Don’t know what got me thinking about this… There are so many technologies and products that buzz in and out of our collective conscience that it often feels like they don’t even have a name. They’re just faceless entities that served their time, perhaps not even a true role. Then, as quickly as they appeared, vanished.
My BeDev ID is 8837. I signed up to be a Be developer way back in 1997. The benefits were that you got a copy of the latest developer release of the OS, discounts on PowerPC hardware, and several newsletters. Those were the halcyon days at Be.
For the uninitiated, BeOS was the “pervasively multi-tasking”, Media OS for digital content creators. It had amazingly low latency for applications like audio and video editing. There were realtime VST plugins that could be used simultaneously. The basic video editor could do all its transitions in realtime on relatively meager hardware (although I had a dual PII-233MHz – which at the time was pretty hefty)
Its roots lie with Apple. Jean-Louis Gassee, ex-Apple VP, decided that he’d go out on his own to develop a next-generation operating system. The result was amazing. Micro-kernel-based, and lean, the OS could handle just about anything you could throw at it… at once. No exaggeration, I once had 9 copies of Doom running, and none of them seemed to be dropping frames. 1997. Pentium IIs. B’lie’ dat. There was also an OpenGL demo that ran really well. It was a software implementation, as they had no OpenGL hardware drivers at the time. It was amazing. You could also play multiple streams of video, audio, and have MP3 encoding all going on at once, too. I tried doing the same thing on Macs of the time, as well as NT4 on the same hardware, and, well… uh, they didn’t come near what BeOS could pull off.
One of the coolest aspects of BeOS was, of course, the community surrounding it. In those days, there were lots of developers who hung out on comp.sys.be.* You could follow discussions about kernel threading, fragile base classes in C++, and just about anything your geeky mind could think of. Not only that, but the developers would answer questions, too! 🙂
The biggest problem at the time was what the community referred to as “tractor apps”, apps that would draw people to use the OS. There were fledgling applications for audio and video, and even productivity, but there was nothing there that was really killer, that made someone say, “wow, I gotta gets me mines”. The biggest hook they had going was the “wow” factor in the media area.
What helped in my mind was that most of the GNU and other FOSS out there was ported to the platform. I remember playing MAME on BeOS, as well as using Perl, bash, gcc, LAME, and just about anything else imaginable.
I started a project! I hooked up with a developer in Madagascar and we designed a Windows ® Explorer-like file manager. I think we called it Marco Polo or something like that. BeOS didn’t have a tree view in it’s GUI, and that was something that took a lot of getting used to. However, there were several advantages that it did have in its UI. For instance, right-clicking a folder allowed you to navigate it’s entire sub-tree without opening a folder. You could also move or copy files in this fashion. Very nice. Anyway, after learning a lot about how the OS was put together, and running out of spare time, we dropped the project. It was fun, though! It was from programming for BeOS that one understands the simplicity and elegance of the system. The whole thing was truly object-oriented, which made programming a *lot* easier for beginners. The biggest complication in my mind was the POSIX layer that somewhat broke the OO model of the OS, but it was exactly this layer that allowed so much FOSS to be ported so quickly.
Life was good, and for once I had a computer that could keep up with my fragmented, scattered, everything-at-once approach to computing. Then, the meteor hit. Be announced that they would be “changing focus” – read: “uh, our market is starting to be addressed by our competitors(Microsoft), so we need to get into another market.” They moved to the internet appliance market. “What’s that?”, you say? “Never heard of that!”. That’s right. Because the IA market is the market that never was. BeIA (as the embedded BeOS was dubbed) found itself strewn among the carnage that included the 3Com Audrey and the NetWinder . BeIA saw limited use in a few products. There was the failed Sony appliance, the e-Villa, and the IZ RADAR 24. Shortly after the failure of the e-Villa, Be was bought by Palm. Everyone had high hopes of hearing the great news that the next big version of PalmOS would take advantage of the BeOS’ great realtime and media features. We’re still waiting (Cups hand to ear. hears crickets chirping, hard drive grinding).
As bleak as all this sounds, you may be asking, “what ever happened to BeOS?”. The answer is that it didn’t die. It kinda morphed into something(s) else. Yellowtab bought the rights to the source code, and have created Zeta, the next release of BeOS. On the FOSS front, there have been many activities, but the most interesting one is OpenBeos, recently reborn as Haiku. It looks fairly promising, as development has evolved over the years. There are other projects as well, but I won’t get into them.
These days, I have a PII-333MHz running BeOS, serving up MP3s. It doesn’t crash 🙂
So, there you have it. The story of yet another one of those technologies that came and went like a leaf on the ocean.