Of Tanks and Batmobiles

BeOS, Linux, and the Danger of Typecasting Operating Systems

Scot Hacker, May 27, 1999

Note: This colunn was slashdotted and received a ton of response. I wrote a mass response to corredspondents, which is available here.

Actor Adam West -- the guy who played Batman -- once complained that he couldn't get a job playing "normal" roles after the series ended. "Batman" had a great run, and peaked in the early 70s when I was a kid. But when the series dried up, so did West's acting career. He had been so thoroughly typecast that few agents or directors would even consider him for non-Bat roles. It's a shame, too -- he could have delivered some great cross-over action in other genres, given half a chance.

I fear that tech journalists may be starting to cast BeOS in too narrow of a spotlight -- typecasting it as a media-only system, when it excels at so much more. Recently I've been reading one too many pronouncements that BeOS offers broad horizons for audio/visual people, and too few that BeOS also offers great possibilities for general computing tasks. Think about it for a minute. Here you've got an operating system that's easier to install, faster, and more stable than Windows, and that leaves Linux in the dust when it comes to ease of configuration and ease of use. The more time I spend trying to get friendly with Linux, the more I come to agree with Jamie Zawinksi, (founder of Mozilla.org), when he said "Linux is only free if your time has no value."

Don't get me wrong. Linux impresses the hell out of me, and I have the utmost respect for it. But I wouldn't wish the frustration it's caused me on anyone. On the other hand, my decidedly non-technical father is having a great time in BeOS, with very little help from me. Linux is incredible if you want to run a server. It's endless fun if you love to hack and tweak. But without assistance from a guru, or many hours with your face buried in documentation, new users are not going to get a good user experience "out of the box" with Linux. BeOS, on the other hand, is immediately satisfying. It lets you enjoy computing, rather than wrestle with it. So why is the world going nuts over Linux? I don't begrudge the fact that server admins or hackers find the openness and power of Linux attractive. But why would someone looking for a replacement desktop OS choose Linux over BeOS? By my reckoning, the product Be has created is much better suited to become a companion or replacement OS on the desktop than is Linux.

I believe that Linux' recent success vis-a-vis BeOS has very little to do with general usability and the overall pleasure of computing, and a whole lot to do with the contagion of a very powerful meme. The open source mantra is new and radical. It threatens existing business models. It freaks people out. It stirs up the rebel in us. But the open source model, with its thousands of developers working in the absence of consensus, has yielded a Hydra -- an infinitely flexible but also extremely chaotic beast that's difficult for normal users to cope with. Sure, most anyone can install Caldera or RedHat and be up and running with a server or workstation quickly. But download a piece of software that requires some library or desktop environment other than what you've already got, and you're in it deep.

Many Linux users profess great respect for BeOS, but ultimately aren't interested simply because BeOS isn't open source. But what percentage of Linux users are taking advantage of their access to source code? How many Linux users are actually digging in and re-writing OS components? A tiny fraction, I'd wager. BeOS users aren't allowed to hack the kernel... but guess what? 99% of them couldn't care less. In exchange for being barred from access to system source code, they benefit by being able to use a system developed under one roof, under a single, consistent vision, and that never requires hours of rooting around and tweaking to figure out how to get ApplicationQ to run properly.

Bruce Wayne by Day... Batman by Night

The real questions, as I see them, really boil down to these:
  1. Is the very notion of open-source software so important to most users that they're willing to forego consistency and ease of use for its sake?
  2. Do the number of people interested in high-powered serving solutions outweigh the number of people looking for a companion or replacement desktop OS?
As for #1, I think it's an open question. In my heart, I love the idea of an open-source world. It appeals to me at an instinctual level. But in reality, my experience with an open-source operating system has been mostly unpleasant. Booting into BeOS after being in Linux for a while makes me feel like I can breathe again.

As for #2, the answer is a definite no. There are far more people looking for a new desktop OS than there are people looking for a server OS. But you'd never guess from reading the daily tech trades that Linux isn't as well-suited to take on that market as BeOS is.

The two most frequently quoted challenges leveled against BeOS are that it has too few full-blown applications and that it doesn't support enough hardware. Remove or lower those two barriers significantly (and this is happening, steadily), and what could possibly get in Be's way? Public perception. Some pundits still refer to BeOS as "that operating system Apple almost bought but passed over in favor of NeXT." These journalists don't seem to realize that the vast majority of BeOS users and developers were overjoyed that that deal didn't go down. But more commonly, pundits refer to BeOS as a system targeted to multimedia developers. While this is true, such reductionistic characterizations give the public the perception that BeOS can't also be a great desktop OS for general-purpose computing. Just ask anyone who uses it all day, every day. The way I use the system, BeOS is Bruce Wayne by day, Batman by night.

It's a slipperly slope. Be, like any company, needs a well-defined marketing focus, and the media stuff is no lie. Be has gone to great lengths to optimize the system for media content creation and consumption, and they're doing some pretty mind-blowing stuff in that department. And they've also spent a good deal of effort pushing the media niche as their target market. But nobody is fooling themselves -- of course Be would like to see the system take off in other directions as well. After all, it almost goes without saying that when you optimize an OS for that which taxes a system the most, it will almost by definition rock and roll when it comes to general-purpose computing.

Neal Stephenson, the author of the legendary "Snow Crash" and more recently, the excellent "Cryptonomicon," recently penned a 50-page essay titled "In the Beginning Was the Command Line," which should be considered required reading for all computer users. Stephenson, who wrote the essay from within BeOS, said that:

"One of them (Be, Inc.) is selling fully operational Batmobiles (the BeOS). They are more beautiful and stylish even than the Euro-sedans, better designed, more technologically advanced, and at least as reliable as anything else on the market..."
He goes on to say a lot of glowing things about both BeOS and Linux (the latter is compared to a tank, free for the taking), but I saw that particular comment as a sort of double-edged sword. It's a wonderful celebrity endorsement for Be, but it also reinforces this image of BeOS as being super-specialized. Sure the Batmobile is amazingly cool -- who in their right mind wouldn't want to take it for a spin? But people don't drive Batmobiles to the supermarket, as a general rule. They drive Accords and Camrys, not tanks or Batmobiles.

The thing is, Stephenson's entertaining characterization doesn't tell the whole story. BeOS is as well suited for grocery shopping as it is for firing booster rockets down Gotham City steets. That's the part the pundits don't seem to get, and it will be a shame if their all-too-convenient typecasting gives potential users the wrong impression.

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