Workhorse BeOS Apps
Tools and utilities that get a BeOS user through the dayScot Hacker, 6/28/00
BeOS is rarely mentioned in the press without a qualifying reference to the dearth of BeOS applications. That's understandable. I can imagine a Windows journalist visiting BeBits and seeing a "measly" 1,350 apps, plus a few dozen more in the listings at BeDepot. Compared to the Windows world, it's a drop in the code bucket. But if there are too few apps for BeOS, how it is that many of us use BeOS as our only operating system?
Rather than say there are no apps, I think it would be more accurate to say there are rough equivalents in most categories, but without the same level of maturity. BeOS apps just aren't backed by the same huge budgets, large staffs, and years of person-hours that have gone into Windows software development. At the same time, BeOS apps have the advantage of sitting on top of this incredible foundation. The operating system is well-architected, fast, and sports an API that makes programming much easier than it is on other platforms. In fact, many developers have described BeOS programming as "a joy." But using a great OS without equally tremendous apps can sometimes feel like driving a BMW without a dashboard.
And yet, even in their comparatively young or under-funded states, BeOS apps often have advantages that similar Windows or Linux apps don't have. This advantage is hard to quantify. It's about smoothness, responsiveness, and elegance. It's about the overall "feel" of using BeOS and its applications. It's about small touches that make you smile and wonder why it wasn't always this way, and why BeOS seems to be the industry's best-kept OS secret.
And this is the paradox that every BeOS user faces: We know we're making certain compromises in exchange for certain benefits. We know that Windows users out there are doing certain things that we can't do (although the reverse is also true). When up against the wall, we get creative and find workarounds, but of course, we'd rather not have to.
Despite the compromises, BeOS users are unflaggingly loyal. Why? Because through all the ups and downs, they still have unshakeable faith in the potential of BeOS to cut through the clutter and offer the world a better way to compute. BeOS users stay loyal because they know that problems with other operating systems are almost impossible to fix because they're rooted in history and bad architectural decisions. Fixing shortcomings in the BeOS experience, on the other hand, is "just" a matter of getting the public opinion train rolling so the money can start flowing and the apps can mature.
The thing is, when Be sticks a needle in your arm, it stays there. Some users contemplate jumping ship when things don't move along like they want them to, but once hooked, few users actually ditch the platform.
Getting back to brass tacks, people sometimes want to know what my favorite applications are, and how it is that I can spend all my time in an OS that supposedly has no apps. Here, then, are a few of the BeOS apps and utilities I use nearly every day. Last September, I posted The Apps Are Out There in this space. That column was like a big-picture survey of the commercial BeOS software scene. This one is about the stuff that makes BeOS a productive place for me -- a snapshot of my own collection of "workhorse" apps (not everything on my system, by a long shot -- just "a few of my favorite things.")
PeShort for Power Editor or Programmer's Editor -- I'm not sure which -- Pe is a powerful text editor inspired by BBEdit on the Macintosh. Packed with features for webmasters, authors, and programmers, Pe sports infinitely customizable keybindings, recognizes and automatically color codes lots of programming and scripting languages (including HTML), has customizable floating tool palettes, can read and write documents from remote FTP locations, and is extensible with a plug-in architecture that works with stdin / stdout, which means you can extend its functionality with shell or perl scripts, C++ binaries, or whatever you like. This is not your mother's text editor. I've written two books, countless articles (including this one), and maintain three web sites in Pe. Easily worth the $50 Hekkelman asks for this gem.
Gobe ProductiveWhat sets Productive apart from productivity suites on other platforms is a single key insight: Why have an integrated office package that uses different document formats for word processing, spreadsheets, vector illustration, image editing, and presentations? In Productive, you just do what you need to do. If you're in the middle of writing a report and want to insert some spreadsheet data, you don't have to open a separate app. Just insert a spreadsheet "part" and keep working. Flow your text around it, insert graphics, share data between parts, and keep it all together in one document.
