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A Trip To Be, Inc. (or: Mr. Compton Goes to Menlo Park)
By: Jason Compton
Schedules and plans can turn out to be funny things. I was supposed to be
at the Cologne Computer '95 show (commonly, but not really accurately,
referred to as the WOA), but that didn't work out. I found out, after the
fact, that I could have called in a favor to go out to the Toaster show.
Luckily for me, we've had so many reports for both shows in I almost feel
like I was there. Equally lucky, the weekend didn't go wasted. I was able
to change plans and get myself a trip to Menlo Park, home of the suddenly
de-cloaked Be, Incorporated.
For those who aren't aware of Be or their first product, the BeBox, here's
a quick summary. Be, Inc. was founded in 1990 by Jean-Louis Gassee, who
left Apple as a head engineering exec. His company set to work to create a
new computer platform on the premise that multiprocessing is a good thing.
To that end, the BeOS was geared to take advantage of up to 8 of them,
initially AT&T's Hobbit RISC, later the Motorola/IBM/Apple PowerPC. The
BeBox is the first computer to implement the BeOS, and sports PCI and ISA
busses, SCSI and IDE as standard, and a boatload of onboard I/O including
stereo in and out, MIDI, and IR ports. The box is driven by two PowerPC
Be's staff hit the computer world with a blitz, first at a trade show and
then with extensive information on the net. With such touted features as a
multithreaded, pre-emptively multitasking OS with all the niceties like
memory protection Amiga users have been asking for and compatibility with
industry standard (read: inexpensive) video cards, monitors, and
peripherals, my interest was caught. Besides, at the time I heard about
it, the PowerAmiga announcement hadn't been made yet.
So I did some talking with Gassee and he arranged a flight for me. (It was
on United, which isn't nearly as nice as Kiwi, but I'm not going to get
picky now.) I arrived at San Francisco airport, took a limo out to the
office building, and went in.
I had envisioned their office might be in a 15-story glass and metal cube
building where all sorts of companies would sneer at me behind closed doors
with all sorts of top secret technology I'd never see. (This is, after
all, Silicon Valley.) Fortunately, it was a much more tame building than
that and Be had the entire third floor so there was a minimum of
intimidation. (There were an awful lot of mirrors on the first floor, but
nothing I couldn't handle.)
So there I was. Maureen Hendrickson, the office administrative assistant,
fetched Gassee, and off he went to grab Melissa Rogers, Project Manager,
Benoit Schilling, 5-year Be veteran in software, and another gentleman
whose name escapes me. Gassee and I held a brief meeting, and then I was
whisked off for a short tour of the office floor (very sparsely furnished,
lots of old couches and tables, though.) Then came the demo.
The BeBox was set up in a special room designated for demos. They have a
pretty high-quality stereo setup in there, along with a prototype BeBox
case, an old Hobbit-based machine, and the demo unit, housed in an open
case under the table. The machine was equipped with a PCI GXE #9 graphics
card running at 800x600x256 (presently, the maximum implemented
resolution), a standard ISA PC Ethernet card, and a special keyboard/mouse
ISA card hacked up for temporary use, as there has been a software problem
with the Be's standard ports. In addition, there was some rather large
amount of disk space and 32 megs of memory.
Screenshots of the BeOS are available on Be's web site (listed later on.)
But a description of the "feel" is in order. The influence of the Mac
System isn't very hard to find--the general paradigm is the same. There's
the single-screen desktop, windows that open on it, and tasks that switch
either by clicking on their window or by selecting them from a list,
accessed in the upper left hand corner of the screen. Amiga users will
feel pretty at home opening up a "newsh", though, a bash variant shell that
has full control over the filesystem. In fact, the entire OS is so tightly
threaded through the built-in database that, for example, renaming a folder
in a shell will immediately update all on-screen GUI references to that
My demo "chaperone" proceeded to show off various aspects of the BeBox--the
speed of a Mandelbrot recalculation, the musical capabilities, and the
interprocess clipping. Then, of course, all of them at once (two
Mandelbrot zooms while two MIDI tracks and a sampled CD track played with
three animation windows running.) Yes, the system slowed down (you could
watch the processors fall out of sync in the Mandelbrot zooms, since each
processor handles odd/even lines.) But it kept chugging along, rather
nicely, too. All the while the old Hobbit box next to me ran a
landscape-generating screen saver that hid an old texture-mapped game demo
that wasn't exactly stable.
Then it was time for more important things, like lunch. Over lunch, about
a dozen Be employees gathered around. We discovered that I was the only
person present who hadn't worked for Apple in some way in my lifetime. Of
course, the "God I hated Apple I'm so glad I'm not there anymore" stories
started flying...and there was something very eerily familiar about them.
Stories of incompetent, overbearing engineering management. Stories of
over-delayed product releases (Melissa was the Project Manager for Mac's
Copland OS prior to coming to Be. She told us that her Apple sources
indicate Copland will likely be as late as December 1997.)
I got myself back behind the wheels of the BeBox for a bit longer after
lunch...played around with the GUI and shell (you are arbitrarily limited
to opening up 6 shells. Sorry to those Amiga folks who like opening up
dozens of shells to see how many you can get, but they just set a limit and
are done with the matter), and then with a Descent-like game in beta stage.
All very fluid. The TCP stack seemed competent, as was their quickie web
browser that was whipped up in-house.
I spent time talking at length with Joe Palmer, head of hardware for Be.
