Watts (chipotle) wrote,
Watts
chipotle

I've booted back into BeOS for the first time in months, taking a few moments to rediscover what I loved about the system for the two years or so I used it nearly exclusively at home--and inadvertently to be reminded of what drove me away from it.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Be story, they started out in the early '90s with an absolutely mad idea: design a better PC, from the ground up. Their machine was the BeBox, a dual PowerPC machine. And their operating system was BeOS, multithreaded up the wazoo, optimized for multiprocessing and designed by people who'd worked at Apple, Commodore and NeXT and wanted to bring the best parts of the Mac, the Amiga and NextStep with them.

And, for a while, the better mousetrap approach seemed to be working. Between their first outside developer releases in late '96 and the R4.5 release in 1999, they managed to get ten thousand developers, a few dozen commercial houses both new and old doing ports, and in store distribution. For all the media attention Linux gets, it took twice as long to do half as much. But Be still blew it.

A lot of Be fans blame everyone but Be, and Be certainly had help, from Microsoft's constricting OEM contracts (what they should have been investigated for, instead of this browser anti-trust nonsense) to Steve Jobs killing Apple clones. But Be's fatal flaw was a continuous search for the One Big Thing. If it wasn't going to be the BeBox, their own hardware platform, it would be their position as a standard, pre-installed OS for Mac clones. Next, it would be getting pre-installed on Intel boxes from a big OEM company. And when that didn't work, it would be... internet appliances. "What internet appliances?" is, of course, the right question. There aren't any. (And there won't be any, but that's a rant for a different day.)

Every move knifed a set of developers in the back, and the set got larger each time. When they knifed all the desktop developers, they didn't just blow off a cheering squad; they blew off companies that had banked their livelihood on Be having the patience and foresight to let their market develop.

So now, of course, BeOS is in limbo. Be's assets were bought by Palm. A group is trying to license BeOS from them for continued development, but no one seems to be too optimistic.

Most of the things that people like about Mac OS X, and few of the things they dislike about it, have been in BeOS for years. The new version of the $1000 Final Cut Pro boasts "real-time effects" if you have a G4 processor; what they mean is that it can do what the $50 Adamation personalStudio for BeOS could do on a Pentium III two years ago. (FCP does a lot of other things that pS doesn't that help justify the price difference, of course.) And in many things, my Celeron 433 running BeOS feels faster than Peroxide under OS X, a 550-MHz G4 with 256M of RAM (as opposed to the PC's 128M). Aqua is a prettier UI, but Tracker is more functional (yes, Steve, you can really use two mouse buttons without confusing users), and I'd pay a lot for someone who could replace the OS X Dock with the BeOS Deskbar. And BFS, the Be File System, must be played around with for a while to be fully appreciated. (It can act as a database system that you can actually write queries against, and folders can actually be live queries--you could make a desktop folder that always contains, say, all email from your cousin, or all word processing documents you've edited in the last two weeks.)

But there's just so much you can do in a system only developers love. The native web browser, NetPositive, is (to be charitable) spartan, the port of Opera 3.6 is orphaned and a little wonky, and the port of Mozilla, while in active development, is dog-slow compared to other ports. Be's promised Java implementation (yes, BeOS apologists, Be explicitly said it would be delivered for BeOS in early 2000) never happened. The few Be-only software houses closed up shop or moved to other platforms, one by one, ending with Gobe, the ex-Claris folks who valiantly tried to sell BeOS 5 itself with the internet appliance-focused Be seemingly actively working against them.

A friend described Be, back in the BeBox days, as the Next of the 90s. He was right, with the exception that Next had a happier ending. Be's CEO was quoted once as saying that the difference between Be and Apple was that Be didn't "defecate on its developers," but that's exactly what Be did, repeatedly--and what, for all their arrogance (real and imagined), Apple hasn't been doing with OS X.

BeOS generated some of my favorite applications in its brief life--the text editor Pe, the office suite Gobe Productive, and SoundPlay, the Leatherman of MP3 players. (From format conversion to broadcasting streaming audio, multiple file playing with crossfades and pitch control, and so scriptable it's been used as the engine for on-air radio stations. It doesn't organize your MP3 files like iTunes does, but it doesn't need to--BFS can do that for you. Opening my MP3 folder gives me a list of songs organized by artist and showing me not file size but playing time and bit rate.) But, Pe has become Pepper on Mac OS, and gobeProductive (as it's dubbed now) has moved to Windows.

Well, I really came back, actually, only to transfer some fonts to my other systems; I'd just remembered that there was a BeOS Live Journal client, and installed it, poking around the system again while writing this. I'd like to think OS X could be as exciting as BeOS was as an "early adopter"; the development environment in OS X truly rocks. Even so, I think BeOS may have been the last serious attempt at recreating the cottage software industry of the early '80s.

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