IBM PC 5150

Bill Gates, DOS and OS/2: A Windows Tale that Won’t Die

Bill Gates, co-founder of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is nowadays often in the news advocating for world health. But before Bill Gates the philanthropist, there was Bill Gates of DOS, OS/2, IBM, and Windows. For those not entirely familiar with the “old” Bill Gates, here is often-told, but forever fresh story.

First, how big is Windows?

Windows has been top dog in the operating system market since 1992. The tablet market is dominated by IOS and Android, but Windows has 80% of the U.S. desktop and laptop markets. Server versions of Windows run bank ATMs and other infrastructure.

How did Windows get so big?

The short answer is Windows enjoys a monopoly. A better insight lies in a story of Bill Gates and IBM that has as many versions as there are people who tell it. Here is one very compressed version of that story.

DOS and IBM’s PC 5150

Around the late 1970s, IBM, mainly a maker of mainframe computers, decided enter the emerging personal computer market where Apple, Atari, Commodore, and Tandy were already making strides. IBM had to develop a machine that could compete – compact and economical. And IBM had to move fast before any of the other companies dominated the market.

The vast mainframe-dominated bureaucracy of IBM needed to innovate. Instead of building all components of the personal computer in-house, IBM procured outside products. IBM aimed for an open architecture to enable manufacturers to supply peripherals. Instead of developing an in-house operating system, IBM partnered with Bill Gates’ Microsoft.

Microsoft outfitted IBM’s new machine with MS-DOS, a non-graphical command line operating system Microsoft purchased and patched up to make it compatible. The language was Microsoft BASIC, a Microsoft-developed dialect of the original BASIC.

The IBM 5150 was introduced August 1981, and was wildly successful. In 1983, instead of “Man of the Year,” Time Magazine featured the 5150 as “Machine of the Year.”

But there were a couple of problems: Cheaper clones soon surfaced, and Microsoft was more than happy to outfit them with MS-DOS. Remember, MS-DOS belonged to Gates, not to IBM.

OS/2 Is Born

So, IBM decided to develop a more sophisticated operating system that would avoid the problems encountered with DOS. Surprisingly, IBM again recruited Bill Gates to help.

The IBM/Gates alliance produced OS/2, introduced in 1987. It was a protected-mode operating system that allowed for virtual memory, extended memory, and multitasking. The original OS/2 was text mode, but OS/2 1.1 introduced graphics.

Unfortunately, OS/2 had its own problems. OS/2 looked too much like MS-DOS to the average user, did not have adequate user support from IBM, and did not find itself bundled in popular hardware of the day. Also OS/2 was big and clunky. We are talking about 20 – 25 3.5” installation disks depending on the version.

It did not help that Bill Gates introduced Windows 2, full of graphics and other bells and whistles, also in 1987 in direct competition with IBM. Again in 1992, when IBM unveiled OS/2 2.0, Microsoft introduced Windows 3.1. PC manufacturers were encouraged to bundle Windows and other Microsoft products in every PC they sold.

IBM did a lot better with the server versions of OS/2, which was considered a very stable operating system. For nearly 20 years, OS/2 ran bank ATMs and other infrastructure (famously, the New York City subway). IBM discontinued support of OS/2 in 2006, as Windows made inroads in the infrastructure market, partly by effective and aggressive marketing.

This is not to say OS/2 is dead. IBM licensed OS/2 to Serenity Systems as eComStation, and later to Arca Noae as ArcaOS in 2017. Arca Noae is still around upgrading and supporting OS/2.

In case you are wondering what the text-mode DOS looked like

Chances are, if you use a desktop or a laptop, you probably have Windows. You probably have a home screen full of colorful icons ready to instantly take you to the files you need.

DOS was not like that. If you are curious as to how deeply different this pre-Windows program was, you can get a general idea by clicking RUN or SEARCH and typing cmd. RUN will take you to system32/cmd.exe, and SEARCH to a Command Prompt screen where you can then click the cmd icon.

Some programs never die

Maybe “pre-Windows” is not entirely accurate, actually. When Bill Gates first designed Windows, DOS was the foundation. Windows ran on top of DOS until the 1993 introduction of Windows NT (originally standing for New Technology). Windows ME (Millennial Edition) was the last DOS-based system.

But DOS, as well as OS/2, will probably live forever in Geek Lore. Ask any computer enthusiast if he/she has or knows someone who has a full set of DOS and/or OS/2 disks, and the answer will probably be yes. Here is a picture of my OS/2 2.1.1 disks, along with installation instructions and product brochure.


Article’s Featured Image: Ad for the IBM 5150 from The PC:  Personal Computing Comes of Age, a section of the IBM website.