He described the production process (contracted out to a company who
profited from an Apple loss, buying up a highly modern but abandoned
production facility of theirs) and walked me through the motherboard. We
also did a lot of talking about the face of the computer marketplace, the
future of the Web, and earthquakes.
Gassee and I had some time to talk again afterwords. He reiterated what
he's been saying all along, that the BeBox is for computer enthusiasts,
hackers, and those who aren't looking to just run Microsoft Office.
They're not expecting to put a computer in every home, just in the homes of
people who don't want the everyday. And the cost of admission reflects it,
at least for now--a base unit is $1600, and that comes with essentially
just the motherboard and I/O card, you supply graphics, memory, storage,
and monitor. Be projects about $2500 for a "reasonably equipped" machine
of 16 megs of memory and the other accessories. 16 megs is definitely a
must, as the 32-meg BeBox--which wasn't running any major items worth
noting--took about 11 megs to boot. The minimum OS footprint is 4.5 megs.
I talked for a while with CK, Be's head of developer support. A veteran of
Apple dev support, CK was largely concerned with how to get the next 670
machines to the developers that want them. (a dozen already have them.)
We also talked at length about the Web and how it made his job infinitely
easier--no more phone calls or mass mailings, just put it on the web site
and be done with it. The BeBox is definitely for the networked crowd, or
as Gassee put it, "If you come into my shop and want to buy a BeBox, but
don't have an Internet account, I don't want you to buy one."
After about 5 hours in the company of the Be staff and machines, it was
time to call it a night. I did have dinner with Benoit the following
night, where it was time to buckle down and get to some more meaty issues,
Q: Is Be really going to focus on selling their operating system over selling
machines, as the web site indicates they're inclined to do?
A: Well, Benoit doesn't think so, anyway. It could easily go either way,
but he and I are in agreement that we just don't see it being overly
attractive to buy an operating system.
Q: How easy/difficult is it to add extra processors to the BeOS, since
you're supposed to be able to use up to 8 in the OS?
A: At least at first, there will have to be specific OS versions for any
extra processors (and extra machines, since there is no provision for
changing processors on the BeBox). They are considering doing a generic
version that would simply adjust to its environment, but memory overhead
issues come into play.
Q: Are there going to be, say, Unix variants ported to the BeBox?
A: Benoit feels it would be such a difficult task it wouldn't really be
worth the trouble, but the logic analyzers are available to developers if
they really want to give it a shot...
There was also quite a bit of questioning coming FROM Be about the Amiga,
both on Thursday from the staff (including Be's webmaster who wanted to
make sure Amiga users would have access to the Be developer manual) and
from Benoit Friday night. But that's only fair, they paid for me to pick
their brains. Quite a lot of the response to their product announcement
came from Amiga users, but the subsequent announcement of upcoming PowerPC
Amiga development has quelled that surge somewhat.
So, the question I've been asked a lot is, "Is the BeBox the next Amiga?"
Well, it all depends on what you think the Amiga is. If the Amiga is doing
amazing things with relatively limited resources, the answer is clearly
no--Amiga Technologies is shipping machines with less than half the memory
the BeOS needs to BOOT. If you see the Amiga as simply being an example of
a well-constructed alternative in the computer market, then the answer is
yes, after a sense. The BeBox isn't going to be touted as a giant-killer,
there are no plans to target Compaq, IBM, Dell, and Microsoft and take them
out of commission. At least in Europe, the Amiga is aimed a bit more at
these sorts of markets than the Be is.
On the other hand, the Be has the hardware advantage at the moment--Dave
Haynie has implicitly and explicitly said that the BeBox is a rough example
of where the Amiga SHOULD be now, all things going according to plan and
there not being an extended suspension of Amiga development.
Is the BeBox a good reason to throw your Amiga out the window? Mine's
staying planted on my desk. But just when it seemed that the Amiga might
fade away into obscurity for good and the face of Windows would overwhelm
the landscape, Be came out with a pretty impressive bang. Competition in
the computer market pleases me, and I think it may have been directly
responsible for Amiga Tech's sudden willingness to talk a bit more
specifically about the future.
I saw a lot of good things. I saw a compact but loose company with a group
of talented people who enjoy working with each other and believe in what
they're working on. I saw a machine that had a real personality and feel
to it (No, no dragging screens up and down, but it has a feel), a real
viable alternative to the Intel/Microsoft wave, a potential ally against a
common foe, you might say. And I saw the reason AmiTech's been more open
to their customers. So the trip was a success, even if I didn't walk out
with a new computer.
The Flip Side: Of course, there are always those details that are worth
mentioning that just don't fit the flow of the article...
Robert Reiswig (who co-authored one of the VTU Expo reports in this issue)
and I got together Saturday night for a drive and a couple of rounds of
Virtual Worlds Battletech. As far as we can tell, it's still all driven by
Amiga 500s, and there were lots of 1084Ses in sight. Rob pretty much blew
me away most of the time, but I did finish with 5 kills versus 6 times
killed, and kept my score in the positive numbers.
Two Be employees, at different times, pointed out that one of the things
they remembered the most about the Amiga was the screen dragging.
The BeBox has an application that allows you to monitor the processor
usage. You can also shut off a processor to watch the load increase
(useful for debugging, I'm told.) You can also shut BOTH of them off.
I didn't get heckled wearing either my Amiga (PC-Task) or Be t-shirts over
the weekend. Man, it's really different being in the Silicon Valley.