Be Rocks CES

Sony, HARP, Qubit underline strength of BeIA

Scot Hacker, January 2001

January's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas didn't provide any new answers for users of Be's desktop OS, but it made a huge impact on the public's perception of Be. Naysayers who have written off Be in the past 12 months may have to eat their hats. What could serve as a more powerful vindication of the whole information/entertainment appliance concept than to have the 800-pound gorilla of electronic appliances -- Sony -- announce their own entry into the still-nascent appliance space? And what could better validate Be's focus on that space than for Sony to choose BeIA as the software platform powering Sony's new e Villa?

CES was about more than the Sony/Be relationship. Qubit finally released their BeIA-powered wireless web pad, in addition to a lower-priced stationary version called the Atom. Be also officially announced their Home Audio Reference Platform (HARP), along with the first official HARP partnership. And just a week after CES concluded, Be and Tascam announced that Tascam's professional computer-based audio production devices will be based on Be's technology.

In other words, BeIA is being embraced by big names in the industry. Devices ranging from simple information access terminals to home "convergence" devices to public music units to professional audio production facilities are all using BeIA, and the companies behind them are lending their votes of confidence -- and their investments -- to Be. After years of trying to sell their OS one copy at a time to end users, Be is now in a position where deep-pocketed companies are coming forward with checkbooks in hand. And the press is taking notice.

No company intending to build an information or entertainment appliance is simply going to grab the first appliance OS that comes along. It's a safe bet that Sony, Qubit, Tascam, and Music Republic looked at WindowsCE, Linux, QNX, and probably other BeIA competitors as well. If companies of this magnitude have evaluated the field of possibilities and all come to the conclusion that BeIA is the best tool for the job, then it's clear that Be is doing something right.

The fact is that no OS vendor working in the appliance space offers an easier development cycle, a more elegant implementation model, a more complete management and administration solution (MAP), or packs more functionality into a smaller footprint than Be. It was true of BeOS in the desktop realm, and now it's true of BeIA in the appliance realm. I don't need to sing Be's praises though -- these new partnerships say more about the strengths of BeIA than I ever could.

Further vindication came from TechTV, who, between e Villa and the two Qubit devices, nominated BeIA-based appliances for Best of Show awards. And that's out of the thousands of gadgets making a showing this year.

Sony: Beyond the MemoryStick

So what's the big deal about the e Villa? On the surface, it doesn't seem much different from appliances like the i-Opener, some of which have already failed. Like a "standard" information appliance, e Villa is a stripped down personal computer offering quick access to the web, email, stock quotes, etc. The complexity of the typical PC is removed, and everything about the hardware and software is optimized for the task at hand. The unit has no hard drive and just a couple of USB ports for expansion. A built-in MemoryStick reader lets users store data and media files on removable RAM, ready to be exchanged with other Sony devices. Rather than the typically expensive LCD display, the unfortunately named device has a high-resolution CRT mounted vertically (portrait orientation), to minimize desktop footprint and maximize visibility of web content. The unit, scheduled to ship in Q2, is expected to cost around $500.

The key to the e Villa's differentiation is in the tag line -- Sony calls it an entertainment appliance, rather than an information appliance. And what exactly does that mean? I haven't yet gotten my hands on a unit and the e Villa site doesn't tell us much, but let's think about this for a minute. Sony sells a wide array of devices, some of which are meant for gaming (PlayStation), some of which are meant for gathering media (still and digital video cameras), and some of which are meant for displaying media (TVs, CD and DVD players).

All of these devices are becoming more sophisticated with each passing year. Increasingly, Sony's devices need to organize and process a wide array of data and media types. Meanwhile, Sony's array of consumer electronics have little to tie them together, beyond the intelligence-limited iLink (IEEE-1394) and MemoryStick technologies they come with.

