Open the Floodgates -- BeOS 5 Is Here
What's Included, What's Missing, and What's Next for BeOSScot Hacker, 3/22/00
It's been half a year since the last update to Be's modern, object-oriented operating system, and loyal users have been champing at the bit to get their hands on the next major release, BeOS 5. Be hinted at some of the features to be included in BeOS 5, but didn't publish a complete feature list until the day of release, creating a knowledge vacuum which left plenty of room for users to speculate and drool. To raise the curiosity bar even higher, Be announced that they would be releasing the OS in two versions: The freely downloadable BeOS 5 Personal Edition, which installs from within Windows without partitioning, and a full version (BeOS 5 Pro Edition), which installs to a normal partition and includes a few extra goodies.
The "Trojan Horse" ArrivesA week before release, more than 100,000 people had already signed up for email notification of the operating system's availability. The tide of expectations was high. On February 28, Be opened the flood gates on the free version, encouraging users to download the OS from free.be.com. The full version, complete with CD, box and manual, was scheduled for release shortly thereafter. So what's the difference? First of all, the free version is for personal use only. However, Be's definition of "personal" is extremely broad. A Be exec I spoke to said that it's fine to make a profit while using BeOS Personal Edition. In fact, you can run an entire business on free BeOS for all they care. The only requirement is that you don't redistribute BeOS for a profit (you're welcome to distribute BeOS for no profit, as long as you register with Be to do so). Second, the free version is absent a few royalty-bearing technologies -- a built-in, fully licensed MP3 codec, the Indeo 5 video encoder, and RealPlayer G2.
But the most important distinction between the two is the means by which BeOS is distributed and installed. BeOS 5 Personal Edition is distributed as a normal, ~60MB Windows installer, and installs as easily as any other Windows application. But BeOS is not a Windows application. When you install the free version, the installer creates a 500MB file on a Windows volume. This file is a raw disk image of the Be File System with BeOS pre-installed. Double-clicking the BeOS launcher kicks Windows out of memory and boots BeOS in its place. I tested the Windows installer on several machines, and was amazed. Not only did everything work as advertised -- it worked better than I dreamed possible. BeOS has always been the easiest OS on the planet to install, bar none, but this is ridiculous. BeOS is up and running in five minutes or less, and everything is totally painless. Linux distributors should be taking notes.
In fact, this "trojan horse" method (though Be prefers not to call it that) makes it possible to install BeOS on some machines where it was previously impossible or very difficult. For example, some modern notebooks, such as the Sony Vaio Slimlines, have external CD-ROM drives which require special drivers not available at boot time. I wrestled with one of these for a couple of hours a month ago before giving up. But BeOS 5 Personal Edition bypasses the need for a CD-ROM drive, and thus let me install to the machine in minutes. I was able to uninstall BeOS just as easily on one test machine, without having to think about what to do with the leftover partition.
Speaking of distribution, Be has turned responsibility for packaging, marketing and distribution of the Pro Edition in the U.S. over to Gobe, creators of Gobe Productive. International marketing and publication will be handled by Hitachi in Japan and by other major software houses throughout Europe. That's another story, and you can catch the details in this BeNews story [Editor: I'll provide this link after the 28th].
Overcoming LimitationsOnce BeOS is up and running, it's truly indistinguishable from the full retail version, except for the missing technologies listed above. All of that hallmark speed and responsiveness is intact, all of the bundled applications are there, and the system is ready to be customized and configured for dial-up networking or ethernet connectivity. It's a full operating system -- not "shareware" or a demo.
However, there are a couple of limitations inherent in this distribution technique. First of all, because the download decompresses to a raw disk image, the "partition" size (I use quotes because the partition here is really just a big file sitting in the Windows filesystem) is fixed at 500MBs. Unlike the Pro Edition, you cannot choose your partition size at install time. Fortunately, every copy of BeOS includes a copy of DriveSetup, which lets you create and initialize BFS partitions elsewhere on your system. I was able to easily re-initialize a spare Windows partition with BFS and use that for additional storage space. In fact, using the included BeOS Installer application, I was even able to install BeOS from the Windows "partition" to a real partition on my friend's Vaio, thus ending up with a 3GB BeOS installation on a real partition, without needing the BeOS CD at all.
Second, users of dual-processor machines will find that Windows 95/98 has disabled the second CPU in hardware. Because the Windows' BeOS launcher performs a software boot rather than a cold or warm boot, that CPU remains disabled once BeOS is launched, thus obviating one of Be's great advantages -- the best symmetric multiprocessing in the industry. This limitation can also be circumvented, either by booting from a floppy or by installing bootman, the BeOS boot manager. Either technique will let you do a cold or warm boot, and get that other proc back. For a more detailed discussion on this topic, see this In Focus article at BeNews.
What's Included?So what does BeOS 5 that R4.5.x doesn't? Users expecting a major revamp of the interface are going to be disappointed. On the surface, things look pretty much the same, aside from revamped folder icons, which include visually descriptive icon "overlays" for the most important folders. The Deskbar has also grown some welcome additions, such as Recent Documents and Recent Applications entries similar to those found in Windows. You can open any document in a suitable app by dragging its icon into that app's entry in the Deskbar. You can also create links to files, folders, or apps in the Deskbar by dragging them into the Be Menu. The Tracker has acquired "spring loaded" folder icons -- hold an object over a folder icon for a couple of seconds (or Shift+Drag), and that folder's hierarchy springs out, letting you drop the object into a deeply nested subdirectory without opening a bunch of Tracker windows. The Find panel now lets you save "Query Templates" which are like partially filled-out queries, just waiting to have the final details filled in before execution. This is a feature I've wanted to see in BeOS for years.
