BeOS On and Off the Strip

Be Powers Through Comdex

Scot Hacker, 11/99

Ah, Comdex. A quarter million people jammed into a suite of convention centers, all gawking at Windows applications... OK, I exaggerate. But will the term "computer industry" always be indelibly associated with "the Windows industry?" I like to think not. And if the crowds permanently jammed around Be's booth this year (not to mention the Linux hall) are any indication, a good portion of Windows users are dying to try another way -- they're just waiting for a viable alternative. Well, viability is a term relative to the needs of each user. Some already find Linux a viable alternative, but most people still agree the associated learning curve is pretty extreme, and Linux isn't optimized for the kind of modern media handling that BeOS is. Meanwhile, BeOS is easier to install, configure, and use than nearly any operating system on the planet. Check out what fellow Byte editor John Ruley said about BeOS after visiting the Be's booth this year (and no, I didn't even talk to John at the show):

"BeOS is the only system on the horizen different enough from what's available today to be a potential contender as the next mainstream OS after Windows."
Indeed. So why does Linux get all the attention? Just look at what happened after Judge Jackson's finding of fact came down a few weeks ago. The price of RedHat shares went up, sure. But between that Friday morning and the following Tuesday, the price of Be stock more than quadrupled. On one day that week, Be shares pushed more volume than either Red Hat or Apple (!), and NASDAQ labeled BEOS "Most Advanced Stock." Yes, some press for Be resulted from all of this, including a CNN interview with Be CEO Jean-Louis Gassée, but nothing like the amount of attention ladled on Linux interests. What the heck is going on here?

Enough whining. On with the show.

Pulling the Plug

Be upheld a long-standing demo tradition by dropping the jaws of unsuspecting onlookers with radical feats of intensive multitasking, generating applause from users sick and tired of coming face to face with performance limitations imposed by other operating systems. As always, we were treated to the sights and sounds of running a bazillion movies and audio files simultaneously while going about general computing tasks unhindered. But this year, Be was able to add a new -- and much welcomed -- dimension to their demo: Compatibility with Windows productivity files. Thanks to the presence of Word and Excel file format translator objects in the operating system, Be was able to open Microsoft Office documents in Gobe Productive and work on them normally. The natural paint and media graphics app Easel was seen opening and working with native Photoshop files, while audio and video was streamed down from the Web via the new Real Player for BeOS.

And then, right when everything reached peak excitement, the dude running the demo would pretend to be overwhelmed by it all, reach over behind the booth, and yank the electrical plug out of the machine. The crowd, expecting the equivalent of a lengthy ScanDisk operation or fschk on reboot, was treated to the site of BeOS coming back to operational readiness in less then 15 seconds. After showing off all the GUI goodies, Be was showing off the stuff under the hood in a very real way -- fully journalled filesystems and fast boot times matter. Be's demo consistently generated a crowd big enough to push into the booths of Be's neighbors, resulting in multiple warnings from the Comdex event staff to "deal with it."

BeOS on "The Strip"

While not directly related to Comdex, Las Vegas means big. Big lights, big sounds, and big shows. From Cirque du Soleil's "O" at the Bellagio to Lance Burton's magic at the Monte Carlo, these shows require split-second timing and synchronization of lights and sound, not to mention sophisticated control of mechanical props. So is it any surprise that a lot of those big shows run on BeOS? Level Control Systems is one of the first major companies to build a business on BeOS, and their CueStation software (see screenshot) runs more big events and theme parks than you might imagine. Of course, they've built a custom BeOS solution with their own hardware -- you can't buy CueStation at BeDepot -- but the fact that real-world companies are buying into BeOS for real-world reasons is noteworthy; BeOS is not a "toy operating system," as uninformed detractors occassionally claim.

Make Way for Stinger

If you've read any Comdex coverage, you know what a big deal Web appliances were at this show. And while I covered Be's Internet appliance strategy a couple of months ago, they had even more goodies to uncover at Comdex. Their new relationship with National Semiconductor has already born fruit; the WebPad is a hand-held wireless device roughly the size of a sheet of paper. The machine runs BeOS with a customized, full-screen implementation of the Opera browser riding on top. The Opera-based UI (which goes by the name "Stinger") is a combination of Flash, JavaScript, and HTML, and lets users browse, check news, read and write email etc. untethered. The image of a Star Trek-like digital clipboard for office workers comes to mind.

Meanwhile, vendors unrelated to Be are starting to show BeOS-based systems and solutions, such as the global hardware distributor First Computer International, who showed a $300 Internet appliance based on BeOS (interestingly, FIC's is the first commercial BeOS-based appliance to be shown booting from flash ROM rather than from disk).

Windows is poorly suited for implementations where the twin vectors of high performance and small footprint must intersect. According to most pundits, Microsoft won't be able to assume the kind of dominance in the Web appliance arena that they enjoy in the desktop market. Vendors like National Semiconductor and FIC, who realize early on that BeOS offers a best-of-all-possible-worlds solution for these kinds of devices, are going to flourish.

Money Floats on the Rising Tide

Application vendors considering bringing software to BeOS invariably want to know whether the BeOS user base is large enough to support their businesses. Up until recently, the answer to that question was always, "Not yet, but when BeOS breaks into the big time you'll be poised to become the next Adobe / Claris / Whatever." But vendors don't necessarily have to bank on the future -- some of them are starting to make considerable money with native BeOS apps now. One such vendor is Gobe, who makes an integrated productivity suite called Productive (although Productive is technically not a suite, but a single app that does word processing, spreadsheets, vector illustrations, presentations, and image processing). During the show, Gobe told BeNews they were beginning to "realize significant revenues" by "riding the tidal wave of enthusiasm for BeOS." Be's Sales Director of Desktop Systems has announced several times in various BeOS forums that stores such as Fry's, Microcenter, and Best Buy are begging for boxed BeOS software to accompany sales of BeOS itself. And BeOS is beginning to sell in volume -- at Dell's online "Gigabuys" store, BeOS had hovered high in the Staff Picks list for weeks (at this writing).

All of this can only be good news for the dozens of entrepreneurs and programmers who have put hundreds or thousands of hours of labor into creating audio, video, multimedia, and productivity software for the platform, much of which is beginning to approach maturity. Vendors such as Steinberg, who are preparing to release their professional-quality multi-track mixer Nuendo, or AltOS Multimedia, who is offering a bundle including an IEEE-1394 card (yes, FireWire will be supported in the next BeOS release) along with a pile of video- and media-editing tools. Even pure hardware vendors like Geek Tek, who specialize in BeOS-compatible machines, stand to do well by getting in on the BeOS action early. And that's something that separates the world of open source software and the world of BeOS; in Be-land, users don't come to the platform expecting their software to be free. They're there for a quality experience, and the vendors who provide it first will be sitting pretty.

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