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BeOS: Possible Implications For Musicians

Cutting Edge By Dave Shapton
Published April 2000

Be's announcement that their operating system will soon be free means that its user base should grow, but may have adverse consequences for support.Be's announcement that their operating system will soon be free means that its user base should grow, but may have adverse consequences for support.

Dave Shapton gets to grips with the latest news about BeOS, and its possible implications for musicians.

Since I wrote last month's column there have been so many developments in the combined Internet and communications revolution that I've been wondering whether Cutting Edge should be an hourly, rather than monthly, contribution to SOS.

For example, in the February edition of SOS I wrote a piece about the BeOS operating system. In case you didn't see it, BeOS is an alternative to Windows and the Mac OS, designed by former Apple employees, which makes optimum use of a computer's ability to process multimedia information and — most importantly — music. My conclusion was that it is not only remarkable that BeOS exists at all in an environment where the main competitors are the likes of Microsoft and Apple, but that it is actually rather good at what it is trying to do.

Well, the very day my review went to the printers, Be disclosed the biggest surprise in its history: that it is going to give BeOS away free! This is staggering news — and I'm not sure that all of it is good.

That's because if you're a developer writing software for BeOS (and that category includes the likes of Steinberg and Emagic), it puts you in something of a dilemma. Clearly, as a business, you have to justify any expenditure on research and development with a business plan that shows that your income will go up when you release the new product. Any such projection is going to have to take into account the number of potential users of the operating system your product is designed for. That's easy, isn't it?

Free For All?

Linux is a Unix clone that has always been free — and, unlike BeOS, it is 'open source', meaning that anyone can contribute to its development.Linux is a Unix clone that has always been free — and, unlike BeOS, it is 'open source', meaning that anyone can contribute to its development.

If you give something away free, then loads of people will use it — maybe. At 60Mb, however, BeOS is a pretty hefty download which will, realistically, take three to five hours. That will deter some people and, in reality, means that it is not free to the user, though it will probably appear on magazine cover discs as well, which will eventually give most people a chance to try it.

But the difficulty of downloading BeOS is not the biggest hurdle it has to face. The thing that really worries me about the survival of BeOS is the simple fact that if you give something away then you don't make any money from it. To run a business on this basis you'd have to find staff willing to work for nothing, make arrangements with the electricity and telephone companies to waive their charges, and have a substantial resource of free advertising space. There is, of course, more to it than this, but staying with this line of thought for a moment, there is a precedent to Be's free‑Be announcement: Linux. This Unix‑like operating system is to computer geeks what a modular analogue synthesizer is to electronic musicians: capable of great things, but as user‑friendly as a cornered piranha. Linux is free. What's more, much of it is written by people who contribute their work for nothing. Why would anyone do this? Well, the program code behind Linux (the 'source code') is freely available on the Internet, and can be modified by anyone: the only condition is that they make their additions freely available in the same way. If there is something you'd like Linux to do that it doesn't do already, you can modify it so that it does, thus creating an operating system perfectly tailored for your own purposes.

So what Be is doing is a bit like Linux. Except that BeOS is not being made 'open source'. There's no particular reason why it should be — after all, Be own the ideas behind BeOS and it is their biggest asset.

So how are Be going to make money? In two ways: first, the 'free Be' offering will be a 'lite' edition. It will contain all the basic elements of the operating system and will be a completely viable stand‑alone product, but there will also be a kind of Be Plus package, offering additional features, that you will have to pay for. Companies who want to incorporate Be technology in their products (let's say if they want to build a stand‑alone synthesizer that uses Be as its operating system) will have to pay for it. Second, there is the real reason Be is giving BeOS away: Internet Appliances.

I'll talk about these in a minute; but first, let's just hope that the flip side of Be's decision to give BeOS away and their new focus on Internet Appliances isn't that they are not going to support it any more. There is good reason to believe that they will be able to maintain it, even though their income from it in the short‑term is likely to be zero: whatever platform Be runs on, it shares the same core program — so, in theory, advances on one platform should benefit them all. Maybe Be's decision to focus on Internet Appliances will lessen the impact of BeOS as a solution for professional music recording, and reduce the incentive for music developers to port their software to it — maybe not. I guess the best way to ensure its longevity is to use it. There are several reasons why you should at least give it a try. It's free. It will make your PC seem like it's faster. It gives Microsoft and Apple something to think about. And it's easy: version 5 will appear as an Icon on your windows desktop. Just click on it an it closes down Windows and launches BeOS: just like any other program.

Internet Appliances

Will we all soon be listening to the radio on our mobile phones? Ginger Media evidently think so...Will we all soon be listening to the radio on our mobile phones? Ginger Media evidently think so...

