Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Andrew Egan, who did a little digging into an element of the average New Yorker’s life that they don’t even realize: Their often-frustrating interaction with OS/2. Frustrating? Well, I’ll let him explain.
Today in Tedium: A New Yorker and a tourist walk into the subway station at 42nd Street, a.k.a. Times Square. This might sound like the start of a joke. It’s not. One is delighted to be there; the other, extremely annoyed. One knows how to get out of there as quickly as possible. The other doesn’t; they don’t speak English. The New Yorker and the tourist are distinct but in this moment, they are the same. Both are about to be subjected to the whims of the Metropolitan Transit Authority and the unheard-of reliability of a marginally successful operating system from the early 1990s. Today’s Tedium is talking infrastructure and the unique software that makes it possible. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The number of people that rode the New York City subway on an average weekday in 2016. This was the highest average total for the system since 1948. If you ask an anecdotal average New Yorker, their response is usually, “That’s it?” Their disbelief is understandable since the city has some 8 million permanent residents and often swells to as much as 20 million during peak hours and holidays. Guess a lot of people really enjoy flagging down cabs.
Betting on the future is hard, but the MTA kinda did it
In a Tedium article from this past March, Ernie wrote about IBM’s big bet on a microkernel for operating systems, a bet that included a variant of its well-known-if-less-remembered OS/2. His article demonstrates how big the bet was. However, IBM’s confidence in its operating system prowess led others to take similar chances.
No bigger bet was made than the one by the MTA, the Metropolitan Transit Authority, who needed some process to eliminate tokens while moving into an era where everything was expected to be digitized. The result was the iconic MetroCard. A thin slice of yellow plastic with a prominent black strip, the MetroCard has been a staple of New Yorkers wallets since its introduction in 1993.
The story of how the current method for accessing New York’s subway is interesting for its insights into public infrastructure and the way it serves the public. Before we can touch that topic, it’s helpful to understand how the current system came to be. Because when you build something as important as the infrastructure to the NYC subway, it needs to work.
You pretty much get just one shot—and any mistakes will likely cost billions to repair and frustrate that lives of millions. Among many choices, one of the most robust turned out to be one of IBM’s most high-profile failures.
All five of the special edition David Bowie MetroCards sponsored by Spotify. For a few weeks in the fall of 2018, the company transformed the Broadway-Lafayette Station in the West Village into pop up monument to the artist who lived nearby. Other than using the back of MetroCards for ad space (because of course they do), the MTA routinely offers special edition MetroCards sponsored by major brands. The Supreme edition fetched ridiculously high prices, because of course they did, but sometimes the MTA just ditches the brands and goes for something cool.
How IBM’s much-hyped but underwhelming OS found a home serving millions
Ernie’s previous piece on the story behind IBM’s push into microkernels and its overall failure is pretty great … like, go read it. It gives a whole host of backstory that I’m only going to touch on here. For my purposes, the most relevant line from that article is nice and succinct, “OS/2, of course, did have its adherents.” Of course, it did.
The reasons why the MTA ultimately decided to utilize OS/2 as it digitized some aspects of the subway system mirror the hype surrounding the launch in the early 1990s. But a lot of that conversation and development started years before. Behind the scenes, Microsoft and IBM were working on the next generation of operating systems. While modern tech lore has Gates and Microsoft fleecing IBM over MS-DOS, at the time IBM clearly felt otherwise.
Rather than bemoan lost profits, IBM seemed to recognize a gap in its knowledge and it began the push to develop next-generation operating systems at a fundamental level, at first in partnership with Microsoft. This, almost predictably, worked out for IBM about as well as the MS-DOS deal did. However, in a very narrow window in the late 1980s, executives at the MTA were looking to remove tokens from the subway system and replace them with a prepaid card. The benefits were obvious, allowing for easier fare increases while offering tiered pricing. Riders would now have the option to choose between an individual or round trip option and an unlimited option that covers a set amount of time.
To implement this revolutionary upgrade, the MTA went with a known entity, IBM. At the time, it made a lot of sense.
