What's it gonna Be?

After nine years of building an operating system, Be is going public. But has the company figured out what it wants to be?

Published July 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Be Inc. is due to go public any day now -- but the operating system maker is still not sure exactly what it wants to be. CEO Jean-Louis Gassei has spent his company's nine-year history dabbling in an array of diverse, often contradictory market niches. Now on the verge of a stock offering that could either revitalize Be or toll its death-knell, the company continues to vacillate about just what its sole product, the Be operating system, is good for: Is it a Macintosh on steroids? A "companion" OS to Windows? A speedy, so-reliable-it's-invisible system to power multi-tasking Internet appliances? A media professional's tool for animation and video editing?

The most enduring, yet least publicized, of Be's ever-changing identities is the one that's carried it for much of its lifetime: its reputation among hardcore geeks for creating irresistibly whizzy new technology. The BeOS's 64-bit file system, for instance, is unprecedented. As Neal Stephenson wrote in a recent online manifesto that likened the various operating-system concerns to automobiles, if Windows is the equivalent of a station wagon and the Mac OS is a "sleek, Euro-styled sedan," then Linux is a tank -- and the BeOS a Batmobile.

"What Be has done in OS technology is kind of breathtaking," agrees Scot Hacker, co-author of "The BeOS Bible." "They've taken all the futuristic buzzwords that other OSes would like to incorporate and actually implemented them. That's kind of like erotica for geeks."

Turbo-charged code may raise pulses in IT departments, but the marketplace is another matter. Skeptics point out that the BeOS has a bare handful of applications and a minuscule user base. "Word of mouth is a very powerful advertising tool, but you've got many forces at work here," says Lawrence York, co-manager of the WWW Internet Fund, which invests heavily in technology stocks. York, for one, isn't betting on Be making it big.

Adding to such doubts was the company's recent announcement that it may start giving away its product. This move seems aimed at duplicating the bootstrap success of Linux, which has spawned auspicious ventures that produce proprietary software and peddle dirt-cheap Linux boxes. Two makers of sub-$500 PCs, Microworkz and iDot, recently announced their machines will run the BeOS. Along with the network of volunteer coders busily writing device drivers and porting their favorite applications, such partnerships could fuel a Linux-like groundswell for Be. Or not. "It's a model that has been used successfully in the past," York says. "I wish them success, [but] it's extremely difficult. I would give them a low probability of success."

By Etelka Lehoczky

Etelka Lehoczky is a freelance writer living in Chicago.

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