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Summary: An anonymous source within IBM leaks a document that outlines their strategy for OS/2. What eyebrow-raisers were in it, and why could IBM's abandonment could be the best thing that could happen to OS/2?

Last week a document containing a detailed plan of IBM's Network Computing Software strategy was leaked to the press. Not long thereafter, it was yanked from the original news site where it was posted (The OS/2 Supersite's News and Rumors page, as maintained by Loren Bandiera) after phone calls of complaint came in from IBM's top brass. This was supposed to be a private document, accessible only through IBM's restricted Intranet by IBM employees only, so it contains a lot of information that Big Blue never intended to be made public. This includes admissions of weak links in their strategy, the recognition of Microsoft as a serious competitor to their goals, and the black-and-white proof that IBM only wants to support OS/2 as much as it has to. This probably comes as nothing new to most people who've been watching IBM's actions closely for the last couple of years. From the perspective of its father, OS/2 is to die from suffocation.

It's clear that IBM is not just recognizing Microsoft as a competitor, but is actually scared of them. It might just be dawning on them now that the desktop battle was more important than they thought it was. Because the battle for the desktop OS was not so much who's product won the game, but who's API won. As Windows took the desktop, tools for developing Windows software matured and excelled fast. And tools that are used to develop desktop programs are also the same tools you use to develop server programs. As soon as Microsoft delivered a server operating system, the popularity of its desktop incarnation and the quality of the tools carried the battle over onto IBM's more sacred turf.

IBM now sees it as too late to resurrect OS/2 for the desktop. They're right. It would take amazing amounts of money and marketing to even give it so much as a 10% market share. The only way to keep the desktop open, for them, is with Java. Java has mindshare, Java is growing in the marketplace instead of shrinking, Java is gaining new development tools and they're maturing fast.

But revealed in the document is IBM's unnatural dependence on Netscape as their Java "distribution engine" of choice. When Netscape was really popular it spread a working Java Virtual Machine to millions of desktops in no time flat. This explains why IBM is going out of their way to save Netscape from the attack by IE, funding a port of the browser to OS/2 -- for which they'll almost certainly gain nothing from directly, but which will prop up Netscape's market share and mindshare by every tiny, precious percentage point. It's almost certainly Microsoft Internet Explorer and it's "impure" Java that you can thank for the port of Communicator to OS/2, not some side-effect of IBM's inertia or the workings of a high-ranking philanthropist with a soft spot for Warp. If Netscape loses market share, developers will write for Microsoft's bastardized Java - an intolerable scenario.

But propping up Netscape will most likely fail and so will Sun's "Activator" project -- which is supposed to force-feed a preferred Java VM onto IE, but will have limited long-term success as Microsoft keeps changing the interfaces. This is why IBM is also considering a small, fast, and easily (if not transparently) installable Java Virtual Machine for Windows. If they make it free (which is unclear at the moment) then Java developers can put it on the same CD or web site as their programs with no licensing hassles. Developers would create a single seamless install for their Java applications that also makes sure the most up-to-date (read "non-Microsoft") virtual machine is installed and properly configured too. Remember how Microsoft did this for Win32s, enabling developers to write their applications for Windows 95 without abandoning their Windows 3.1 customers too? Same trick.

The most disturbing parts of the document, for OS/2 users at least, is IBM's strategy for OS/2, which can best be summed up with one word: None. IBM's priority is to migrate OS/2 customers to Java and Windows NT based solutions, only doing what they must do to avoid their important customers with large OS/2 investments from getting pissed off. WorkSpace on Demand (WSOD) is there only to push the Network-Computing ideology, Aurora is there only to push WSOD, and WSOD is being ported to Windows.

IBM is clearly doing its best to limit the long term survival of OS/2. Remember that the last we heard, IBM had committed to 10 more years of OS/2 only for the sake of some big customers. This is a pretty pathetic reason. IBM is doing nothing for OS/2. They're not giving us the power to manifest our own destiny by releasing OS/2's source code, and they're not giving OS/2 the ability to live on the future of hardware since they refuse to port it to the upcoming 64-bit processors (such as Intel's Merced and others.)

But maybe that will change. After gracefully abandoning it, IBM is set to release the full source code of OpenDoc into the public domain (according to their web page). If they were to gracefully abandon OS/2 then there's reason to believe they'd do the same thing as before. There are many things that could be done with a public-domain OS/2, not the least of which is spit out turnkey solutions that could clobber Microsoft. The other, more appealing manifestation would be the "Linuxization" of OS/2 by its users - bringing updates and improvements from the GUI right down to the kernel level on an almost daily basis.

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If you've had the chance to read IBM's "secret document" before it was pulled and think IBM is doomed, or think there are better things that could happen to OS/2 than the release of its source code, then join us in our Interactive Forum and talk about it with other readers.

Copyright © 1998 - Falcon Networking ISSN 1203-5696
October 1, 1998