The Myth of the Wet Paper Bag- by Jim Little

OS/2 users are fond of blaming OS/2's problems in the marketplace on IBM. "IBM," they say, "couldn't market their way out of a wet paper bag." Well, IBM may or may not be able to market, but blaming all of OS/2's problems on IBM's marketing is short-sighted. Worse, "IBM can't market," has become a mantra for some OS/2 users. Instead of focusing on real problems and trying to solve them, these users just shake their heads and mentally chalk up another example of IBM's poor marketing. This article looks at what IBM has done and is doing about OS/2's marketing, and why they may not be so incompetent after all.

Past efforts

"If IBM had marketed OS/2 seriously from the beginning, everyone would be using it now."

There is a common misperception that all products can be made successful with enough marketing. Well, that just isn't true. If a product isn't any good, it just won't sell. And until recently, OS/2 was a poor OS for consumers. That's right -- OS/2 was a bad choice. Even if IBM had hyped OS/2 to Microsoftian levels, it would not have sold. In fact, consumers probably would have been so turned off by the disparity between hype and substance that OS/2 might have never made it to version 3.

OS/2 lacking substance? At the time, absolutely. Face it, folks, OS/2 requires a minimum of 8MB of RAM to be usable. You need 16MB before it really takes off. Until recently, that kind of hardware simply wasn't available on the average PC. In fact, when OS/2 2.0 was released, a high-end machine might have had 4MB of RAM. OS/2 on a 4MB machine (or even 8MB) is slooooow. Consumers used to the instantaneous response of Windows' Program Manager would be confounded by the disk access required when opening a Workplace Shell folder. And opening a Windows application -- the kind of application a new buyer would have -- would be five to ten times slower than under Windows. It wouldn't matter that OS/2 is more robust, has better multitasking, or has a superior user interface. The average customer would never get past the mind-numbing slowness the product exhibited on the available hardware.

In addition, OS/2 has historically had a severe shortage of device drivers. The situation is much better now, but in the past, drivers had to be downloaded from a BBS, or just weren't available at all. Combine that with an installation that is notoriously unfriendly to unrecognized hardware, and you have a recipe for disaster.

So let's suppose that IBM had advertised OS/2 "from the beginning." Say, when version 2.0 was released. Imagine this comforting scenario: The average American consumer, Joe Sixpack, sees OS/2 advertised on TV. Convinced that he must have one, he runs down to his local computer store and picks up a copy. He brings it home, and after a long, frustrating install, he gets it working on his state-of-the-art 4MB 386. By now, he's annoyed but still willing to give it a chance. The first thing he does is to run Windows Solitaire. The disk thrashing that ensues from simply opening a folder worries him, and when he finds out how long it takes to start Solitaire, he immediately deletes the OS and resolves to never again believe IBM's claims.

TV Ads

"How come IBM doesn't advertise more? I've got this great idea for a TV ad..."

The impact of television advertisements is overrated. Television is great for repeatedly bombarding consumers with a message, but that message has to be extremely simple. Messages like "Brand X beer is sexy" and "Hamburger Y tastes good" work fine. "OS/2 provides superior multitasking" doesn't. Not only is the message too complex, but the average person hasn't got a clue as to what an operating system really is, or how superior multitasking would improve their life. Not only that, but they don't care.

You can't explain the benefits of OS/2 without explaining some of the technology behind it. And there simply isn't enough time in a 30-second spot to educate the consumer about the importance of a good operating system -- and even if there was, I doubt anyone would pay attention. People watch TV to be entertained. If a commercial isn't funny, sexy, or attention-grabbing, they won't pay attention. A commercial lecturing about multitasking, stability, or the Workplace Shell would make as much impact as dropping a rock into a volcano.

TV ads are great for promoting an image, though. And that's what IBM did with their "Solution for a Small Planet" commercials. The commercials are funny, so people pay attention, and they convey the message that IBM is an innovative company on the forefront of technology. No, they didn't show anyone dragging documents to the printer in OS/2, but OS/2 was mentioned, and that may cause your average brainwashing victim... I mean, your average couch potato to associate "OS/2" with "innovative" the next time he sees it in a computer store.

Market focus

"IBM is abandoning the consumer market? Are they crazy?"

IBM may be crazy, but deciding not to target the consumer market was probably the best marketing decision they could have made. As the underdog in the OS wars, IBM can't afford to fight on multiple fronts. Windows 95 is being heavily targeted at home users. It is incorporating a host of consumer-oriented features, such as game API's and animated dialog boxes. But these same features and the general shallowness of Windows 95 are turning off corporate buyers. By positioning OS/2 as the ideal corporate client (and server, in the case of Warp Server), IBM is attacking Microsoft from the flank, in the area that IBM is strongest. By consolidating their effort, IBM stands a much greater chance of defeating Microsoft in the OS war.

What about the consumers? Well, just because IBM isn't specifically targeting the consumer market doesn't mean consumers can't use OS/2. If you're using OS/2 at home, there's no reason to stop doing so just because IBM decided that they don't want to send you any advertisements. More important, though, is the fact that the business market leads the consumer market, not the other way around. People buy for use at home what they use at work, since that is what they are familiar with. If IBM can capture the business market, the home market will follow.

The silver lining

Although I don't believe it would have been profitable for IBM to push OS/2 heavily in the past (primarily for the hardware reasons outlined above), the time is now ripe for OS/2 to become a major success. Memory prices have dropped to record lows, paving the way for even average systems to be shipped with 16MB of RAM. Microsoft has hyped "32-bit" and "multitasking" enough to make people realize that it must somehow be important. And high quality software that shows off OS/2's unique capabilities is starting to appear.

The good news is that IBM seems to realize OS/2's time has come. They have been advertising OS/2 fairly heavily, although these advertisements have been in magazines aimed at corporate computer departments, not at the general public. More promising is the news that VoiceType, IBM's high-end dictation package, will be included with the next version of OS/2 (codenamed Merlin). That announcement was a marketing coup. Talking to your computer is the kind of science-fiction "future is now" stuff that magazines lap up. To demonstrate this point, Time Magazine, C|Net Central, and a German computer show have all had articles discussing Merlin's voice recognition capabilities.

With OS/2 sales averaging a million copies a month, Merlin just around the corner, and IBM actively pushing OS/2, the future looks bright. No, there aren't any TV commercials, but with marketing like VoiceType, who needs them?


Jim Little installed the OS/2 v2.1 beta on his 4MB 386 and was instantly hooked. Maybe if his name was "Joe" things would have been different.

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