Amid the on-going furor of the OS wars, one contender has often slipped under the radar of most users - the BeOS. This is a shame, really, because the BeOS is one of the most powerful and well- designed operating systems available today. And now, to sweeten the deal, Be Inc. has taken a clue from their Linux competitors, and have started offering up the Personal Edition of the new BeOS 5 for free download.
Some have called this offer a last-ditch attempt to generate popularity for the OS. To be honest, they may be right. Be Inc. was founded by ex-Apple exec Jean-Louis Gassee in 1990, and though its OS has garnered a good deal of critical acclaim since then, it's never developed much of a user base. That might be changing, however. Since BeOS 5 was posted on the Web on March 28, there have been over 870,000 reported downloads of the 40 meg base installation from partner sites - maybe not enough to scare anyone in Redmond, but by no means a shabby number! The freely downloadable Personal Edition of BeOS 5 is fully operational; the BeOS 5 Pro edition is available for purchase for $69.95, and comes bundled with additional development tools, software and add-ons.
Let's take a look at BeOS and see what the buzz is about.
So What is it?
The BeOS is just that - a whole new operating system. Built from the ground-up in the 90s, Be sought to leverage the fact that they did not have to support a large number of legacy applications like other existing OSes. Though each new version of the MacOS and Windows adds additional features (and slowly removes some of the support for outdated system calls, features and hardware), they still have a lot of their history embedded in them, either in the form of actual code, or in philosophical approach. Since Be was starting from a blank slate, they were able to design their OS to use modern hardware to its fullest potential, as well as incorporating the latest developments in OS design. It's this modern design that gives the BeOS some of it's most appealing features.
So what are those appealing features?
First off, the BeOS is remarkably stable. Though individual applications may crash, it's exceedingly rare for the whole OS to go down. (Chalk up a point for truly modern threading and memory management!) One popular BeOS screensaver points to the chutzpah that Be users have about system crashes - the BSOD screensaver mockingly simulates the Windows "Blue Screen of Death", as well as system crashes on SCO Unix, Sparc-Linux, AmigaDOS, Atari ST and Mac OS.
It's also a fully journaled OS, which means that you can pull the plug out of the wall at any time and not lose any information. Nor will you have to spend several minutes running checkdisk or rebuilding your desktop next time you boot up.
Speed & Media Optimization.
As a newcomer to BeOS, I immediately noticed the speed at which the OS boots up (and later, how fast it shuts down). The lack of the standard Windows "almost there, almost there" boot up/shutdown song and dance, and the endless parade of extensions on my Mac's startup screen were not things I missed.
BeOs has an internal 64-bit pipeline, and has been built from the ground up to deliver extremely fast response for file access and for a large variety of multimedia types. The typical reviewer remark about this is "imagine playing 6 Quicktime movies at the same time!" I decided to take a different approach, and played 11 MP3 files simultaneously. It was a heck of a sonic mess, but the OS mixed all the output in realtime without flinching.
Every file system saves some sort of information about the attributes of individual files. For most operating systems, this information is limited to the name, size, date of creation and perhaps ownership/access permissions for the file. Under the BeOS, attributes are enormously customizable, and new types can be created by the user. These new attributes can contain data of almost any format, and powerful database-like search and sort functions can be performed system-wide (MP3 files could be sorted by information embedded in their ID3 tags, to offer one very simple example). The OS and your applications can also use attribute information to automate a large number of tasks.
The Unix-like kernel is accessible from a powerful command line running bash, a command shell which will instantly be familiar to Linux users. Mac and Windows users need not be afraid - the GUI is great, and you'll never have to deal with a command shell if you don't want to. Since the kernel is almost fully POSIX compliant, recompiling existing Unix applications is much easier.
You can run BeOS on both Intel and PowerPC platforms and there's specific support for Pentium III enhancements build into the OS. This is great for programmers, since you can immediately start developing for both sets of hardware. BeOS can also mount, read, and write to any FAT16, FAT32, and Mac HFS formatted discs.
