Reality Check

Keeping the Faith Through Hard Times

Scot Hacker, May 2001

"Woke up and smelled the coffee. Awaiting further instructions."
-- Craig Bierko

Over the past five years, and especially since Be's focus shift from the desktop to the appliance market, I've taken a lot of heat for my relentless optimism about the future prospects of Be and BeOS. Fair enough -- I've delivered relentlessly enthusiastic perspectives that were seemingly oblivious to the larger challenges faced by Be. Recently, however, there has been more bad news for Be and BeOS than can reasonably be ignored. It's time to take a long, cold look at where things stand ... and where we go from here.

Most of you are not used to hearing me say negative things about the platform. This column is going to be different. It's going to be realistic. The intention of this column is not to rub salt in old wounds, or to dwell on the negative. Instead, I want to face reality and get the disappointing news out there on the table. With that out of the way, we can get back to the business of finding new and creative ways to maximize the potential of the desktop OS Be has given the world.

Slimming Down

The BeOS community has recently endured more blows to its collective hope than at any time in Be's history. As some have been predicting would happen for a while, Be's funds are dipping dangerously low. The company has now secured the services of an investment banking firm whose job it is to help Be find quick funds, get purchased, find a suitable merger opportunity, or do whatever it takes to keep from sinking permanently beneath the waves.

But as anyone watching the tech industry can tell you, this is the worst time imaginable to be asking investors for new funds. Be either has to locate an enchanted fountain, slim down it's workforce, or not try to do so much with so little. It looks like they're attempting all of the above.

On April 2, Be layed off 25% of its workforce, trimming the company down to its essential core of key engineers. But no company can run forever on engineers alone -- it takes an infrastructure of employees to sell and support the product, and to manage the engineering staff. While Be did not release the names of the liberated employees, a careful reading of the press release reveals additional clues as to what was lost:

A few positions in the engineering department are also being eliminated because they are not focused on the company's core product lines. Be's European office in Paris will be closed, and its European marketing responsibilities consolidated with the company's U.S. operations.
Since we know that BeOS for the desktop is no longer a part of Be's "core product line," we can infer that Be let go engineers who were still working on BeOS, rather than on BeIA. If there really are no more engineers at Be working on pure BeOS, then we are now officially using a dead product, at least as far as the parent company is concerned. A legacy OS. How ironic is it that the world's most advanced OS (architecturally speaking) is also a legacy OS? How do we deal with this fact as users?

Withering Hardware Support, Dying Desktop

It has been more than a year since the last major upgrade to BeOS appeared. Since that time, much has been made of upgrades in development. BONE, or the BeOS Networking Environment, was intended to replace Be's outdated network stack with a high-performance stack based in part on BSD networking. A complete replacement for Be's OpenGL implementation was also known to be in development, and early benchmarks posted at BeNews were showing the new OpenGL to be faster than Windows' OpenGL in several ways. There were even rumors about updates to the Media Kit, which, while elegant and speedy, also suffers from some serious bugs and limitations in its current incarnation.

Suffice to say that none of these crucial upgrades have yet seen the light of day, either independently or as part of a coherent upgrade package. While many of us have been content to wait as long as it took to see these cornerstones installed, patience is beginning to wear thin for many. The recent announcements have all but extinguished hope that we'll see these pieces put into place anytime soon. I'm not saying we'll never see them -- I don't know any more than anyone else whether we will or not. But it's clear that our chances of seeing significant BeOS upgrades are slimmer than ever.

While new software continues to appear on BeBits every day, the majority of it consists of small utilities and gadgets, rather than complete applications. What we see at BeBits today is consistent with the description of a "hobbyist OS" -- a term I've chafed at in the past, but now admit is basically accurate. The BeOS software scene as a viable business opportunity has come and gone. In fact, Adamation (yes, the company I work for) recently announced that they were officially departing from BeOS software development efforts, leaving Gobe as the only remaining large-scale BeOS development house.

