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BeOS in Retrospect
By Stanislav Kelman


When we talk about advances in personal computing, two months often seems like a long, long time. Two years is simply an eternity. Not so long ago, a particular technology might have been poised to take over the world yet by now itís been reduced to a mere curiosity. With considerable frustration and disenchantment, I would like to present to you a somewhat biased case study on the spectacular rise and fall of the Be Operating System.

Part 1: The Rise

I have every reason to suspect that my story is a rather typical one and therefore might serve as a good example. Hence, I would like to start with a brief account of how I became so interested in the subject.

If memory serves me, my love-and-hate relationship with BeOS originated in early 1997, while I was still a big OS/2 advocate and a proud member of Team OS/2 (may it rest in peaceÖ). At that time, a group of enthusiastic representatives of Be, Inc. was touring the country showing off their brand new dual PowerPC 603e machine called the BeBox. Everybody who happened to come to their on-campus demonstrations was blown away by its capabilities. It was a desktop supercomputer that simply had no equal.

About a year later, it became crystal clear that OS/2 Warp 4 was a total flop. Desperately seeking a new refuge from MS Windows, I decided to switch to MacOS (a totally separate story that I have meticulously documented elsewhere). Subsequently, as I was just a poor grad student, I got myself a basic Motorola StarMax 3000/240 "clone" machine. It also so happened that BeOS PR2 came out around that time. Knowing that it was compatible with my new computer and still remembering my original impression of BeOS, I downloaded and installed it. Needless to say that once again I was amazed by its speed and power, even while running off a Zip disk.

Shortly thereafter, I joined a local BUG (Be Users Group) and became an active crusader for the cause. In fact, at the time we were so convinced that BeOS was "The Next Big Thing," that a friend of mine and I organized a little start-up business venture called BeShop, Inc. I also moved my personal site to a new domain, LetItBe.org, which was supposed to become a double tribute to BeOS and the Beatles.

Anyway, in late March 1998, when BeOS Release 3 first came out with support for both Intel and PowerPC platforms, many of us thought that Be has accomplished the impossible. For a brief moment it seemed that advanced multimedia desktop computing was about to become accessible to everyone. And, Iíll tell you, it almost felt as if the whole PC revolution of the late seventies was happening all over again.

Exactly 24 months ago, still being overwhelmed with all the potential for BeOS taking the market by storm, I wrote a little editorial piece singing praises to the operating system and its developers. The article was originally presented on August 10, 1998 in the Beetle Magazine online.

Unfortunately, from that point on, it pretty much all went downhill.

Part 2: The Fall

It wasnít long before it became obvious that, despite all the efforts on the part of Be, the developer support was not gaining critical mass. Commercial quality applications just didnít materialize, and those that came out did not offer much of a reason to switch to BeOS. Worse yet, while at some point there were as many as four e-mail clients in development, nobody seemed to be taking full advantage of the media capabilities of BeOS, something that it was supposed to excel at. The "Killer App," that we were all hoping for, was nowhere to be found.

Even those companies that originally focused exclusively on BeOS software started to move their efforts to other platforms. BeatWare, which was once one of the largest BeOS-only shops, has recently dropped BeOS development all together. Most smaller vendors and one-person operations seldom delivered on their promises and those that did quickly found out that the market was simply too small to be viable. And the BeFund, a mysterious venture capital firm that was supposed to finance BeOS software development, disappeared without a trace.

To make the matters worse, Steve Jobs was already back at Apple as an "interim" CEO. As he started phasing out MacOS "clones," he was also making it next to impossible for Be to support any PowerPC hardware. This alienated a lot of the long-time BeOS users, who were also hardcore Mac fans. In a few short months, the Intel crowd simply crushed the PowerPC fraction, but the platform war had its toll - the BeOS user community became deeply subdivided and bitter.

It didnít help when Be became a publicly traded company, and as such could no longer afford to be as friendly and forthcoming as it used to be. For months they had to refrain from any "forward-looking statements." Meanwhile, we were starving for news and gradually grew impatient. In absence of any information coming from Menlo Park, our expectations became unreasonable. We also started to hope that now that Be has taken a big chunk of cash from the public markets, it would be able to move faster and continue to "under-promise and over-deliver" as they used to do in the early days.

Regrettably, on the x86 hardware front things were not moving all that well. Even as Be was releasing revision after revision (3.1, 3.2, 4.0, 4.5, and 5.0), there was still an endless sea of stuff that they did not have enough resources to support. None of the major component manufacturers offered much assistance, so it was inevitable that it would consistently take months to develop drivers for things that worked under Windows from day one.

Even more depressing was the fact that none of the large OEM computer makers expressed much interest in pre-installing BeOS. Looking back, this was probably the biggest obstacle on the way of BeOS going mainstream. Indeed, this became painfully obvious in February 1999, when Jean-Louis Gassťe made his last effort to put "A Crack in the Wall." In essence, he offered unlimited *free* BeOS licenses to anybody who would "load the BeOS on the hard disk so the user can see it when the computer is first booted." But even these extreme measures didnít bear fruit as not a single one of the first-tier manufacturers took him up on this offer.

Part 3: BeOS is out. BeIA is in.

By now we could have admitted to ourselves that the game is over, only true geeks donít give up that easily. So, to this very day, I visit BeNews on a regular basis hoping for a miracle. But, there is hardly ever anything new up there. In contrast, MacCentral is always full of surprises, most recently reporting on all the trendy new hardware that was announced at MacWorld 2000. Among the most notable items was a dual-processor G4 tower, which might as well be the modern version of the BeBox. Once MacOS X ships, the "window of opportunity" for a powerful and easy-to-use alternative "MediaOS" will be forever closed. Believe it or not, the "dark days" of the Mac are now just a fading memory.

But, even in an unlikely event that MacOS X does not live up to the expectations, there is simply too much buzz around the open-source Linux vs. proprietary Windows debate. This makes it really hard to promote a "has-been" technology, such as BeOS. So, the only way for Be to survive is to pursue other markets, which they seem to be doing quite well in the Internet Appliance area. I could only wish them good luck at that. Honestly, however, I miss the pre-IPO Be, when the VP of marketing was just a phone call away. Also, I am not interested in getting a dummy Web tablet. Simply put, I am no longer a part of their target market.

As sad as it might sound, neither my aging Motorola StarMax, nor my new triple-boot dual-Celeron PC, is running BeOS all that often anymore. Nowadays, I use MacOS for most daily tasks, Windows for cutting-edge Voodoo-accelerated games, and Linux for occasional database development. Unfortunately, with BeOS still lacking a stable JavaScript-enabled browser, it is not even a viable Web browsing platform anymore.

All I can say at this point is that it is really, really depressing that great technology alone is never enough. But then again, being a degreed engineer, I should have learned that a long time ago.

 

Talkback Forum


Authors background:
Stanislav Kelman considers himself an "early adopter" of BeOS and as such is having a hard time letting it go. It is particularly difficult for him to do this because, in a sense, this is the second time he has to watch his favorite OS going nowhere. Condolences and other comments are welcome at osOpinion@LetItBe.org.


 

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