February 16, 2006

FOSS for OS/2: Keeping the flame alive

Author: Bruce Byfield

After a decade of neglect and increasingly reluctant support from IBM, the manufacturer, the OS/2 community persists. Where users of GNU/Linux or FreeBSD have turned to free and open source software (FOSS) for political and philosophical freedom and software quality, the surviving OS/2 community has been turning to FOSS as a means of defending members' right to use the operating system of their choice. The result is a small but surprisingly diverse collection of projects that, to a GNU/Linux user, is a mixture of the familiar and exotic.

The continued use of OS/2 is made by possible by eComStation, a third-party version of the operating system developed by Serenity Systems International. Retailing for $259 at BMTMicro (a demo CD is also available), eComStation has kept OS/2 up-to-date with newer technologies, such as USB and FireWire support. It also includes a version of OpenOffice.org 1.1.4, Lotus SmartSuite, and HOBLink X11 server for running X Window applications. The server edition adds a suite of IBM products, including Netfinity, Lotus Domino, and WebSphere.

Yet, even with these resources, keeping OS/2 alive is challenging. Most vendors dropped OS/2 support years ago, leaving FOSS projects to provide anything that is lacking. Creative Labs, for example, once supported OS/2 on the older ISA versions of its SoundBlaster cards, but does not support the PCI cards that are now the industry standard. The FOSS Sound Project now develops the missing drivers.

The OS/2 user base: Shrinking or growing?

Considering these circumstances, why do users continue to support OS/2?

Adrian Gschwend of Netlabs, a version of SourceForge for OS/2, suggests that the user base is "pretty stable," and points to a steady niche market in Eastern Europe and Asia. Bob St. John, director of business development at Serenity Systems International, agrees. The market, says St. John, "has been pretty much stabilized for years." Kim Haverblad, founder and webmaster of OS/2 World, a resource site, even thinks that the user base is "possibl[y] growing," citing the increasing number of FOSS projects as proof. The fact, Gschwend says, is that "we have absolutely no idea about the real size of the OS/2 audience, but it's definitely bigger than one might think from outside."

According to Haverblad, the main reason that users stay with OS/2 is for "features that Windows and Linux don't have yet." He singles out the REstructured eXtended eXecutor (REXX), an interpreted programming language known for its ease of use, a "rock solid kernel," "excellent multitasking," and low system requirements. Haverblad also claims a lack of viruses and spyware and, referencing a report on OS/2 Warp Server by Secunia, fewer security vulnerabilities.

However, the most common reason mentioned for staying with OS/2 is its desktop, the object-oriented WorkPlace Shell. Gschwend explains that "it's extendable by writing subclasses of the shipped desktop classes which may replace the original ones without having any source.... No other desktop like KDE or GNOME even comes close to it." As an example of the flexibility of the WorkPlace Shell, Gschwend mentions XWorkplace, a FOSS project that adds enhanced navigation tools as well as virtual desktops and an improved shutdown procedure. He also mentions Voyager, a new project to reimplement the WorkPlace Shell on top of FOSS.

Whatever the reasons for staying with OS/2, the user base remains active. A Google search reveals that the community is large enough to support dozens of support sites and project pages. The community even supports an annual conference called Warpstock, which is currently calling for bids for the 2006 conference.

A sample of FOSS projects

So what kinds of projects are being worked on at this point? "Most commercial activity I see today," St. John says, "involves support for a specific line of business applications." Companies that require certified hardware and software solutions, he explains, are particularly likely to remain with OS/2 to save the cost of retooling.

OS/2: A history

Development of OS/2 began in 1985. A joint project of IBM and Microsoft, it was intended as a replacement for DOS -- that is, as its name implies, as the second operating system for the personal computer. Able to run OS/2, DOS, and 16-bit Windows programs, in 1992, OS/2 also added a modern-looking desktop called the WorkPlace Shell. With the release of version 3.0, known as OS/2 Warp, it became one of the first 32-bit operating systems. At the same time, IBM was developing a number of products for OS/2 that were ahead of their time, including a graphical editor for SGML.

By 1992, however, Microsoft had abandoned the project in favor of developing Windows and Windows NT. Two other versions of OS/2 followed, but IBM's earlier enthusiasm for the operating system was gone. To many, IBM's marketing of OS/2 suddenly seemed to waver between neglect and ineptitude. One infamous airport poster, for example, was so poorly worded that it caused many to believe that OS/2 was a virus. In 1999, the reason for this change was revealed in the Microsoft anti-trust case: Concerned about its preload deals for Windows, IBM was responding to direct pressure from Microsoft.

OS/2 has remained a niche product, notably in automated teller machines. However, at the end of last year, IBM officially stopped marketing the operating system. It plans to discontinue support for it at the end of this year.

Yet if commercial applications are lacking, FOSS projects are thriving. "A lot of corporations sponsor OS/2 ports and development of enhancements," Haverblad says. Often, supporting a FOSS project may be cheaper than retooling.

Perhaps for this reason, the OS/2 community today is supported by a small number of companies that appear to be successful mixtures of FOSS and proprietary business models, such as SciTech Software, a manufacturer of video card drivers. Similarly, OS/2 versions of OpenOffice.org are a joint venture between Serenity Systems and InnoTek, which also maintains a Java port.

