David Cutler: Orchestrating OS/2 3.0

Microsoft Corp.'s Forthcoming Operating System

By Sam Whitmore
PC Week

May 6, 1991

Whether OS/2 3.0 lives up to its promise ultimately depends on one man --David Cutler.

The man who designed Digital Equipment Corp.'s (DEC's) RSX-11 and VMS operating systems is trying to work magic again, this time on desktop machines as powerful as VAXes but infinitely less expensive.

At 49, Cutler doesn't look like the hacker-emeritus type. He looks more like a lifeguard than the code inspector for the most ambitious programming project in Microsoft Corp.'s history.

Cutler's assignment -- known as OS/2 3.0, or Portable OS/2 -- will run DOS, OS/2, Windows and POSIX-compliant applications independently of one another. Its 50K-byte kernel, called the Executive, controls all of the OS/2's most basic functions, an architecture that Cutler hopes will accommodate future I/O, file system or display technology not even on today's drawing boards.

Microsoft is betting Cutler has both the technical vision and the managerial discipline to pull off this daunting programming task. As part of his responsibilities, Cutler chairs a monthly update meeting in which project leaders report coding progress as well as new challenges lying ahead. He also charts OS/2 3.0's advances with IBM officials once a month.

"When it comes to keeping on schedule, he's the least tolerant individual I've ever met," said Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's senior vice president of systems, in Redmond, Wash.

"I like doing technical work," Cutler said, and he likes doing it in a low-key environment. In 1988, when the colliding VAX and PC worlds took the fun out of his job at DEC, Microsoft jumped in with big money, an impressive title (director, advanced operating system development) and autonomy over the then-secret OS/2 3.0 project.

Cutler's experience with MIPS Computer Systems Inc.'s RISC chip architecture, which DEC had licensed from MIPS, gave him a head start in porting OS/2 to chips other than Intel Corp.'s. MIPS systems are one of the first targeted platforms for running OS/2 3.0.

"You can't take DOS and run mainframe applications on it, but it's clear that in 10 years' time, everything is going to slide off the mainframe to the PC," Cutler said.

The entire OS/2 3.0 team -- 85 engineers in all -- report directly to Cutler. Software Development Kits (SDKs) for the operating system are on schedule for fall release, he said, and full-blown applications are due to be released a year from now.

The project's "base team," which wrote the Executive, recently linked their code with the "Windows team," which had begun crafting OS/2 3.0's graphical user interface, also based on Windows. By summer, the two groups' code, along with other components, will be sewn together, debugged and offered to developers in beta-level SDKs.

Cutler said he has had trouble adjusting to "the very, very young" people of Microsoft. "They know all about PCs, but they don't know much about the older technologies that set the stage for what we now have today," he said. Nevertheless, DEC's most notable PC refugee is happy with his choice. "I expected to come here to do something, and though it got reshaped along the way, the goal is the same as it was two and a half years ago."

ILLUSTRATION: portrait CAPTION: David Cutler. (portrait)

Copyright Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. 1991