It seems plausible to me that Sony might be seeking a more sophisticated software foundation for their wealth of appliance-like devices. Now that Be has a foot in the door, it would stand to reason that Sony would look first to BeIA to expand and extend their product line into realms of greater interconnectivity and greater "intelligence." Media needs to be processed and shared with other appliance-like devices in the household. And after years of small talk, the "convergence" dream -- wherein computing and entertainment systems come together at last in a Grand Unified Theory of the Household -- remains a pipe dream in most homes. It may well take a powerhouse like Sony to make it all happen. And if Sony is working with Be, one can imagine that Be's crown jewel -- BeIA -- is very important to Sony as well.

All of that is speculation, of course, but one can imagine the e Villa morphing into a "hub" for many currently divergent technologies, including television, gaming, computing, internet connectivity, digital still and video cameras, and file-based music distribution. If appliances have had a lackluster reception so far, it's because most of them offer less, rather than more than the standard PC. But when you turn the equation inside out, and imagine that the "killer app" of appliances could be the one that finally ties them all together, you realize where the real dynamite of the appliance sector lies. Who better to light that fuse than the company who has already stocked your home with a truckload of media gathering and presentation devices? The implications -- both for end users and for Be -- are immense.

The e Villa may do more than simply validate the Net appliance -- with a year or two of evolution, it could end up redefining the entire appliance realm. Then again, I might be drinking too much Red Bull lately*. But you have to admit, Sony would be crazy not to be thinking in these terms. And Sony isn't crazy.

*Rumors that the active ingredient in Red Bull -- torine -- is actual bull hormone are... bull.

Qubit, HARP, Tascam

While the Sony relationship came as a total surpise to most Be watchers, the community has known for a long time that Qubit was developing a wireless web pad based on BeIA. Qubit finally released the tablet under the product name Orbit at CES, and it's now up to the market to prove the viability of such a device. About as big as a magazine, the Orbit is a lightweight, hand-held, wireless web browser with a full 800x600 color display and stylus input, which can roam up to 200 feet away from a wired base station.

One can imagine interesting applications for the Orbit in hospitals, stores, and other businesses, though many users have expressed interest in using them at home as well. I find the devices technically interesting, but have trouble imagining a use for the Orbit at home (and took some heat for saying so in a recent discussion on the BeGroovy message boards). However, my negative comments about the potential usefulness of the Orbit didn't take into account its potential as a means of controlling the convergent home. In the Sony scenario described above, a wireless web tablet could be seen as the perfect means for controlling a whole slew of interconnected, intelligent media appliances.

In fact, even without Sony, I can imagine using an Orbit just to control a BeOS-based home stereo appliance such as the Aura prototype I discussed a couple of months ago. So I'll eat a few of my words on that one -- given the right circumstances, I'd love to have an Orbit on my coffee table. Maybe I'll even hit up the guys at Qubit for a review unit. Qubit also released a more "traditional" information appliance based on BeIA, called Atom.

Speaking of Aura, Be took the CES opportunity to make their home MP3 stereo platform official by announcing HARP, the Home Audio Reference Platform. HARP is not a specific product, but a reference platform for OEMS and vendors looking for a software base on which to build file-based music encoding, sales, and distribution devices. HARP devices may end up covering the range from home stereo components to internationally networked public music sampling, sales, and distribution units.

Music Republic became the first official HARP partner, and placed 14 HARP devices in a New York Tower Records store last September. The Music Republic product goes far beyond the typical in-store music sampling device by leveraging intricate relational databases to recommend music to listeners. Sample a song, decide that you like it, and the device will suggest and make available a dozen other artists working in a similar vein, or who share the same producer, or who are from the same town, etc. And unlike some in-store music sampling appliances, Music Republic gives you the entire track -- not just an excerpt. While you're listening, MR can provide accompanying music videos, and will present targeted advertising to the listener. Like most shoppers, I don't care to be marketed to, but clearly this is a great thing for music distribution channels, and hence for Be and BeIA.