OS/2 and MTA consultant Neil Waldhauer said in an email, “For a few years, you could bet your career on OS/2.”
To understand why, you need to understand the timing. Waldhauer continues, “The design is from a time before either Linux or Windows was around. OS/2 would have seemed like a secure choice for the future.”
So for a lack of options, the MTA went with its best one. And it’s worked out for decades, as one of the key software components of a quite complex system.
And it might even survive beyond that, according to Waldhauer: “I will go out on a limb and say that as long as MetroCard is accepted in the system, OS/2 will still be running.”
This is an exceptionally interesting point because the MTA is currently in the process of phasing out MetroCards in favor of various forms of contactless payments. This transition should make things more efficient, while helping the MTA collect additional revenue.
It may sound nice, but the gaps are easy to see, especially if you look at a weird quirk in the current MetroCard system.
The mysterious magnetic strip and how it affects the lives of others
To put it simply, the move from tokens to MetroCards took years, and was by no description smooth. Tokens were officially phased out in 2003. By then, MetroCards were accepted at every station in the city—but no one was happy.
Access to the subway is usually easy but complaints about swiping your MetroCard are everywhere. And a lot of this seems to be a stupid disconnect between various parts of the system. While OS/2 is used to connect various parts of the subway system to a larger mainframe, the input components weren’t held to a higher standard.
The turnstiles in any given subway station in NYC are notoriously fickle—but they could work with IBM’s system.
Despite the failure of OS/2 in the consumer market, it was hilariously robust, leading to a long life in industrial and enterprise systems—with one other famous example being ATMs. Waldhauer said, “Thinking about all the operating systems in use [in the MTA], I’d have to say that OS/2 is probably the most robust part of the system, except for the mainframe.” It’s still in use in the NYC subway system in 2019. IBM had long given up on it, even allowing another company to maintain the software in 2001. (These days, a firm named Arca Noae sells an officially supported version of OS/2, ArcaOS, though most of its users are in similar situations to the MTA.)
The role of OS/2 in the NYC subway system is more of a conduit. It helps connect the various parts that people use with the parts they don’t. Waldhauer notes, “There are no user-facing applications for OS/2 anywhere in the system. OS/2 is mainly used as the interface between a sophisticated mainframe database and the simple computers used in subway and bus equipment for everyday use. As such, the OS/2 computers are just about everywhere in the system.”
At this point, we’re talking about an OS designed in the late 80s, released in the early 90s, as part of a difficult relationship between two tech giants. The MTA had to ignore most of this because it had already made its decision and changing course would cost a lot of money.
The coordination between the backend and the things New Yorkers/tourists actually confront can be stupidly uncoordinated. If you want a sense of what that means, we just have to go back to Waldhauer, “I feel like the designers really considered MetroCard to be a mainframe database application with some random electronics to tie it together.”
Because of course it is.
And now we get to talk about the magnetic strip. The black bar at the bottom of every MetroCard, regardless of branding, simply has to work. How it actually works is, for an obvious reason, a secret.
“People have hacked the MetroCard,” Waldhauer said. “If you have a way to see the magnetic encoding, the bits are so large you could see them under a magnifying glass. The encoding of the magnetic stripe is so secret that I have never seen it… It’s amazing the lengths people will go to for a free ride.”
Why does any of this matter?
As a point, it really doesn’t. The MTA has made it clear it wants to move to contactless payments, just like the Oyster Card in London. But that process also has issues. They even hired the former head of London’s train system, with the end goal of ultimately eliminating MetroCards.
In the future, people will access New York’s subway like they’re queuing for a roller coaster at Disney World. The process will require users to have an internet connected device that gets you through the gates, whether that’s a phone or a smartwatch. If we’re lucky we get a new MetroCard option. But it’s no guarantee.
The practical and technological needs that created New York’s subway system impacts nearly everyone that lives in the city. As New Yorkers switch to new ways to pay, those who can pay will. Those who can’t are left at home.
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal! And thanks to Andrew for diving into the NYC subway. I never thought he’d make it out alive!
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