Latest Overseas Software Report: BeOS for Intel

[Note: the following review was written for translation into Japanese, so style is sometimes sacrificed for clarity.]

The history of Be Inc., the latest entrant into the PC operating system market, is remarkably similar to that of Next. Both companies were founded by top Apple Computer executives after they were forced out by management: Next by Steve Jobs, Be by Jean-Louis Gassee. The first products of both companies were computers built around the same CPUs used in Macintoshes: the 1989 Next cube and its successors used the 68030 and 68040, and the BeBox, introduced in 1995, used dual PowerPC 603 processors. Both companies later abandoned hardware to devote themselves exclusively to software: Next ported its NextStep operating system to 486-based PCs in 1993, and and Be ported its BeOS to PowerMacs last year.

The big difference between the two companies, of course, is that when Apple went shopping for a new operating system in 1996, it passed on a deal with Be and bought Next instead. With no hope of selling out to Apple--something many observers thought was Gassee's plan from the beginning--Be has to find or create a new market.

Be is currently in what the computer industry calls the "chicken and egg situation" (named after the old riddle, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?"). An operating system with few applications doesn't appeal to users; a platform with few users doesn't constitute a market with much appeal to application developers. The proven paths past that impasse are to find a "killer app" that draws buyers (VisiCalc for the Apple II, WordStar for CP/M, 1-2-3 for the PC, PageMaker for the Mac), or to identify a niche markets and serve it well, like Novell and more recently Sun have done in corporate networking.

Be's strategy takes something of a middle ground between the two. It's currently focusing on the niche market of cutting-edge digial media production (audio, video, animation, etc.), hoping to attract the most creative programmers in the industry to create great Be applications, which in turn will draw a wider group of users.

The main technical advantage Be claims will help draw those users is "pervasive multithreading," which basically means the OS is designed to divide software processes between proccessors in a multiple-CPU system. Windows NT also does this, but Be claims it is less suitable for media work because it is designed primarily as a network server rather than to provide maximum performance to a single user. It's a little early to judge these claims, since Be has just recently started supporting more than two CPUs.

Perhaps the main reason Be got out of the hardware business was the availablility of cheap multiple-processor Pentium motherboards. In any case, that was the main motivation for Be porting its oeprating system to Intel hardware. For this report, I took a look at Release 3, the first commercial release of the OS and the first to run on both PowerMacs and PCs. Hardware support in this version is fairly limited: most current motherboards and CPUs will work, but there are drivers for only a handful of video, sound, and network cards, and there's no support for SCSI drives or internal modems.

The OS's nerdy orientation is clear from the beginning: while the installation instructions are simple enough that anyone could follow them, they assume most users will have some familiarity with partition tables and how to choose which partition boots. Once I resolved a minor technical problem by moving the CD-ROM drive to the same EIDE cable as the hard disk, setup was very easy.

BeOS's interface most combines elements already proven on the Mac, Windows 95, Unix, and other operating systems. Windows are almost too Mac-like: you can only resize them by dragging the lower right corner, and the only visible controls are a close box and a zoom (grow) button--though you can also hide a window by double-clicking on its tab. One nice touch is that the zoom button only enlarges a window just as much as is necessary to display all its contents.

The file open and close dialogs are also very Mac-like, with a drop-down menu to navigate to higher-level folders or other disk drives; a great touch here is that the file dialogs are resizable, so if you have full driectories or long file names you don't have to scroll so much. Confusingly, the BeOS desktop is not at the top of the drive/directory hierarchy the way it is on the Mac and Windows 95; instead, it's three levels down, in the /home/Desktop directory of the boot volume.

Menus are handled more like Windows 95. The main system menus are on the Deskbar, which is sort of like a combination of Win95's Start menu (itself inspired by the Mac's Apple menu) and Taskbar. At the top of the Deskbar is the Be menu, which by default includes pop-out menus for bundled applications, demo apps, and preferences. You can customize the Be menu by adding directories or links to the /home/config/be directory. (Links are aliases--what Win95 calls shortcuts.) Below or next to the Be menu is the application list, which is like Win95's taskbar in that an icon appears for every application you have open. However, when you click on one of the icons, instead of opening the app you get a pop-out menu of all the documents the app has open.

