/2 Warp 4 Launch Event in San Francisco on September 25th. I had the privilege of being invited, along with representatives of about twenty other OS/2 and Java solution partners, to demonstrate our companies' software products to customers and the press. Most of the event was broadcast by satellite to about 10,000 people in cities throughout the world.

To my way of thinking, the San Francisco event was not so much the launch of a new release of OS/2, Warp 4, as it was an explanation of a new direction to penetrate the marketplace with technology initiatives and partnerships with leading solution providers. In one sense, Warp 4 is but an enhanced version of an already outstanding, mature, and stable operating system. In a far more significant sense, Warp 4 is OS/2 with a plan.

At first glance OS/2 Warp 4 seems to be Warp as we know it, with the addition of speech enabled application control and a more attractive and easier-to-use interface. That is exactly how IBM introduced Warp 4 in San Francisco; by demonstrating voice navigation and the new interface. What followed the introduction though, was the substance of what I believe Warp 4 is all about: integration of Java as part of the operating system, focus on network computing and the Internet, and 'net marketing strategies.

I think that those of us who question IBM's commitment to OS/2, or the long term viability of OS/2, don't understand this. The significance of San Francisco was explanation. As a small office and home office (SOHO) OS/2 user and as the president of a small and successful OS/2 solution provider firm, the launch event presentations and several one-on-one conversations with IBM executives while in San Francisco were very informative. That was important because I have invested a lot of time and money in OS/2. As a business person I have staked the future of our company on it.

Lets look at the substantive parts of the OS/2 Warp 4 announcement:

Java Integration

OS/2 Warp 4 is the first operating system to integrate Java directly into the operating system. Java is a totally new, object oriented computer language that will eventually enable programs to run on most operating systems. It means that software developers will be able to develop a single version of an application program to run on multiple platforms. Over time, the value of an operating system will be determined by performance, incremental value of function, and stability, rather than the number of off-the-shelf applications available for the particular system. This will take time to achieve. I think it could take as long as three years to be fully realized. But those will be exciting years as we learn to fully appreciate and understand what Java is all about and what it can and can not do.

We know that Java works. We don't know yet if Java performs well enough or is agile enough for a broad spectrum of applications. When Corel releases a Java version of WordPerfect later this year, we should get our first good indication of this. If full function Java-based word processing performs well it will say a lot to the user and developer communities about its likelihood for success. If developers then produce numerous and useful Java applications, and if users adopt them in sufficient quantity, platform independence will become reality. If Java becomes the environment of choice for developers and end users alike -- and I think it will -- it will significantly diminish the Microsoft Windows monopoly.

Network Computing

The second element of the Warp 4 announcement is IBM's expanded focus on network computing. This is not unexpected. It is a direct result of the phenomenal growth of the Internet and the growing acceptance of TCP/IP as the protocol of choice for in-house networks, or intranets. Intranets are implementations of the tools and techniques of the Internet on a private enterprise network rather than on the public "Internet." IBM offers a very strong TCP/IP implementation within OS/2 and it is forming significant alliances with Internet solutions providers including Netscape Communications and our own company, InnoVal Systems.

A decision by IBM to work with Netscape to provide an OS/2 version of the Netscape Navigator is significant. This is exactly what customers want because it supports HTML 3.2 with frames. This has become the standard for most Web pages. The Netscape Navigator supports Java applets (small applications) and has a completely open architecture that enables plug-ins and add-ons. Though the Navigator isn't available yet except as beta code and won't be available until near yearend, our company, InnoVal, has already released an add-on product, NetExtra, because we believe that Netscape will be an important part of the OS/2 strategy.

The Marketing Strategy

The marketing strategy is simple: focus on large networked enterprises, many of whom have already committed to OS/2. This is something that many OS/2 enthusiasts will be frustrated about. There is no evidence that there will be any push to move OS/2 in the retail channels. Nor is there any evidence of an advertising campaign targeted at the consumer level. In fact, the plan is to not market in retail channels or to advertise to consumers. Executives with whom I spoke in San Francisco explained this very clearly.

Enthusiasts, like myself, want to see OS/2 become the dominant operating system for the personal computer. We have chosen it because we believe it is the best. We would like to have a better selection of software and be able to buy software in retail stores. As a software developer, I want to see OS/2 penetration of the market grow substantially so that I can sell more product. IBM's marketing strategy did not make sense to me at first. I felt abandoned.

But is IBM abandoning the SOHO market and individual users? I don't think so. The IBMers with whom I spoke in San Francisco were just as clear about this. To abandon this market, despite what you may read in the press, was never an option. Rather, a passive marketing strategy was adopted. It would cost untold millions of dollars to try to penetrate the retail marketplace and the chances of success are not at all clear. And, were IBM to fail at getting into the retail channels it would have very adverse effects. Instead, IBM is depending on the strength of a superior operating system, the strength of the user community, platform independence with Java, solution partners, and existing channels to drive the SOHO and individual user market.

There are many examples in recent years where consumer confidence, even consumer initiative, coupled with superior product and service, have produced extraordinary success. L.L. Bean, a premier clothing catalog house in Maine is an example. Indelible Blue, a catalog house for OS/2 software is another example. If people come to accept that OS/2 is the superior operating system, a passive marketing strategy could work.

IBM has created an interesting alliance with technology, solutions partners, marketing channels, and even their own customers to sustain and grow the low end market. I think it will work. It won't work though with just promises. Without advertising and without visible shrink wrapped packages on the shelves in every shopping mall, IBM and its partners will need to deliver the plan. Lotus will need to ship its yet unfinished and oft promised office suite for OS/2. Netscape will need to ship a browser that matches the performance and page image quality of the now "stabilized" WebExplorer. Java partners must deliver quality products that people want. And, finally, IBM must sustain its own strategy by supporting its partners and its customers with the excellence for which IBM has been famous.

At InnoVal we sell to large enterprises, to small businesses, and to individuals. If we thought that IBM was abandoning OS/2 or any of its customers, we would need to change our focus on OS/2. We don't intend to nor do we think that we will need to in the foreseeable future. We believe that OS/2 Warp 4 is significant. We develop only for OS/2 and we will continue to do so. We are exploring some Java applications and are also developing some additional OS/2-only add-ons and plug-ins for Netscape Navigator.

When we say that OS/2 will succeed despite IBM, we really mean that the OS/2 is so good of an operating system that it will succeed even without IBM marketing it and even without IBM commitment. Fiddle sticks.

Dan Porter is president of InnoVal Systems Solutions, an OS/2 software developer producing applications such as the Post Road Mailer, Surf'nRexx and now, NetExtra.

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