Andrew Orlowski

IBMpcMicrosoft’s ascent to the top of the PC industry continued to cause great passions. If you had said, in 1987, that Intel and Microsoft would in a decade define the industry, most would have laughed. Intel was struggling to produce competitive RISC chips, and Microsoft had never written an operating system. But the answers to the questions: “Why did Microsoft win” and “Why did IBM lose” are really different.
IBM had never met a competitor like Bill Gates before – one quite so ruthless and opportunistic. Gates fought hard and IBM couldn’t shake him off. But with or without OS/2, IBM could have outflanked him or even dispensed with the nuisance altogether, if it had developed a coherent strategy, one giving customers reasons to think positively about spending money with IBM.
IBM should have realised earlier that the path to OS/2 was a radical one for customers in 1988. It could have taken control of DOS and enhanced it, to offer a smoother upgrade path to the GUI world. In fact, this is what IBM belatedly did – with a product dubbed PM for DOS – which never made it to market. But it was too late. IBM could have made an expensive acquisition of Apple, the most attractive consumer UI, and put it on a firm technology base. But even Apple failed to do this. And even more radically, Big Blue could have realised where the value is in software and competed higher up – helping to create a Linux-like platform that was free.
OS2-PPC-B1-Jewel-300x296In the recriminations that followed the OS wars, OS/2 devotees would complain that the computer press was almost uniformly hostile to OS/2. They were quite right – you could count the number of journalists who used and liked OS/2 on the fingers of one hand. (One was John Lettice, founder of The Register – and another was your reporter. The charming OS/2 2.0 souvenir pictured above sits at Reg HQ today). But the press were reflecting both sentiments and economic choices that were widespread. They didn’t want to go back to a world where IBM defined the standards for the open PC.
They were so busy fighting the last war that they didn’t see the next one coming. Writing in 1995, as the OS wars raged on Usenet (though it was already clear who had won), the late Guy Kewney summed up his exasperation:
My friends tell me Microsoft will save us from IBM. But who will save us from Microsoft?

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