You can't, however, run BeOS on G3 or G4 processors (in other words, any recent Macintosh). The word on the street is that Apple is making it difficult for Be to be ported to these newer machines, but I don't have any firm information about that.
The Downsides, & Getting Started
Ok, if it's so great, why isn't everyone using it? Well, admittedly, it's not all roses and multi-threaded moonbeams in Be-land. There are some definitely cons to the BeOS, and for many people, these may be enough to keep them from even trying it.
Software and Hardware Support.
This is the big one. BeOS, being the "little kid on the block," doesn't have anywhere near the software support of either the Microsoft or Macintosh OSes. It's the catch-22 of any new operating system - if the OS doesn't have any applications, it won't attract any users. And if it doesn't have any users, no one will want to write applications for the OS. And if it doesn't have any applications...you get the idea.
This is not to imply that there are no applications available for BeOS, just that the number is far lower than on other platforms. A quick glance at the BeWare Catalog (http://www.be.com/software/beware/), or at sites like BeBits (http://www.bebits.com) will give you a good idea of range and scope of available applications. Being both media-optimized and programmer-friendly, Be has software available from several big names in the the audio/video/image software community, including MetaCreations, Steinberg, Arboretum, eMagic, VideoWave and more. Most importantly, much of the software available seems to be high in quality, which might make the total number of choices less of a concern.
Hardware support is good, but not complete. While the company and existing user base has done an admirable job of writing drivers and keeping Be compatible with most major hardware, there are definite gaps. As with the software catch-22, most manufacturers won't spend the time and money to develop drivers for a platform with a small user base. On the plus side, BeOS does a wonderful job of automatically recognizing the hardware it does support, so installation of new (supported) devices is extremely easy. For speed demons, the OS also has multi-processor support built into the kernel. More information about currently supported hardware can be found at: http://www.be.com/products/beosreadylist.html
Ease of Use/Learning Curve.
This isn't necessarily a con, as much as it's just a fact of life. BeOS 5 is a complete and independent operating system, so learning to use it will take a little time. Elements of the interface can be changed to more closely resemble other OSes and there are aspects of the interface that will make users migrating from Windows, MacOS or Unix feel more comfortable. The core is distinctly Be though, and to get the most out of it, a new user is going to have to realize that there will be a learning curve. This is especially true for new features like the powerful attributes system that don't have a clear equivalent in other existing OSes.
Getting Going with BeOS 5
I found BeOS 5 to be a breeze to install. After downloading the installation archive (which, at 40 megs, is somewhat large for modem users, but still smaller than most game and application demos these days), I walked through a fairly brainless and painless install process. The new version simply installs itself and it's file structure as a one 500 meg file in your existing system, so there was no need to worry about repartitioning, dual-boot voodoo, or file system changes. Booting into BeOS is just as easy - just click on an icon on your desktop. Your OS shuts itself down, and Be pops up. Since I'm running Windows NT, I did have to make an additional boot floppy, but that was equally painless.
I have no vested interest in the BeOS - I don't own stock in the company, and had never used it before this review. Though I get as grumpy as the next guy about the foibles of Windows, MacOS and the various flavors of Unix that I work on in any given day, I have no major grudge or agenda against any of those platforms or their parent companies. So bottom line - will I continue use BeOS 5 in the future? My honest answer is a qualified "maybe". The OS itself seems great: it's zippy, looks nice, and "feels good", if that makes any sense. Though I'm certainly at the start of the learning curve, and need to get much more familiar with the details of the user interface, I like what I see. Every time I use BeOS 5, different elements of the design jump out at me and small but elegant features come to light.
For me, the deciding factor will ultimately come down to software support. Will the available software allow me to accomplish my work? Perhaps more on point, will it make life easier for me, and make up for any time I need to spend learning to use a new OS? I'm not entirely sure yet, but I enjoyed BeOS 5 enough to invest a little more time putting it through its paces and surveying the available software. I'd recommend anyone with an interest in alternative, well-designed operating systems to take a look.