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Whither OS/2?

IBM will launch a new version of OS/2 tomorrow that will feature built-in Java support and voice recognition. But the upgrade isn't stopping observers from openly questioning Big Blue's commitment to the platform.

After months of anticipation, IBM (IBM) will launch a new version of its OS/2 operating system tomorrow that will feature built-in Java support and voice recognition. But the upgrade isn't stopping observers from openly questioning Big Blue's commitment to the platform.

IBM puts the number of OS/2 users at 14 million, double the most generous estimates by industry analysts. First released in 1987, OS/2 has enjoyed the support of a relatively small but extremely loyal base. Although the latest version, OS/2 Warp, did manage to attract millions of new users--by IBM's count--the system has still suffered from a lack of native applications.

But who needs native code now that Java is here? With built-in Java support, tomorrow's release of OS/2 Warp 4 will be able to run any application large or small written in by Sun Microsystems' "write once, run anywhere" language. Java applications--at least the meat-and-potatoes kind that corporate users of OS/2 rely on--are slow in coming, but Corel has announced a Java version of its Office Professional suite due to ship next year.

Also to be prominently featured in the announcement: an OS/2 version of Netscape Communications' Navigator browser and a set of Win32 APIs known as Open32 that will simplify the porting, or rewriting, of 32-bit Windows applications for OS/2.

Built-in voice recognition is the upgrade's other significant feature. However, although this makes for great demo, many analysts say it isn't the answer to attracting new users.

That is, if IBM actually wants new users.

Some of the platform's traditional supporters are now accusing the company of abandoning OS/2 and letting it die of attrition.

"I think it's an excellent operating system," said Phil Lieberman, owner of Lieberman and Associates, which has been developing OS/2 software since 1988. "The essential problem is that IBM has chosen not to support it. There's been a gradual tear-down of the support system."

Lieberman, who says he now has to pay IBM for phone calls to support staff, is about to release a migration tool that will allow OS/2 users to switch to Windows NT. He estimates that his company's revenues will shift from about 60 percent OS/2 applications to about 75 percent NT applications, a shift he says started after IBM chief Louis Gerstner publicly acknowledged last year that IBM would cede the desktop market to Microsoft.

One analyst reports that budget cutting has deeply affected developer support. IBM has slashed the funds for its Personal Software Products division, which includes OS/2, by almost two-thirds since 1995, according to Will Zachmann, president of Canopus Research in Duxbury, Massachusetts. Zachmann has been of IBM's most vocal supporters in the past.

"The bottom line is that even though OS/2 isn't dead, I just don't see any indication that IBM is trying to grow its market share," Zachmann said.

IBM still declares its loyalty to OS/2 developers on every occasion, but officials are getting increasingly frustrated in the inability to counter the widespread skepticism.

"We still have various degrees of support for our product. We've also developed four new, significant products in seven months. That requires a tremendous amount of resources and time no matter how you look at it," said Joe Stunkard, manager of media relations for IBM's software group, referring to OS/2 Warp Server, OS/2 Warp Server SMP, and OS/2 Directory and Security Server.

"If we were truly letting OS/2 die, would we be here in San Francisco making a significant announcement? What more can we do than what we did in 1996?" Stunkard asked.

He did concede, however, that IBM has shifted the focus of OS/2 developer relations from support to marketing after a major restructuring of the program earlier this year.

IBM officials would also not discuss specific budget numbers. But they caution that comparing current to previous budgets is misleading because the books for years past carried significant costs that have been reduced or eliminated. For example, they say, reductions have been achieved by relocating the OS/2 client team from Boca Raton, Florida, to Austin, Texas, and by killing the OS/2 for PowerPC project.

Zachmann now believes that IBM would really like to kill all of OS/2, but can't for fear of offending those millions of users. "They're losing money, and the green eyeshades would have preferred to kill it," Zachmann said. "But they couldn't because they would be up the creek with a whole bunch of customers."

IBM may be running that risk, anyway. A recent report of a major bug, posted by OS/2 developer Sundial Systems less than a week before ship date, is also casting doubt on the quality of the latest Warp release.

Still, OS/2 users and developers remain an ever-hopeful bunch.

"We really wish they would get on the ball and start marketing OS/2," Lieberman said. "They do literally have hundreds of thousands of major account users that can't switch over immediately, and we'll still be dealing with these clients for the next five years."