Meanwhile, another storm is silently brewing. Be has always had difficulty getting enough drivers written to keep up with the industry's endless churn of new video, network, and sound cards, not to mention the more unusual peripherals. If this was a difficult problem when Be was working actively on BeOS, what's going to happen now that they're not? The industry will keep on churning out new CPUs and I/O cards, and Be's hardware support will remain trapped in the late 1990s. Even today, trying to boot BeOS on a Pentium IV machine will take you on a nice journey through Kernel Debug Land, but no further. People used to say of Linux that it represented a great way to breathe new life into older machines. It won't be long before people say the same of BeOS.

Compromises Left and Right

Whether or not BeOS can be said to have a "decent web browser" is a matter of opinion, and many words have been expended trying to answer this question. Personally, I've always loved the fast, logical approach taken by NetPositive, and have historically not been bothered by its lack of support for JavaScript, Java, DHTML, Flash, and other fancy stuff. But I have a confession to make: After using Explorer at work for the past six months, I've come to realize how much of the web I was missing. The web browsing experience on BeOS is desperately behind the times.

We've known for a long time that BeIA uses a modified version of Opera at its core, and we've had indications that a version of Opera 5 for BeOS would eventually be released. The idea was always that development work in BeIA would eventually find its way into BeOS, and vice versa. But the truth is that BeOS for the desktop has not benefitted in a single way (that I know of) from BeIA developments, and most of us have given up on ever seeing Opera 5 for the desktop, either from Opera or from Be. Hope has shifted onto the BeZilla project, which is making progress but is still a ways from completion.

BeOS users have to make compromises left and right. Want to set up a RAID array? Good luck. Synchronize your Rio or other MP3 portable? Barely possible. Scan in a few images? Only if you're lucky enough to own one of a few compatible scanners, and only with 3rd-party software -- BeOS doesn't include native scanner support. Use your MiniDV camera? If your camera happens to be compatible with Be's IEEE-1394 stack, great. Burn CDs with Be's bundled CDBurner application? Same deal -- only if you've got one of the most common burners. Fax a document from your word processor? Hah! Export video through an analog capture card? No way. Export QuickTime movies? No problem. Export QuickTime movies that play properly under Windows or MacOS? Sorry. Get audio working on your laptop? If yours is working, you're in the minority.

Please don't get me wrong -- I am not bashing Be for any of these realities. Be is acting and reacting to the marketplace, and is moving quickly to meet each new set of difficulties. I'm just trying to paint an accurate picture of where we're at. And, sadly, we are a very, very long way from the "Be's amazing technology is going to change the face of desktop computing as we know it" rhetoric that infected tens of thousands of BeOS users five years ago.

The ironic thing is that new users are discovering BeOS every day. And despite all of the compromises, these new users are often blown away by the BeOS experience. New users often write to tell me they're excited to have discovered something so good that it can't help but change the world. Explaining the whole unfortunate saga to these new users without putting a damper on their enthusiasm is a challenge, to say the least.

Note that Be has never come out and said that BeOS development is over. Instead, they've said that BeIA is the company's focus. They've said they've eliminated engineers not working on the core product line. They've stopped releasing or talking about updates to BeOS. They've made it clear in many ways that BeOS development is over. So why doesn't Be say it's over if it's over? I don't pretend to know what goes on behind closed doors at Be, but I do know that if I were them, I wouldn't be cutting off any of the branches I might want to sit on in the future. In other words, there is a strategic reason for Be not to make such an announcement. If Be were done developing BeOS, they wouldn't necessarily let us know.

Are Appliances Still Viable?

Since January 2000, Be has been very careful not to give BeOS users false hope. Again and again, they have re-stated the fact that BeIA is the company's primary focus. And while they have not been so explicit about what this means for the future of BeOS on the desktop, they have taken pains not to make promises or predictions about the future of BeOS. The company has banked the farm on analyst predictions that, within a few years, there would be more Internet appliances sold than desktop PCs. But now, analysts seem to be qualifying their statements, saying that any hypothetical appliance-based future is farther off than originally hoped. Companies such as 3Com and Gateway have cancelled their Internet appliance initiatives.

That doesn't mean appliances are a bum steer as a general category, or that they don't still have the potential to shake things up significantly in the future. After all, Sony is still trundling forward with the much-anticipated eVilla, which runs on BeIA.

But if it turns out that not even Sony can make the Internet appliance market work, Be will be pushed farther into the niche space of embedded solutions, where they may still have a chance but will be even less visible than they are now. Be's HARP is a great example of an embedded space where Be would still have a fighting chance. Media-oriented appliances like Edirol's DV-7 video-editing appliance represent another promising category.

