Feeling Right at Home

Be Bends Over Backwards to Help Migrating Windows Users

Scot Hacker
June 25, 1999

Be has just returned from this year's PC Expo in NY, where they demonstrated the latest version of their operating system (R4.5) to thousands of existing Windows users, most of whom took home a demo version of BeOS on CD. You can read a full report on the dozens of hardware and software announcments Be unveiled at the show here or here. Meanwhile, what happens when all of these Windows users get home, slip the BeOS CD into their machines, and find themselves in a foreign land?

For some, contemplating a migration to an alternative operating system may seem somewhat intimidating. Many have read, or heard through the grapevine, that experimenting with alternative OSes may prove damaging to the sanity and/or patience. A certain amount of trepidation is understandable, but has the unfortunate side effect of scaring potential travelers away from adventures in OS exploration.

Be is well aware of the bad spin that can be generated by this syndrome, and has gone to great lengths to head trouble spots off at the pass. In particular, it's important to Be that Windows users experimenting with or migrating to BeOS be able to get right down to business. Be has provided Windows-like hotkeys, transparent mounting of Windows filesystems, the ability to integrate your BeOS machine or partition into existing Windows networks, font sharing capabilities, and more, all with the intent of making the transition as painless as possible.

Peaceful Co-Existence

Be has been clear from the beginning that BeOS is not meant to replace Windows, but to co-exist alongside the de facto standard. While some BeOS users find they can do all or most of what they need from within BeOS, others are more wedded to existing Windows applications, and boot back and forth between operating systems as necessary. Installing another operating system doesn't need to be any more difficult than installing any other software on your computer. Just carve out a partition, drop the new OS into the new partition, and use a boot manager to choose between your installed OSes at boot time.

Be provides a custom version of PowerQuest's PartitionMagic, which will help you resize an existing Windows partition and create a BeOS partition in the resulting free space. Be also provides Bootman, which makes it easier to create a custom boot menu than any third-party boot manager. If you prefer, you can use Windows NT's boot loader, Linux's LILO, or a third-party tool like System Commander to create your multi-OS boot menu.

Sharing Data

Because BeOS is capable of reading from and writing to non-BeOS ("alien") filesystems with the addition of a single driver file, users can theoretically extend their BeOS system to recognize disk drives / volumes / partitions created under any operating system. As shipped, BeOS comes with filesystem drivers for FAT16, FAT32, and HFS. In other words, you can read from and write to any disk volume formatted in Windows 3.1, Windows 95, Windows 98, or Mac OS (Apple's HFS+ is not supported, however). In addition, filesystem drivers for Windows NT (NTFS) and Linux (ext2fs) are downloadable from third-party sites, though these drivers are read-only at this writing. That means you can copy data from your NT or Linux partitions to your BeOS partitions, but you can't go the other way. These two drivers should soon gain write capabilities as well, and Be will likely ship read/write drivers for NT and Linux along with BeOS in a future release. Also on the drawing board for a future release is a Windows utility to let you see your BeOS partitions from within Windows. With this nearly universal compatibility between multiple filesystems, you can almost treat a BeOS machine as a file sharing "hub" in a multi-boot machine or multi-OS network environment.

All filesystems are mounted in the same way: Right-click on the Desktop, scroll to the Mount entry in the context menu, and all unmounted disk volumes will appear. No distinction is made between native and alien filesystems; it's all transparent to the user. Select an unmounted volume and it will be mounted on the Desktop, alongside your native BeOS volume(s). Of course, good old sneakernet (floppy copy) is always an option as well.

Working with Windows Networks

As of BeOS R4.5, BeOS includes "experimental" support for Windows networking, thanks to the presence of an integrated SMB (Samba) client and server. By "experimental," Be means they know the implementation still has a couple of rough edges, but they feel it's good enough to put out there in the world for those who need it. In future releases, you'll find this option integrated into the BeOS network preferences panel, but for now you'll find the tools you need in the /optional/experimental/WON folder on your boot partition (WON is short for "World O' Networking," Be's equivalent of Network Neighborhood). If you're connected to an existing Windows network (or a Linux network running a Samba server), just launch the WONSetup utility, type in the name of your Windows workgroup, and a username and password if available. A World O' Networking icon will appear on the Desktop, and you'll be able to browse remote Windows shares graphically, through the Tracker. Remote shares will also appear in all of your applications' File | Save panels, since they're essentially just mounted volumes now. You can also print to remote, shared printers elsewhere on the network.

