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Jean‑Louis Gassée, President of Be Inc., whose intellectual properties and technology assets have been sold to mobile computing giant Palm. What's in store for BeOS is now uncertain.Jean‑Louis Gassée, President of Be Inc., whose intellectual properties and technology assets have been sold to mobile computing giant Palm. What's in store for BeOS is now uncertain.

BeOS is arguably the most promising independent multimedia OS of recent years — but, sadly, innovation and quality have not been enough to guarantee its future...

BeOS is no more. It's been bought by Palm, the company that makes the hand‑held Personal Digital Assistant that is, by volume, the most popular device of its type on the planet. If, like me, you've followed the development of BeOS with interest ever since it started nine years ago, you'll be saddened to know that the maverick little operating system company has flaked out after achieving so much.

Not To BeOS


BeOS was important to musicians and anyone involved in creative media. It was the first OS that deserved to be called a 'media operating system'. Designed from the ground up to be media‑friendly, it felt fluid and powerful in use, even on a computer that today would be regarded as obsolete. Sadly, these are the only types of computer that will run BeOS now, because to work in the real world an OS needs drivers, and these are possibly the most labour‑intensive elements to keep up to date.

But the most remarkable thing about BeOS was not its technical innovation. It was the sheer tenacity with which it clung to life in the face of outrageous odds. First, it ran on a chip that no one had heard of outside of telecommunications: the Hobbit, hosted in a custom‑built computer called the Be Box. Then it was ported to run on the Power PC chip, which, of course, was the key to its ability to run as an alternative to the Mac OS. (BeOS was designed by ex‑Apple employees.)

Undoubtedly the biggest opportunity for BeOS was when Apple was looking for a next‑generation operating system and even went as far as making an offer of over a hundred million dollars for BeOS. Be's charismatic president, Jean‑Louis Gassée, turned it down on the grounds that BeOS was worth more. That figure might indeed have looked low when you consider what Apple would have had to pay to develop their new OS from scratch. But they didn't have to do that, because Steve Jobs' NeXT OS was waiting in the wings, along with — of course — Steve Jobs. While it's not quite as elegant (in my opinion) as BeOS, Apple have nevertheless successfully developed what is now known as OSX into a robust commercial product.

For me, the most remarkable event in BeOS' history was the decision the company made, unbowed by the Apple débacle, to take on Microsoft instead, by recompiling BeOS to run on the Intel‑based PC platform. For a short period, BeOS stood as a very plausible alternative to Windows and a very exciting prospect for musicians, with the likes of Steinberg and Emagic committed to porting their major application software to the platform.

Then came the bombshell. Be announced that they were giving away version 5 of the OS. This, I believe, was not part of the move to open‑source, freely downloadable software that is exemplified by Linux. It was more likely a desperate attempt to gain market share, in the hope that if they succeeded in getting enough people to use the OS it would become an attractive development platform for application software companies.

But the numbers were all wrong. They got nowhere near critical mass, and the very move designed to attract users and developers scared them off from day one. Starved of even the small income derived from OS sales, Be bravely switched their emphasis to writing software for 'Internet Appliances', a product category that is still waiting in the wings but has certainly not caught on to any noticeable degree.

So, it's bye‑bye BeOS. Or is it?

Maybe Palm just wanted great programmers: Be certainly had those. But perhaps Palm have a vision for their own operating system — currently a good but dull product, in my view — as a multimedia OS. Realistically I think Palm realise that Palm OS lacks the sort of media capabilities demonstrated by Microsoft's Pocket PC, which can even play full‑screen videos on hand‑held devices such as Compaq's iPAQ. I expect what we'll actually see is Palm OS becoming more media‑capable (see box on page 30), but I doubt that it will ever take a lead in media manipulation and presentation. And as for BeOS: the whole episode seems so unreal that it's got a dream‑like quality. It's hard to believe that it happened at all!

Copy Rights, Copy Wrongs


If you've dipped into this column over the last two years or so, you may have seen the topic of copy protection crop up in various guises. It's a complex subject, but my views about it are simple: it's practically impossible to copy‑protect music. But what you can do very effectively is annoy the very people who are quite prepared to pay for the use of music. And in the wake of the damage to music users' goodwill, you can destroy perfectly good new formats and ways of using music.

It's happening again. Ill‑informed paranoia over piracy killed DAT as a domestic format. Now, incredibly, it's threatening the very existence of the Audio Compact Disc. The ludicrously inflated concerns over DAT ignored two important facts: serious music pirates could simply have paid whatever was necessary to defeat serial copy protection and create counterfeit copies, and anyone else would just have made an analogue copy, just like they always had.

I just want to say at this point that I'm in favour of copyright. I believe that musicians are entitled to specify the conditions under which their works are recorded and performed, and if one of those conditions is that they should be paid, that's perfectly OK by me. What I'm not in favour of is yet another attempt to make the very use of music more difficult, which will in turn cripple the very phenomenon that could possibly make people like me buy more music because they can listen to more music.