Calling something an 'Internet Appliance' is a bit like calling a book a 'Word Thing', for all the information it tells you about it. Arguably you could call anything that can connect to the Internet an Internet Appliance, but I think there is more to it than that. Be has chosen to move into Internet Appliances because it feels that this is a business area with potential for enormous growth, and which is in need of an operating system with media‑friendly characteristics. You can understand why the idea appeals to Be: most households have between zero and two computers. But within a short space of time, every home could have dozens of Internet Appliances.

I think it is likely that desktop personal computers — Windows‑based PCs and Macs — will become just one way of accessing the Internet. Browsing the Web, listening to MP3 files, watching DVDs, audio and MIDI production — very soon, there'll be no reason to do any of this stuff on that beige (or blue) box we have come to know as a computer. Forget about Mac versus PC, it's going to be Macs and PCs versus Internet Appliances. There will be a huge variety of IAs. Some will look like mobile phones and some will be more like PDAs (Personal Digital Assistants). Televisions will be IAs, as will games consoles. What they will all have in common is that they will be able to connect to the Internet, will be able to display web pages (perhaps via WAP: Wireless Application Protocol, which is already available from some of the mobile telecommunications companies), and they will have some multimedia capabilities.

What's going to drive the demand for IAs is content, portability and connectivity. And the easier it is to connect, the more you'll be able to exchange content. IAs will be able to connect at long or short range, and be able to pick up any information that is relevant to them. This is what's behind two of the most astonishing Internet‑related announcements ever, both of then business mergers.

Coming Together

Time Warner has merged with AOL, the world's biggest online provider in what was the world's biggest business manoeuvre — ever. No less awesome is the takeover of the German telecom company Mannesman by Vodaphone Airtouch, making it the biggest company in the UK (bigger, even, than BP).

These seismic changes in the worlds of entertainment and communications are obviously not just based on hunches. They have happened because digital media is the fastest‑growing business sector. The current revolution in processing power, bandwidth, and connectivity has opened up wider and more numerous opportunities to grow new business than there have ever been. It's going to affect everyone in almost every way. I do my grocery shopping on the Internet, which saves me three hours a week. That's time I can spend writing, playing or listening to music. The music I listen to comes from MP3 files or streamed directly from a Los Angeles radio station. When I watch television, I look up the schedules on the Internet. Soon, I'll be able to listen to any track or watch any programme just by clicking on a hyperlink: and I won't have to be sitting at a computer to do it. Scratch the surface and you'll find that most big companies are in what can only be described as 'panic mode'. All big corporations are desperately looking for ways to harness the potential of the new Internet and to ward off the competitive threats it presents. As creative musicians, we are in a position to benefit from this. There has never been a better time to get your music heard by other people, and to have it used as part of a new, Internet‑age business plan.

So Why Am I Telling You This?

Why is this kind of coverage appearing in a music technology magazine? Because every little step in the 'Internet Everywhere' revolution means that there is another way for your music to be heard more easily by more people. It increases the demand for musical content creation, and the underlying technology allows musicians to make music in new and better ways. That's what I think, anyway. If you're not quite convinced about the degree to which the Internet is going to change the way we create, distribute and listen to music then how about this: The Ginger Media company, founded by Chris Evans, has forged an alliance with mobile phone giant Ericsson to look at ways of maximising the commercial potential of the third‑generation mobile phone standard Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS). UMTS is exciting because it is from the ground up a data‑transfer system, unlike present mobile‑phone standard, GSM, which is optimised for voice. Internet browsing using GSM is a struggle because the maximum available bandwidth is 9.6 Kbits/second. That's barely enough for email and hopeless for multimedia streaming. UMTS, though, can offer ADSL speeds without a wired connection, making it ideal for streaming CD‑quality audio and quite respectable video.

Ginger Media owns Virgin Radio. They have always been miffed at not being able to get a national FM frequency for their station, and perhaps this is part of the reason why they have always been looking at alterative ways to reach listeners. With UMTS, and the fact that just about every mobile device will be connected using it, there is suddenly a new way to listen to radio. I'm not convinced that a mobile phone is a particularly nice way to listen to radio, but it wouldn't be difficult to connect a pair of cordless headphones (probably using Bluetooth — a low‑powered, very low‑cost radio network) so that the phone could be used just like a Walkman.

What's really exciting is that if Ginger Media can do it, then so can you. All you need is a streaming server and you can set up your own radio station that can be heard by anyone in the world. You can play your music to anyone, anywhere, at any time. Of course you can do this now via PCs connected to the Internet, but I somehow feel that you would get more people listening if they weren't chained to their computer.