For those who want a BeOS-based home stereo solution now, and for free, check out Be In Your Stereo, a plugin for SoundPlay that lets you view, organize, and sift through your MP3 collection from any web browser, using the native BFS database to parse large MP3 collections neatly. Because it's controlled from a browser, you can stick a headless BeOS computer into the home stereo cabinet and control the stereo from any browser in the house. BIYS is under very active development and has a well-trafficked mailing list. Between SoundPlay and its LiveEncoder plugin, plus BIYS and a music collection databased by my own RipEnc and Jason Burgess' Army Knife, it's become more clear than ever that BeOS makes for the perfect MP3 home stereo OS. Wrestle with Linux if it makes you happy. I'd rather use the right tool for the job.

Finally, a late-breaking press release from Be and Tascam. Even though BeOS desktop users aren't getting the piles of audio apps they had been hoping for, high-end audio professionals may end up using BeOS without even knowing it. Between this announcement and last year's decision by iZ Technology to use BeOS as the foundation for their 24-track professional audio mixing console Radar 24, it's clear that BeOS will still have its day in the sun for pro audio. It just may not happen on the end-user's desktop, as most of us had hoped and expected.

BeOS Keeps on Ticking

It's now been more than a year since Be first announced their intention to enter the appliance space. In that time, the company has issued a ton of press releases and partnerships. And yet, the perception of the BeOS user base has been that Be has been quiet and largely inaccessible throughout this period. Users who fell in love with Be for their great communication skills (not to mention their technology) have been left wondering what was going on inside the Menlo Park facility.

As an appliance OS company, Be doesn't have the same obligations to users of their desktop OS that they used to. In fact, the nature of the relationships Be has been forging with OEMs and vendors is such that they can't speak publicly about the things they're working on. While Be engineers continue to work long hours creating amazing technology, the company is bound by NDAs on every front which prevent them from revealing much, if anything to end users. It's an awkward situation for Be, and an uncomfortable one for users and developers of Be's desktop OS, who just want to know when the next big release is due and what features it will include.

The interesting thing is that Be made it patently clear that BeIA was their primary focus more than a year ago. And yet, many BeOS users seem to live in a state of denial, refusing to believe that the best desktop operating system ever built could simply be hung out to dry, forgotten like yesterday's news. It's as if the community would like, through sheer force of will, to convince Be to reverse course and resume its desktop focus. I know from talking to various people inside Be just how painful it has been for them to bear the brunt of user outrage, and not to be able to give satisfactory explanations to BeOS desktop users. Be does care about its desktop users. But engineers have to answer to corporate strategy, and that strategy dictates that you play your best cards in order to do right by your investors and shareholders. It's very simple from a business perspective. Unfortunately, the business perspective and the emotional involvement people have in the success of the desktop platform are still at odds.

Think things should have gone differently? Then contemplate for a moment the amount of marketing that Apple does - how many billions they spend trying to turn the world on to what is in many ways a superior product to Windows. For all of their effort, Apple has a whopping 2-5% share of the desktop market (depending whom you talk to) . Well, Be didn't and doesn't have billions to spend on marketing, and the window of opportunity they had in the mid-90s has mostly closed. So who is to blame them for turning to a market space where they can flourish?

The fact that BeOS users are so incredibly dedicated is testament to the quality of the desktop product that Be created over the course of a long and difficult decade. You'd think that users would have abandoned ship long ago, but it just isn't happening. New BeOS apps continue to appear on BeBits on a daily basis, and I still get mail from people saying "I just discovered BeOS and it's blowing me away! Be is going to take over the world with this OS!" That's the kind of mail that seemed natural two years ago. Today, it just seems weird, though heartening.

In any case, rumors are starting to swirl about R6, an upcoming new release of BeOS for the desktop. I'll have more on that when and if it becomes available. In the meantime, it's clear that the appliance space is going to offer plenty of interesting material to chew on.

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