In the meantime, Be is no longer even trying to take on the whole appliance space. Where they were once willing to work with any vendor interested in creating an appliance-like device, the layoff press release mentioned above also included this quote from Be CEO Jean-Louis Gassée:

While the Internet appliance market is in its early growth phase, we have determined our sales and marketing efforts need to focus on large, stable customers with the capability and commitment to bring products to market [...]
Shortly thereafter, Qubit announced that they were no longer going to be using BeIA for their much-anticipated Orbit and Atom products, going instead with WinCE. My speculative extrapolation from all of this: Not only is Be no longer working on BeOS, but they've also pulled back on their BeIA efforts to better match the scope of the current appliance market as well as their own limited engineering resources.

What Keeps Us Going

We BeOS users have been willing to make compromises for years. Why? Because, despite the compromises, the BeOS user experience is fantastic. The refrain has always been the same: "All I need are these two little fixes, or this or that driver, or a good <name_yr_app> clone and I'll be the happiest geek in the universe." And because we've always known that updates and changes were in the pipeline, it's been worth the wait. The question is, once you admit to yourself that further changes may only come from developers and 3rd parties, rather than from Be themselves, are the compromises still worth it? In other words, are you as interested in using BeOS now that it looks like it may be well on the way to "legacy" status rather than the "super-modern cutting-edge OS that will change the way we think about computing forever?"

The BeOS experience has come to a turning point. As far back as I can remember, detractors have predicted that BeOS would eventually become another Amiga or OS/2 -- full of promise and technological wonder, but in the end, little more than a footnote to computing history. Many, including me, have resisted those comparisons, coming up with all kinds of reasons why Be and BeOS were different, and why it wouldn't fall into the same traps. But in the end, that's where BeOS is today: Pure, unrealized potential. A gorgeous cathedral that almost nobody visits.

There are thousands of happy Amiga and OS/2 users out there, making many of the same kinds of compromises that BeOS users do today. I can't speak for those users, but I believe I can speak for most BeOS users in saying that it all boils down to this: BeOS is the best operating system and computing environment ever developed, and there are no other decent options. Windows is slow and riddled with bugs (various versions in varying degrees), Linux has always been a usability and configuration nightmare, and the chaos of Linux development seems to be getting worse faster than it's getting better. The BSDs are better than the Linuces, but are still primarily server OSes, not desktop environments. Mac OS "Classic" has no memory protection and no command line. Mac OS X may be the only OS on the market that's both acceptable from a geek's vantage point, usable from a normal person's perspective, and has a future. Unfortunately, Mac OS X requires the purchase of a couple thousand dollars worth of Apple's hardware, and has a bit of evolving to do itself.

That leaves BeOS -- still the only OS available that includes modern multi-tasking, memory protection, advanced symmetric multiprocessing, a 64-bit, fully journaled database-like filesystem, extremely fast context-switching, a flexible and elegant internal messaging system, multiple workspaces, POSIX-compliance, super-fast boot times, open source components, support for most alien filesystems in existence, unique "Replicant" technology, object-oriented design principles from the lowest levels to the highest, and a clean and logical development API, all while still being blindingly fast, stable, free, and fun to use. But BeOS is unfinished, has a very uncertain future, and suffers from a lack of mature applications. And that's our dilemma. Either we use a sub-optimal OS with all the trimmings, or an optimal OS with warts.

Those who choose to stay in the game at this point are well aware of all the missing pieces, and make the choice willingly. The beautiful thing is that even if Be goes belly up tomorrow, BeOS will still be installed on your hard drive, and so will all of your BeOS apps. No one can take BeOS away from you.

I recently watched "Pollock," the excellent film interpretation of the life of the abstract expressionist painter of the same name. In it, a journalist from LIFE Magazine asks the artist, "How do you know when one of your paintings is finished?" Pollock responds to the question with a question: "How do you know when you're done making love?" That's about as objective an answer as possible given the circumstances. Each BeOS user has to decide for themselves whether or not they're done.

For those who choose to stick around, we'll return to our normally scheduled positive outlook column next month.

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