Be's desktop is something of a hybrid between Win95 and the Mac. Drives don't automatically appear on the desktop; instead they're in a Drives window (much like My Computer). You can view drive and directory windows with large icons, small icons, or as a list, and double-clicking on a folder icon opens a new window. Right-clicking some objects, like files, brings up a Windows-type shortcut menu--for example, when dealing with nested folders, you can right-click on a drive or folder icon and navigate a hierarchical tree down to the one you want to open, instead of having to open each intermediate folder. The Find command's simple and easy to use, but searches only file names, not contents. The trash can's primitive: it hangs on to files until you empty it, but when you want to undelete something it's not smart enough to put the file back where it came from, so you have to do that manually. An even worse feature is the way Be handles floppy drives--you have to mount them manually using a Disk Setup utility (similar to the Mac's SCSI Probe) before you can access them.

Working in applications is sort of halfway between Windows 95 and Mac: each document gets its own window, but each has its own menu. BeOS's scroll bars are like NextStep's: there is a pair of up/down or right/left buttons at each end of the bar. Right-click menus don't seem to exist at the application level. One thing I found very confusing was that Be always uses the Alt key for shortcuts that in Windows use the Ctrl key--Alt-C to copy, Alt-V to paste, etc.

Configuring Internet access via modem was quite easy--I just entered my ISP's information into a dialog, and it logged on correctly the first time. BeOS comes with a basic Web browser (no Java or multimedia support) that also handles ftp for file downloads, and a Unix-type shell that supports telnet. The OS also includes ftp and telnet servers for accessing your system remotely, as well as a basic personal Web server. TCP/IP-based peer-to-peer networking is also built in, and the manual explained very clearly how to set up both Ethernet and dial-up network access--something that can be very confusing with Windows. Another nice advantage is that you can completely restart networking without rebooting, very useful if something goes wrong with your Internet connection.

The feature I liked most in BeOS was the way it handles file types and associations. Types themselves are defined using the Internet MIME standard rather than file-name extensions. For each file type, there are four levels of applications available: the preffered application, which opens such files by default; other applications that can work with the precise file format (e.g. audio/x-aiff or audio/x-wav); "super-type" applications, which can handle the general format (e.g. audio); and generic applications that can handle any file type. For example, you could open a graphic with your preferred editor by double-clicking on it; alternatively, you could use the Open With command, which would list any other graphic editors, any apps that can display or convert graphics, and apps that work with any file (like BeOS's file editor and its File Type configuration utility).

Unfortunately that feature, and for that matter the BeOS as a whole, is not much use without applications, and so far there aren't many. None of the major media-application companies like Adobe or Macromedia have announced plans for BeOS versions. There's one word processor-spreadsheet integrated app, a few graphics, audio, video, and HTML editing apps, and some utilities and development tools, all from small developers, but they don't yet add up to a tool kit remotely competitive with what you can do on a Mac or PC.

While that's not very compelling, performance might help Be overcome the chicken-and-egg situation. On my single-processor 200MHz AMD K6 system, BeOS seemed able to handle higher media bandwidth than Windows 95, for example, multiple high-resolution video files. If that translates into, for example, significantly more simultaneous tracks of digital audio, or bigger, higher-quality video streams, Be's strategy may work.

Copyright © 1998 Robert Lauriston. All Rights Reserved.

Be's file-management interface is very much like Windows 95's. The "Disks" folder, which appears by default in the upper-left corner of the desktop, contains icons for all mounted disks--in this case, hard disk, floppy, and CD-ROM. The file-folder windows below it work pretty much like the ones in the Mac Finder.

Once nice feature is that you can right-click on a folder and get a hierarchical menu of subfolders and their documents, so you can navigate right to the file or folder you want without opening the intervening folders.

BeOS's applications menu works much like Windows 95's taskbar, except it's hierarchical: clicking on one of the application buttons brings up a list of documents it has open. This is a very convenient approach.

The Be menu, which you bring up by clicking the Be button, is functionally almost identical to Windows 95's Start menu. The main difference is that there's no Help choice--BeOS's help is in HTML format, and you access it by double-clicking on the Welcome_To_BeOS icon.

BeOS's Open With command is very nice. It lists your "preferred" application first, then other applications that can handle the file, and finally apps that can open any file (like the File Type utility, which you can use to override the preferred application for an individual file).

The optional "Workspace" window at the bottom right of the desktop lets you navigate among multiple virtual desktops, each of which can have its own video resolution and color depth settings. You can also switch workspaces automatically simply by choosing a document open in another workspace from from the application menu.

BeOS's built-in Web browser is pretty basic. It supports standard HTML, plus a few multimedia formats, like QuickTime 2.0.

This drive-mounting utility is one of the least intuitive parts of the OS, and gives a sense of the kind of users BeOS is designed for. In this release, it could detect DOS volumes, but could not mount or create them.