21st: To Be or not to Be

It's fast, it's fresh and it already has a cult following. But will the new high-end operating system find a market?

By Greg Lindsay

Published March 4, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

Nestled into two stories of an office building in the heart of Silicon Valley, the engineers of software startup Be Inc. are just beginning to wind down from the months-long push to develop a version of their brand-new operating system, the BeOS, for Intel's processors. They've been putting in 80-hour weeks, working through the early mornings -- doing what engineers do when they work at a startup company and really love it.

What makes Be different from other startups is that its customers have begun to really love them back. With barely a product on the market, Be already has a cult following.

The company's sole product is a next-generation operating system aimed at video and multimedia creators. Once the BeOS for Intel processors ships on March 12 -- ahead of its originally announced schedule -- Be quietly plans to install its BeOS side-by-side with Windows and the MacOS on both Pentium and PowerPC machines. For malcontents on both sides of the PC vs. Mac religious war, Be's heretical OS will be an easy path to agnosticism.

And the doubters are following. "In my opinion," says Scot Hacker, who writes for ZDNet's BeHive, "religious attitudes about OSs turn more people off than on. The way to prove your worth is with the goods. Show people in the real world how much better things could be. Don't spin your wheels in online forums beating each other up. Promotion is one thing, zealotry is another."

But there are Be zealots, too. The proliferation of Be news sites, user groups and even an Onion-style pseudo-news site, BeDope, is a little startling considering the company hasn't shipped a full version of its product yet. And Be itself is lavishing praise and attention on its fans -- especially its small-time developers. Since its OS is incompatible with every existing platform, Be desperately needs people to write applications. And if developers are going to switch to Be, they're going to need some personal reassurances.

But isn't this a tough sell? If a big, established company like Apple can't hold onto developers in a Microsoft-dominated world, how can a little startup like Be?

For starters, though the shadow of Apple inevitably hangs over Be -- which was founded by former Apple exec Jean-Louis Gassie and almost bought by Apple back in 1996 -- Be is determined to do everything differently from Apple.

"Apple is the epitome of what we don't want to be," says Be software engineer Dominic Giampaolo. "At Be, if there's anybody who makes fun of us, it's us. There's no sense we're descended from heaven to touch upon the masses and deliver them from mediocrity. Any pretentiousness is really looked down upon."

Beyond the cultural differences between the two companies, the BeOS is easily as powerful as Apple's next-generation Rhapsody operating system -- with fully supported symmetric multiprocessing (which means every application written for Be can harness multiple processors on a single computer) and multithreading, which allows many programs to hum along at a nice clip simultaneously. And unlike Rhapsody, BeOS is ready to ship. On Intel machines. Right now.

Finally, Be has captured the imagination of an adventurous crowd of devotees in a way that Apple hasn't managed for years. "The BeOS is the only major OS innovation of the last couple of years that draws people who have seen their favorite platform perish (Amiga, Atari, Acorn, Apple)," says Hans Speijer, co-creator of Be Leading Edge.

Amiga fans' hard-core devotion to the platform makes Apple nuts look lackadaisical. And they're used to writing most of their own software to keep their machines running, so pitching in to write for Be is no big deal. Meanwhile, fans of high-end Silicon Graphics systems may find it appealing to switch to the vastly cheaper BeOS -- and bring their favorite UNIX programs with them. It's not by coincidence that Be is recruiting most of its engineers from these two camps these days, according to Erich Ringwalde, its VP of engineering.

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The larger story of Be has its roots firmly set in the soil of Apple's
rich mythology. In this context, the company's founding is the second great
exodus of Apple engineers (the first being Steve Jobs' ouster in 1986 and
his subsequent founding of NeXT). In 1990, John Sculley fired
Gassée, then head of Apple engineering and Sculley's right-hand man. A few
days after his departure, Gassée founded Be -- and soon after was joined by
disgusted Apple engineers like Ringwalde, creator of the "Pink" project
that was supposed to have been Apple's next cutting-edge OS. Ringwalde left
after Apple dumped over 100 engineers on the project and mired it in its
own org chart.

With experiences like these, the two men and their compatriots took it
upon themselves to make their new company the Anti-Apple. Gassée, whom Jim
Carlton scathingly portrays in his book "Apple: The Inside Story of
Intrigue, Egomania, and Business Blunders" as the man who fought tooth and
nail against licensing the Mac OS, admits today that he was wrong -- but
says that by the time he was in power, he had no control over the situation.

"What Apple had and still has is a hardware addiction. And they can't
pull the needle," Gassée says. "There was no question for me that we [here
at Be] could get rid of the hardware addiction because we had not been
intoxicated enough. It's not a question of belief, like when you make
licensing a religious point. We did it for business reasons."

So Be dumped its early hardware effort -- known as the BeBox -- and will
now license its OS to anyone. It even posted a bare-bones version
of its Preview Release to the Internet, downloadable for free. Carlton sees
this as a perfect example of what differentiates Gassée and the rest of
Be's leadership from a future competitor like Apple's Jobs. "This
willingness to admit fault is a key personality trait that sets Jean-Louis
apart from the truly megalomaniacal Steve Jobs," Carlton says. "As far as I
can tell, Jobs has never admitted a major mistake in his life."

On the software side, Ringwalde has kept his OS team the way he likes
it, small -- small enough that the core functions of the operating system
have been developed by only eight engineers. And unlike Apple, he says,
"The culture here breeds a number of supercapable, efficiently minded
engineers. There's a lot of arrogance in larger companies. All the years I
worked at Apple, I considered it a fairly arrogant place. I mean, we would
think to ourselves 'We built the MacOS!' Unfortunately, that was about all
they built. In a small company like Be, though, where we have to prove
ourselves, we don't have that yet."

"I don't think that the passing of a mantle from Apple to Be is
anything any of us think about," Ringwalde adds.

Be's leaders talk so much about their own humility that they almost
seem, paradoxically, proud of it. Once, when asked what the difference
between Be and Jobs' ill-fated NeXT
was, Gassée replied, "We don't shit on our developers." Stephen Adams, CEO
of Adamation Inc., a former NeXT
developer that's now making applications for Be, agrees. "You were either a
favorite son or you weren't with NeXT. Be is cut from the same cloth as its
developers. They started as a humble company, which I think came from
Jean-Louis when he left Apple. They've learned from its mistakes, and that
learning process is very endemic in their culture."

Humility may be enough to win respect from developers and loyalty from
customers. But can it build a successful business in the notoriously
brutal operating-system marketplace? Is there a niche for a fast, sleek,
ultramodern -- yet humble -- OS with neither Bill Gates' growing fortune
nor Apple's dwindling faithful on its side? We'll start to know the answer,
beginning next week.

Greg Lindsay

Greg Lindsay is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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