If you're tapping into a Windows NT network, you may not be able to browse remote shares graphically. Instead, you'll probably need to use the command-line "cifsmount" tool to specify the names of specific shared volumes (see the README in the WON folder). If you'd like to be able to see your BeOS volumes from Windows machines, you'll need to install the optional CIFs server as well, then restart networking services.

Since BeOS has a built-in FTP server, you can easily point FTP clients in any operating system at your BeOS machine's IP address. This is handy for situations where you need to share files and you're not attached to a LAN, or you need access to or from a BeOS machine that isn't attached to a Samba network.

Optional Windows Look and Feel

Most people find the BeOS window style unique and attractive, but if you're really wedded to Windows' look and feel, try holding down Ctrl+Alt+Shift on the left side of your keyboard and accessing the Be menu. A new menu item will be present (an Easter Egg, actually), offering access to the Window Decors of AmigaOS, MacOS, and Windows. Selecting one of these transforms the default BeOS look and feel instantaneously. Interestingly enough, changing to the Windows decor actually changes the behavior of your BeOS windows: you can now resize windows from any edge, not just from the lower right (by default BeOS windows behave more like MacOS windows in this respect).


Muscle memory counts for a lot, and BeOS keyboardability vis-a-vis Windows is a frequent cause for comment. Most notably, Alt is the default modifier key in BeOS, rather than Ctrl. While many users can make the mental switch without too much difficulty, others find the change confounding. For these users, Be allows users to switch the default modifier keys on a system-wide basis. Open the Menu preferences panel and you'll find the Ctrl/Alt toggle switches. The change is instantaneous.

BeOS offers an analog to Windows Alt+Tab feature, called "The Twitcher" (short for task switcher). Twitcher does a few things that Alt+Tab does not, however. Tap Ctrl+Tab (or Alt+Tab if you've switched modifier keys) quickly to switch amongst all application windows that are not minimized and not open in another workspace. Press and hold Ctrl+Tab to bring up the Twitcher's interface, which gives you access to all application windows, regardless of their state or position. If an application has multiple documents open, use the up and down arrows to navigate directly to a specific document.

While you cannot currently access application pulldown menus directly (as you can in Windows) you can tap Alt+Esc to activate the first menu, then use your arrow keys to navigate through all menus.

Font Sharing

BeOS uses the Bitstream font-rendering engine throughout the operating system, and supports plain old TrueType Windows fonts -- just copy your fonts over from your Windows partition, drop them in /boot/home/config/fonts/ttfonts, launch the Fonts preferences panel, and click the Rescan button. If you'd rather not double up on disk space by storing the same fonts in both your Windows and BeOS partitions, you can create a symlink from c:\windows\fonts to the BeOS font path. In order for this to work, you'll need to use BeOS' automount feature to make sure your Windows partition is mounted automatically at boot time.

Compatibility with Office Documents

If people frequently send you Word and Excel documents from the Windows world, you have two options. You can ask them to save their documents first in the platform-neutral .RTF and .CVS formats, which can be read and manipulated easily in the BeOS-native office suite Gobe Productive. If you can wait a bit, Gobe Productive 2.0 will be released soon, complete with built-in support for Word and Excel file formats, giving you one less reason to boot into Windows.

Re-Inventing the Right Wheels

BeOS may have a radically different architecture underneath the hood, but from a UI and productivity perspective, you'll find BeOS similar enough to other GUI OSes as to not present an alienating experience. Be may have started from a clean slate in terms of infrastructure, but experimenting with BeOS isn't like learning Swahili. They make changes to the de facto standards where changes make sense, while still respecting the evolution of computing for the good things it's brought us.