Monday, June 29, 2009

The Dangers of Rewriting History: OS/2 and Cell Phones

Recently, Paul Krugman has been commenting on what he sees as the vanishing knowledge of key concepts such as Say’s Law in the economics profession, partly because it has been in the interest of a particular political faction that the history of the Depression be rewritten in order to bolster their cause. The danger of such a rewriting, according to Krugman, is that it saps the will of the US to take the necessary steps to handle another very serious recession. This has caused me to ask myself, are there corresponding dangerous rewritings of history in the computer industry?

I think there are. The outstanding example, for me, is the way my memory of what happened to OS/2 differs from that of others that I have spoken to recently.

Here’s my story of what happened to OS/2. In the late 1980s, Microsoft and IBM banded together to create a successor to DOS, then the dominant operating system in the fastest-growing computer-industry market. The main reason was users’ increasing interest in the Apple’s GUI-based rival operating system. In time, the details of OS/2 were duly released.

Now, there were two interesting things about OS/2, as I found out when researching it as a programmer at Prime Computer. First, there were a large stack of APIs for various purposes, requiring many large manuals of documentation. Second, OS/2 also served as the basis for a network operating system (NOS) called LAN Manager (Microsoft’s product). So if you wanted to implement a NOS involving OS/2 PCs, you had to implement LAN Manager. But, iirc, LAN Manager required 64K of RAM memory in the client PC – and PCs were still 1-2 years from supporting 64K of RAM.

This reason this mattered is that, as I learned from talking to Prime sales folk, NOSs were in the process of shattering the low-end offerings of major computer makers. The boast of Novell at that time was that, using a basic PC as the server, it could deliver shared data and applications to any client PC faster than that PC’s own disk. So a NOS full of cheap PCs was just the thing for any doctor’s office, retail store, or other department/workgroup, much cheaper than a mini from Prime, Data General, Wang, or even IBM – and it could be composed of the PCs that members of the workgroup had already acquired for other purposes.

In turn, this meant that the market for PCs was really a dual consumer/business market involving PC LANs, in which home computers were used interchangeably with office ones. So all those applications that the PC LANs supported would have to run on DOS PCs with something like Novell NetWare, because OS/2 PCs required LAN Manager, which would not be usable for another 2 years … you get the idea. And so did the programmers of new applications, who, when they waded through the OS/2 documentation, found no clear path to a big enough market for OS/2-based apps.

So here was Microsoft, watching carefully as the bulk of DOS programmers held off on OS/2, and Apple gave Microsoft room to move by insisting on full control of their GUI’s APIs, shutting out app programmers. And in a while, there was the first version of Windows. It was not as powerful as OS/2, nor was it backed by IBM. But it supported DOS, it allowed any NOS but LAN Manager, and the app programmers went for it in droves. And OS/2 was toast.

Toast, also, were the minicomputer makers, and, eventually, many of the old mainframe companies in the BUNCH (Burroughs, Univac, NCR, Control Data, Honeywell). Toast was Apple’s hope of dominating the PC market. The sidelining of OS/2 was part of the ascendance of PC client-server networks, not just PCs, as the foundation of server farms and architectures that were applied in businesses of all scales.

What I find, talking to folks about that time, is that there seem to be two versions, different from mine, about what really happened at that time. The first I call “evil Microsoft” or “it’s all about the PC”. A good example of this version is Wikipedia’s entry on OS/2. This glosses over the period between 1988, when OS/2 was released, and 1990, when Windows was released, in order to say that (a) Windows was cheaper and supported more of what people wanted than OS/2, and (b) Microsoft arranged that it be bundled on most new PCs, ensuring its success. In this version, Microsoft seduced consumers and businesses by creating a de-facto standard, deceiving businesses in particular into thinking that the PC was superior to (the dumb terminal, Unix, Linux, the mainframe, the workstation, network computers, open source, the cell phone, and so on). And all attempts to knock the PC off its perch since OS/2 are recast as noble endeavors thwarted by evil protectionist moves by monopolist Microsoft, instead of failures to provide a good alternative that supports users’ tasks both at home and at work via a standalone and networkable platform.

The danger of this first version, imho, is that we continue to ignore the need of the average user to have control over his or her work. Passing pictures via cell phone and social networking via the Internet are not just networking operations; the user also wants to set aside his or her own data, and work on it on his or her own machine. Using “diskless” network computers at work or setting too stringent security-based limits on what can be brought home simply means that employees get around those limits, often by using their own laptops. By pretending that “evil Microsoft” has caused “the triumph of the PC”, purveyors of the first version can make us ignore that users want both effective networking to take advantage of what’s out there and full personal computing, one and inseparable.

The second version I label “it’s the marketing, not the technology.” This was put to me in its starkest form by one of my previous bosses: it didn’t matter that LAN Manager wouldn’t run on a PC, because what really killed OS/2, and kills every computer company that fails, was bad marketing of the product (a variant, by the way, is to say that it was all about the personalities: Bill Gates, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, IBM). According to this version, Gates was a smart enough marketer to switch to Windows; IBM were dumb enough at marketing that they hung on to OS/2. Likewise, the minicomputer makers died because they went after IBM on the high end (a marketing move), not because PC LANs undercut them on the low end (a technology against which any marketing strategy probably would have been ineffective).

The reason I find this attitude pernicious is that I believe it has led to a serious dumbing down of computer-industry analysis and marketing in general. Neglect of technology limitations in analysis and marketing has led to devaluation of technical expertise in both analysts and marketers. For example, I am hard-pressed to find more than a few analysts with graduate degrees in computer science and/or a range of experience in software design that give them a fundamental understanding of the role of the technology in a wide array of products – I might include Richard Winter and Jonathan Eunice, among others, in the group of well-grounded commentators. It’s not that other analysts and marketers don’t have important insights to contribute, whether they’re from IT, journalism, or generic marketing backgrounds; it is that the additional insights of those who understand what technologies underlie an application are systematically devalued as “just like any other analyst,” when those insights can indeed do a better job of assessing a product and its likelihood of success/usefulness.

Example: does anyone remember Parallan? In the early ‘90s, they were a startup betting on OS/2 LAN Manager. I was working at Yankee Group, which shared the same boss and location as a venture capital firm called Battery Ventures. Battery Ventures invested in Parallan. No one asked me about it; I could have told them about the technical problems with LAN Manager. Instead, the person who made the investment came up to me later and filled my ears with laments about how bad luck in the market had deep-sixed his investment.

The latest manifestation of this rewriting of history is the demand that analysts be highly visible, so that there’s a connection between what they say and customer sales. Visibility is about the cult of personality – many of the folks who presently affect customer sales, from my viewpoint, often fail to appreciate the role of the technology that comes from outside of their areas of expertise, or view the product almost exclusively in terms of marketing. Kudos, by the way, to analysts like Charles King, who recognize the need to bring in technical considerations in Pund-IT Review from less-visible analysts like Dave Hill. Anyway, the result of dumbing-down by the cult of visibility is less respect for analysts (and marketers), loss of infrastructure-software “context” when assessing products on the vendor and user side, and increased danger of the kind of poor technology choices that led to the demise of OS/2.

So, as we all celebrate the advent of cell phones as the successor to the PC, and hail the coming of cloud computing as the best way to save money, please ignore the small voice in the corner that says that the limitations of the technology of putting apps on the cell phone matter, and that cloud computing may cause difficulties with individual employees passing data between home and work. Oh, and be sure to blame the analyst or marketer for any failures, so the small voice in the corner will become even fainter, and history can successfully continue to be rewritten.

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