The earliest FOSS projects for OS/2, according to Gschwend, were ports of FOSS on other platforms. As early as 1996, OS/2 developers were discussing a port for Wine to add 32-bit Windows support. That interest survives today in the Odin project. Many of the other early FOSS projects are equally recognizable to users of free operating systems: They include Apache, the GNU Image Manipulation Program (GIMP), Samba, MySQL, Zope, and various versions of Mozilla produced by the Warpzilla project. Just as OS/2 supports DOS and 16-bit Windows from the desktop, many of these ports run only in full-screen mode, and require the OS/2 version of XFree86. However, a project called EverBlue is also underway to integrate them fully into the WorkPlace Shell.

One of the larger areas of FOSS development for OS/2 is hardware drivers. Bluetooth, webcam, and PC Card USB 2.0 drivers are also needed, according to the bounty page at OS/2 World, a resource site. A device driver for FAT32 file systems is also in progress.

The WarpDriver project exists to aid programmers in writing OS/2 drivers, but many OS/2 drivers are being ported directly from other operating systems. UNIAUD, for example, is a port of the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture. Similarly, Genmac Wrapper provides OS/2 wrappers for Win32 network interface cards. Providing drivers is also a major motivation for the Linux Personality for OS/2, a project to port the GNU/Linux kernel to OS/2.

Other OS/2 FOSS projects are more specific to the OS/2 operating system and desktop. OS/2 Tools exists not only to port the GNU tools but to add OS/2-specific extensions and enhancements to them. The WarpIN Installer provides a standard interface for software installation. Programming tools also exist, ranging from VyperHelp, an online help creator, to the WorkPlace Shell Toolkit, which aids in the creating of sub-classes for the desktop, and XML, which develops programming libraries need for XML development on OS/2.

These are only samplings of the FOSS projects underway for OS/2. They number in the dozens, where GNU/Linux FOSS projects number in the thousands. Yet the fact that they exist at all contradicts the common assumption that OS/2 is dying.

True, gaps in functionality remain, and the dependence on FOSS on other platforms is obvious. It is also true that, where counterparts exist on other operating systems, free OS/2 tools are often a version or two behind. Still, generally speaking, as Haverblad says, "everything one could need to run the daily business" is available for OS/2. As with many operating systems that depend on FOSS, the main things lacking are advanced sound and video applications, including, as Haverblad comments, "high-definition 3D games like Doom 3."

The future of OS/2

Faced with IBM's withdrawal from marketing OS/2, OS/2 World sent a petition to IBM executives last November that was signed by more than 11,000 people, asking that the OS/2 source code be open sourced. Martin Iturbide of OS/2 World says they have received no reply -- nor did the recipients reply to my request to discuss the petition.

According to St. John, the request is unlikely to be granted, or even discussed. "IBM cannot open source OS/2," he says bluntly. Apparently alluding to the fact that some code in OS/2 belongs to Microsoft, St. John says, "it would require extensive work on the source code, work no one in IBM would be willing to fund."

Just as importantly, St. John believes, OS/2 has been a long-time embarrassment to IBM. "I was surprised by some actions this [past] year which demonstrated to me that many IBMers simply don't want to be associated with the product; [it's] guilt by association," he says. "They have moved on and they are loud and strident about it."

The open sourcing of OS/2 would complete the transition of OS/2 to a free operating system, a move that many in the community would welcome. Yet even if the petition is denied or ignored, the OS/2 community is unlikely to be affected much. Not only does eComStation offer a more up-to-date version of the operating system, but the community is also used to relying on FOSS for its needs.

"IBM never cared much about the whole open source movement on OS/2," Gschwend says. "IBM even strips all OS/2-related code from source code they release for Linux, like JFS. We had to backport it to OS/2 again ourselves. The same happened recently with ObjectREXX."

Other members of the FOSS community might wonder why, after suffering the neglect of one proprietary company, the OS/2 community is willing to link its future to another one, no matter how well-intentioned it might be. Partly, the reason is that it has no choice if its members want to continue using the operating system. Yet, after talking to members of the OS/2 community and reading their Web sites, I suspect that a larger part of their continued loyalty is what the English call sheer bloody-mindedness -- a determination to do things their own way that opposition and setbacks only strengthens. "In the personal computer market," Haverblad says, "there was a moment when you could not choose any other operating system than Windows. Now we can choose between Windows and a lot of flavors of Linux, but why do all the other options have to be only Linux?"

The OS/2 community has persisted in discouraging circumstances for more than a decade. At times, its continued existence has seemed so quixotic as to make the Free Software Foundation seem a sink of stolid practicality. Yet if the determination and enthusiasm of its members is any indication, the operating system is in no danger of disappearing.

"There is no reason for any user to feel that there is a need to jump ship," St. John says. "OS/2 is viable for years to come. And even when it finally gets replaced, the heritage of OS/2 and the ability to support OS/2 applications is likely to continue. But that is years off."

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com, and IT Manager's Journal.

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