In addition, the layout capabilities in Productive are good enough that some people treat it as a desktop publishing tool. Productive's approach is so unique, and so sensible, I just have to shake my head and wonder every time I see someone asking if we can get StarOffice ported to BeOS. I've seen StarOffice, and it's impressive in ways, but it doesn't touch Productive in logic or elegance, and certainly not in its concept of workflow.
I may do most of my writing in Pe (because I'm a plain text kind of guy), but I still use Productive to read and write Word and Excel documents when necessary (yes, it does that too), to do light image editing, and to create spreadsheets for random purposes. Others are using it for much more sophisticated purposes. Read a detailed review of Gobe Productive here.
NetPositiveWhat a paradox the native BeOS browser is. At 1.1 MBs, it's one of the smallest, fastest-loading, and fun-to-use browsers you'll find anywhere. It renders most sites very well, and has a great bookmarking system (BeOS bookmarks are individual files which can be organized and edited right in the Tracker, and have convenient Keyword attributes for power searching). NetPositive has a nice resumable download manager, can be run full-screen, and has a very sleek, "get things done" attitude.
Fortunately, Be's new Internet Appliance strategy puts the browser pretty much at the core of the user experience, and nothing less than an exceptional web browser will do when competing in this space. Be has been working closely with Opera Software to adapt their lightweight but feature-packed browser into BeIA, and of course, the BeOS version won't be far behind. Meanwhile, Be is working with Sun to integrate Java2 and PersonalJava into BeOS.
I experimented with Opera 4 for Windows recently, and was utterly impressed. Having the Opera 4 / Sun Java package working under BeOS should do away with browser complaints for good, but I have to say I've grown pretty attached to NetPositive, and it will be hard to say goodbye.
SoundPlayI'm the type who listens to music pretty much every waking hour, so I demand a lot from my audio player. I've seen fancier looking audio playback software before, but I have yet to encounter a package that works as smoothly and reproduces music as faithfully as Marco Nelissen's SoundPlay. I use it almost exclusively as an MP3 player, though it handles lots of audio formats. More important are all the goodies and plug-ins buried in the preferences, like the multitrack mixing sliders, the HTTP interface that lets you control SoundPlay remotely or offer files for streaming or download, the LiveEncoder plug-in that lets you stream your playlist to the world a la SHOUTCast or icecast, the cool visualization plug-ins, and the audio effects plug-ins I used recently to create sound effects for a movie I was making in personalStudio. SoundPlay can also make sure the playing times and bitrates of each track are written to filesystem attributes so you can see them directly in the Tracker, and has the ability to play multiple simultaneous tracks at any speed (+/- 400%), backwards or forward.
SoundPlay faces stiff competition from CL-Amp, which is also a nice player but basically a WinAmp clone. SoundPlay takes a "pure BeOS" design approach that makes all the difference.
RobinHoodI've talked about Joe Kloss' RobinHood here before, but this sleek little web server app has been running 24x7 on my machine for nearly two years now with barely a hiccup, so I have to praise it again. It's clean, fast, plug-in based, easy to use and administer, well-documented, and flexible. It also happens to be open source, but I'd pay good money for it if it weren't.
Like all BeOS web servers, RobinHood takes advantage of the fact that the MIME standard is used for filetyping in BeOS, so it doesn't need to maintain a separate MIME database -- you could call an HTML file index.jpg if you wanted, and it would still be served as HTML if it's BeOS filetype was text/html.
Interestingly, RobinHood distinguishes between "real" and "virtual" resources. Virtual resources are objects that can be served up which don't actually exist as discrete files. For example, to display web-compatible PNG graphics in place of Tracker icons in directory listings, or to dish up BFS query results as web pages. The flexibility is remarkable.
By the way, RobinHood's name is a pun on the name of the simple web server bundled with BeOS, PoorMan.
Mail-ItThe BeMail message is the standard email message format on BeOS, and all BeOS mail apps recognize the same format. This means you can switch between mail clients at will without having to worry about having to convert your mail between formats. All meta-data such as Sender, Date, Subject, From, and so on are stored in filesystem attributes, so you can sort and view your mail directly in the Tracker with the help of the bundled BeMail viewer/composer. However, various third parties have developed "shells" that overlay this filesystem-based mail handling system, to offer advanced functionality.