When I buy a CD (which I do, frequently), the first thing I do is rip it (that is, make a direct digital copy from my CD‑ROM drive) onto my computer network. Then I can access the track wherever I am in the house and make compilations of the tracks that I have paid for to use in the car. I listen to a lot more music this way and, undoubtedly, buy more. Yes, I have used Napster‑like services; but the effect of free music downloads has been that I buy even more CDs, because I hear artists I wouldn't have heard otherwise and want a full‑quality copy of their works.

Make of this what you will, but what the record companies make of it is that ripping CDs is a threat to their very existence, and they are seeking to make it impossible. And they're doing it in the worst possible way: by modifying the CD format so that ripping doesn't work.

So when you buy such an 'enhanced' CD, you can play it in your stereo, possibly in your car, and probably in your computer; but you won't be able to 'rip' it as data to your computer.

Craftily, and rather smugly, the record companies aren't going to tell you which of their products are 'protected' in this way. The first you'll know is when you can't rip them. Or, under some circumstances, play them at all in your computer. Until the release of Windows Media Player 7, your CD‑ROM drive behaved just like a conventional CD player, with the Windows Media Player acting like a remote control on a conventional CD player. The path the audio took from your CD to your speakers was via a D‑A converter on the CD player, and then down an analogue cable to the CD input on your soundcard, where it was mixed with the other outputs from the card, such as wave audio and the microphone channel.

Economics alone should tell you that the quality of the D‑A converters in your CD‑ROM drive is not going to be very good. This fact is easily demonstrated if you have Windows Media Player 7, because if you go to Tools‑Options‑CD Audio, you can now select between digital playback (which is effectively ripping, in real‑time, without creating a file), and the conventional — analogue — method. It's worth trying this comparison while you still can, because the difference between digital and analogue playback, even on quite cheap 'multimedia' speakers, is striking.

Now, I have to say that I haven't come across any of these new, unrippable, disks, so I can't confirm that digital playback won't work with them, but I'd be very surprised if you could still play back digitally, because the copy‑protection mechanism works by making CD‑ROM drives unable to read CD Digital Audio tracks as data.

The story gets deeper and stranger. It seems that the record companies are not completely ignorant of the fact that more and more people are using their PCs as giant jukeboxes. There is at least a glimmer of realisation that more and more people are going to listen to music this way. So, in what I will show you in a minute is a very short‑sighted way, they have worked out a bizarre solution. In the last week of September, the computer news site reported that some record companies are planning to deviate even further from the CD Audio standard by including two copies of an album on one CD: one in conventional, PCM, 16‑bit, 44.1 kHz sampled audio form, and one as — wait for it — Windows Media Audio. The WMA copy is for you to transfer to your computer or portable music device, and it will, of course, be protected by Windows Rights Management.

Apart from causing alarm bells to ring in my head (could Microsoft eventually control the way we all use music?), this situation makes me wonder whether everyone has forgotten that when we buy a CD we expect to be able to use it for many years. The CD is now 18 years old and going strong. Of course, there are now better resolutions of audio available to us, but the important thing is that no‑one has any difficulty playing even the first commercially available CDs from the early '80s.

So how long is Windows Media Audio going to be around? The fact is that these formats seem to change every nine months or so, and while some support for 'legacy' formats is normally available, the owner of the formats — Microsoft — could withdraw the ability to play them at any time.

None of this would encourage me to buy one of these mutant CDs, even without considering the possibility that they won't play properly in some conventional CD players. Never mind the fact that as CD and DVD players get more like computers there will be little distinction between CD players and computer drives. Which means that you might buy a new CD player and find that none of your 'protected' discs work. At which point I hope you'll politely but firmly ask the record company for a refund.

Quart Into Pint Pot: Could BeOS Really Run On A Pda?

Sometimes it's not completely clear where an operating system ends and an application (or installable program) begins. This is partly the reason for the fuss that blew up when Microsoft decided to include their web browser as part of the Windows package. The browser and the OS were so tightly integrated that the browser almost appeared to be part of Windows itself, allegedly giving Microsoft an unfair advantage over other companies that might want to promote an alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer.

When Windows 3.0 first appeared, in the early '90s, it was really just a user interface: a program running under DOS. Now, under Windows 2000, with more than a little irony, DOS is effectively a program that runs under Windows.

The Be Operating System was a technical tour de force not because of its interface (which is what everyone sees when they use the operating system), but because it was a multi‑threaded, multi‑tasking, multi‑processor‑capable operating system. It's hard to imagine that this kind of system would transport easily to such a radically different architecture as a Palm PDA. But stranger things have happened. There are several versions of Linux available for various PDA platforms. You can run Mac OS under Linux on certain PowerPC systems — even with some multimedia support. Read all about it on