Tucked away in a cobblestone courtyard off the main street in Litchfield, Conn., sits the Corner Store, a decidedly upscale general store. Catering to the town's 8,000 residents and the well-heeled visitors who weekend in the region, it stocks everything from classical compact disks to personal computers and antique toy soldiers. And, oh yes, it's also a software testing lab for IBM.
Paul Pignatelli, the store's owner and a former researcher at AT&T Bell Laboratories, is one of about 200,000 IBM customers at 30,000 companies who are helping the computer giant shake the bugs out of a critical new release of a program called OS/2. It's the biggest customer test ever in PC software--and a remarkable change for Big Blue. While other software makers have routinely distributed "beta" or prerelease versions of products to outside testers, IBM usually relied on employees to find glitches. "We needed feedback and closer ties with our customers," says Tom Steele, director of the 400-programmer Boca Raton (Fla.) center responsible for the new OS/2 version 2.0.
This time, IBM needs to get it right. "IBM has one last chance to make OS/2 a success," says J. Paul Grayson, president of Micrografx Inc., which is writing part of the program. IBM has spent five years and an estimated $1 billion to develop OS/2 and sell it as the industrial-strength replacement for Microsoft Corp.'s MS-DOS program, the 11-year-old operating system--or basic control program--for IBM-compatible PCs. But only about 1 million copies have been sold. By contrast, since breaking off its partnership with IBM in 1990, Microsoft has gone on to sell 10 million copies of Windows, a graphics program that gives MS-DOS an easy-to-use "look and feel."
The new version of OS/2, scheduled for shipment on Mar. 31, should help mvercome problems of earlier versions, including the inability to run MS-DOS programs easily. "We set out to build it in a way that was a lot different from the past," says Steele. Through thousands of phone calls and electronic-mail messages from participants in the six-month "Early Experience Program," IBM quickly learned of the bugs in its 2 million-line program. Participants had hundreds of PC brands running thousands of applications, so they found glitches IBM never would have.
KEY EXCHANGE. IBM marketers also paid close attention. After posting suggestions on a special IBM electronic bulletin board, Pignatelli got a call from an IBM marketing executive. "I was surprised to get approached by one of the honchos at IBM," Pignatelli says. Eventually, an IBM representative visited his store.
Customer feedback persuaded Big Blue to make a key change: replacing the old Windows-like graphics with a new "user interface" that permits people to "drag and drop" graphical icons--like on the Macintosh. The decision was made after IBM designers watched computer users at work in IBM's Usability Laboratory in Boca Raton. As a result, the improved interface is "based on direct user feedback and suggestions," says John O. Dunkle, a consultant and OS/2 product tester with WorkGroup Technologies Inc. in Hampton, N.H. Another OS/2 tester, Jim Gilliland, manager of tax systems at BP America Inc., says the new interface persuaded him to outfit everyone on his 150-computer network with OS/2 by 1993. "I find it quite pleasing," he says.
Even with a new, user-friendly face, OS/2's fate is uncertain. Analysts estimate that IBM will sell from 2 million to 4 million copies this year. That's great compared with older versions of OS/2 but pales in comparison with Windows, which is selling at a rate of 1 million copies a month. OS/2 remains a complex program that requires about six megabytes of computer memory--compared with just two megabytes for Windows. So it's unlikely to find a mass market. Still, IBM hopes the program will catch on in its key market: big corporations that want the most sophisticated software for PCs and networks.
There's another place where OS/2 might nudge Windows aside. At the Corner Store, Litchfield's sole computer shop, the only operating system sold is OS/2. Like his other wares, says Pignatelli, it's the best. Thanks to his efforts--including giving copies to his daughter's school--"here in Litchfield, everybody knows about OS/2," he says. Today Litchfield, tomorrow the world?
THE OS/2 LESSON -- Bugs are most effectively spotted by customers, not programmers -- Testers wanted a better "user interface" -- Computer programs are best developed in one location, not in several as IBM had done with earlier OS/2 versions -- Small teams of programmers are more productive than large groups DATA: IBM