Because I do a heck of a lot of email, I've probably spent more time in BeatWare's Mail-It over the years than in any other single BeOS app. If I had to compare it to a Windows equivalent, I would say that Mail-It is somewhere between Eudora 3 and Eudora 4, with a few Outlook touches thrown in. It supports most of the goodies power users need, like advanced filtering, stationary, UI customization (it can even wear bitmaps sort of like skins), scheduled mail checking, and so on. It's been a while since the last Mail-It upgrade, but to tell the truth, I don't find a whole lot lacking in the current version (I'm not the type who wants to read usenet in my mail app -- I'll take slrn over Gravity or Agent any day of the week).
personalStudioI wrote at length about personalStudio in this space just a few months ago, so I won't repeat myself. Suffice to say that since that time, I've spent probably 100 hours in the program editing down digital video footage from my recent wedding and honeymoon in Greece. No, personalStudio isn't perfect, but it does do some cool things that other NLE suites don't (or don't do as well, or as cheaply).
Now I've got a finished 90-minute video production I've been showing to friends and family, and they all have the same reaction: "You made that?!?!" Still, I'm really looking forward to continued development on this app. BeOS is the perfect platform for intensive media handling, and personalStudio still seems to me like it could be the first app that really takes full advantage of Be's advanced audio and video handling capabilities at the same time.
cdda-fs / cddblinkdThis isn't so much an application as it is a BeOS feature I use constantly. When you insert an audio CD in a Windows machine and look at it in the Tracker, all you see are a bunch of 4-byte "handles," which simply point to a byte offset on the CD where that track begins. There's not much you can do with those files but double-click them.
BeOS handles alien filesystems much more elegantly. When you mount an audio CD in BeOS, it's handled by the Compact Disc Digital Audio filesystem driver (cdda-fs), and you get a directory full of what appear to be actual WAV files. It's just an illusion -- there are no WAV files on an audio CD -- but these "WAV" files actually work like real WAVs. This means you can drag audio tracks right off the CD and onto your desktop, or into an audio app like SoundPlay. In fact, you can play multiple tracks from an audio CD simultaneously, or even play them backwards in SoundPlay, right from the CD. All of this means there is no need for audio CD "ripping" utilties in BeOS, as users can just grab what they need directly through the Tracker.
But it gets better. If you run the small cddblinkd daemon in the background, it will detect when you mount an audio CD, look it up in one of the Internet's compact disk databases, and change the CD volume name to equal the name of the artist and album. Likewise, all of those WAV files will get the actual track names, rather than the dull and useless "Track1," "Track2..." names you get in Windows. The combination of cdda-fs and cddblinkd make some very cool things possible. For example, MP3 encoding utilities such as RipEnc don't need to do compact disk database lookups, and they don't need to rip -- they can just start encoding directly from the filesystem.
Bits and PiecesThere are lots of large or commercial apps I haven't mentioned here, which I use less frequently. There are also tons of tools and utilities I use on an occassional basis that make my life easier in myriad ways. Things like WindowShade, which lets me change the default yellow title tabs on BeOS windows to less glaring colors, ProcessController, which lets me view and manage processor and memory usage, LnLauncher, which lurks out of the way but pops quickly into action to give access to my favorite apps and documents, WriteCD, which takes the grunt work out of burning ISO or BFS data CDs, Scheduler, which helps me to automate all kinds of tasks, reminders, and backups (like cron but BeOS-native and way easier to use), GrooveMaker and SimpleJuice, which I've been using to create audio collages and funky loops for movies I'm working on, ObjektSynth for MIDI experiments, Moho for animation and Flash export, ArtPaint and BeCasso for image processing, Baxter for IRC, NetPenguin for FTP, DeskCalc for figuring out the phone bill, Roll 'm Up for when I need to cool my jets and enjoy some realistic pinball action...
I could go on and on. No We're not all the way there, but please don't tell me there aren't any apps for BeOS. It's an exaggeration, and a destructive one at that.