BeOS, Then and Now

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2334, 2005-08-26, in the "I Don't Do Windows" column, in both their print edition (on pages 28 and 30) and their website.

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, of all the alternative operating systems, BeOS was perhaps the smallest underdog. It was largely ignored by the computer media, completely unknown to the majority of computer users, and yet beloved by the hobbyists who had adopted the "little OS that could". They pointed proudly to its minimal system requirements, impressive multimedia capabilities, blazingly fast graphics, and quick boot time (less than 15 seconds on most hardware!). Also, the fact that it did not originate from Redmond, certainly did not hurt.

Still available today, BeOS possesses additional advantages over other operating systems. The installation file for the latest revision (version 5) is only 43 MB, a fraction of heftier competitors, such as Windows. It is also faster and more stable than Windows. In comparison to Linux, it is easier to install. Like Linux, the price for BeOS just can't be beat (free).

Unfortunately, the maker of BeOS, Be Inc., was struggling financially. The firm was acquired by Palm in 2001, filed suit against Microsoft the next year, settled with Microsoft a year later, and began shutting down operations in 2004. According to some industry pundits (at least, those paying any attention to BeOS), it looked like the end for an operating system (OS) that had many strengths, though it did lack in market acceptance.

BeOS Resources

Although its original parent company has gone the way of so many other small computer startups, BeOS is still hanging in there. The better websites devoted to BeOS still exist, even though the OS itself has apparently not been updated since December 2001. Enthusiasm can still be found among loyal BeOS users. ("Both of them!" shouts out a cynical member of the peanut gallery.)

At the height of BeOS's popularity, there were a handful of websites devoted to the OS. One of the most popular of all is BeBits. It has links to a wide assortment of BeOS applications, as well as the BeOS installation file. In addition, that page is the place to go for downloading the BeOS development tools, which include a BeOS port of GCC (a C/C++ compiler and debugger), make (a utility for building applications), an IDE (integrated development environment), and other GNU development utilities.

Once BeOS has been installed, the user would likely be interested in downloading applications that it supports. The BeBits site has a plethora of such applications, grouped into 14 categories: audio tools, development, drivers, entertainment, games, geek toys, graphics tools, info management, Internet and networking, productivity, science and math, system files, utilities, and video tools. Within each category there are hundreds of entries. These are grouped into subcategories, making it easier to find what you are looking for. For instance, the "productivity" category has subcategories for office suites, spreadsheets, word processors, and other types of applications.

BeBits also features spotlights on specific programs, as well as a few news items. The most recent one could be quite useful to the new user, because it mentions that an out-of-print book, Scot Hacker's BeOS Bible, has just recently been made available again on the Internet.

Of all the news/community websites devoted to BeOS, possibly the two most promising are BeGroovy and Haiku News. The former does a competent job of reporting the latest BeOS news, with links to archived material dating back to December 1998. It also has links to user groups, BeOS software, other news sites, and sources for hardware drivers and laptop information. That first set of resources is probably the best place to start if you install BeOS and have questions about it or any software that runs on it.

The second site mentioned, Haiku News, has nothing to do with real Japanese poetry, but everything to do with the latest happenings and announcements among the BeOS community. It has news archives going back to 2001, as well as a gallery of screenshots, a library of BeOS-related links, and a catalog of items emblazoned with the site's name, including those staples of the programming world, T-shirts and coffee cups.

The Mark of ZETA

Another source of hope for long-suffering BeOS enthusiasts, is the work of yellowTAB, a German company that has come out with a new operating system, ZETA, based upon BeOS. Sadly, the company's website has remarkably little information about the OS's capabilities in any detail. The best place to see screenshots of an earlier version of ZETA is O'Reilly Media's OSDir.com: http://shots.osdir.com/slideshows/slideshow.php?release=223&slide=2.

It is uncertain as to whether ZETA will help the cause of BeOS. ZETA is a commercial product, and is not free nor open source. Furthermore, the source code for BeOS is still owned by Palm, so there is no guarantee as to what yellowTAB will be able to do with ZETA. On the other hand, commercial success of ZETA could possibly increase media attention to BeOS, which could only help.

Down but not out, BeOS is proving itself to be a survivor. After putting up for years with increasingly complicated user interfaces, many computer users could find BeOS's interface to be refreshingly straightforward. Perhaps they would like to see an OS that takes seconds, not minutes, to get started. If so, BeOS may be their OS.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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