There are, of course, more important technological advances in BeOS 5, including:
- A bundled audio CD burning application.
- Support for several popular FireWare cards (I've been using an ADS Pyro to capture digital video and dump edited movies back to tape).
- Read-only filesystem drivers for NTFS and ext2fs so you can access data on your Win2K/NT or Linux partitions.
- Much-anticipated support for wheel mice (both USB and PS/2).
- Support for many new video, sound, and network cards (see Be's Hardware Compatibility List for details, but remember -- the free Personal Edition is now the best way to test your machine for compatible hardware).
- Support for multinode audio and for the lauded Gina, Darla, and Layla high-end audio cards from Echo, both of which should make BeOS much more viable for audio professionals.
- Much improved PCMCIA support.
- Big improvements to the printing architecture (including 440 new PostScript PPD description files), as well as color printing support for the Epson Stylus line and others.
- The inclusion of Marco Nelissen's cdda-fs audio CD filesystem driver (which makes it possible to access CD tracks as though they were WAV files, which has more interesting implications than you might imagine).
- A bundled, fully licensed MP3 encoder / decoder pair (Pro Edition only), which lets you save directly to MP3 from virtually any audio app. For example, the included CDPlayer app now lets you rip and encode directly to MP3, while Adamation's personalStudio now lets you use MP3 files as movie soundtracks.
- Much-improved MPEG video performance, including support for the audio layer in MPEG movies.
- An important bug fix for the filesystem, and the inclusion of a filesystem integrity checking/repair tool (chkbfs).
- A new mechanism for customizable filetype identification via "sniffer rules" which can be set through the new and very powerful "setmime" command.
- Significant visual and functional improvements to NetPositive, BeMail, Camera, 3dmiX, and BeIDE.
If you go the distance and purchase the Pro Edition, you'll also get RealPlayer G2, which is not included in the Free Edition. I wasn't able to test RealPlayer in time for this article, but reports from inside Be were that it was looking mighty fine. I'd also like to know whether the fact that Real recently signed with Microsoft to support Windows Media will soon mean that Windows Media will be playable under BeOS. Hmmmm....
Burning CDsThere's only one entirely new application bundled with BeOS 5: CDBurner. If you've ever used Toast or similar apps on other platforms, you know what a gas it can be to create custom audio CDs from an arbitrary collection of digital music files. Because BeOS 5 Pro Edition comes with an MP3 codec, you can drag MP3, AIFF, WAV, or RAW files from anywhere on your system into the CDBurner window. They'll be converted to CD Audio format automatically, on the fly. Click "Burn Now" and, if you've got a supported MMC-compatible burner, you'll get a fresh audio CD out the other end in minutes. I was able to burn audio CDs at 8x consistently without making coasters.
CDBurner includes normalization controls, so you can compensate for disparate volume levels of adjacent tracks, as well as great drag-and-drop fade in / fade out controls. Custom collections can be saved as "project files," with all fades and normalization settings preserved. While CDBurner isn't tuned for creating data CDs, it will burn raw disk images you create yourself or with other applications. I've been creating BFS-formatted system backups with CDBurner for a while now, and everything has gone flawlessly.
What's Missing? What's Next?There are many technologies which BeOS users know -- via Newsletter articles, hints from engineers, and press releases -- that Be has in some stage of development. Unsurprisingly, many users expected or hoped to see all of these technologies included in BeOS 5. Unfortunately, things aren't always that simple. Between limited resources, engineering obstacles, and licensing requirements, BeOS 5 doesn't include everything we had hoped to see. Notably absent from this release are a Java virtual machine, the Macromedia Flash Player, an integrated version of the Opera browser, OpenGL hardware acceleration, and the BeOS Networking Environment (BONE). If you're not familiar with that last item, Be is currently in the process of uprooting its old home-brew network stack and replacing it with a high-performance stack based on BSD networking. Not only will BONE make ports of existing Unix networking software much easier, it will also potentially make BeOS a real contender in the server space. We'll report more on that when the time comes.
In any case, none of these are present in BeOS 5. The good news is, they're all on the drag strip, in a state of rapid development, and Be plans to release them all at once in a point upgrade to BeOS to be made available sometime after BeOS 5 is on the streets. I wasn't able to get a release date or pricing information from Be on the upgrade, but if history repeats itself, we can expect to see it sometime in the next 2-3 months.
The public has run out of excuses not to try BeOS. There's no cost, and there's no need to worry about partitioning. Just download and go. No one says you have to make BeOS your primary OS all at once, or ever. Just give it a shot. But please remember -- an operating system, and the culture that surrounds it, is an entire universe. You can thoroughly explore a new application in a day or two; to really understand the power and nuances of an entire OS is an ongoing project. While the power and speed of BeOS will probably be immediately apparent to most anyone, you've got to live in it and amongst it for a while to really see why people make BeOS a lifestyle.