The Apps Are Out There

Surveying the BeOS Media Landscape

By Scot Hacker, 8/24/99

One of the unfortunate little facts about viral memes is that it's hard to make them go away. Once the press started pegging BeOS as "the really cool platform that suffers from a lack of applications," everyone started to believe it was true. Okay, it is sort of true. There are fewer apps available for BeOS than there are for other platforms. But I get steamed when I hear people say there are no apps available for BeOS, or show screenshots showing nothing but a lonely, default desktop. There's a world of fascinating software available for BeOS, and it's not hard to find.

Since Be is working so hard to become the ultimate platform for media content creation and consumption, I thought this might be a good time to talk about some of the noteworthy BeOS media applications currently shipping or near shipping. I also talked to a few media application developers to find out what they like about programming BeOS media apps.

In the House

Be is aiming to provide a better "out of the box" media experience than any other OS vendor. After spending years building and optimizing an infrastructure for audio and video recording and playback, they're now starting to include media utilities with the system that you have to look elsewhere for when using other systems.

In addition to a cool MediaPlayer that allows for intuitive looping and selection, plus precision control from the command line (useful for scripting presentations), BeOS includes a TV viewing app, a SoundRecorder much more capable than the one found in Windows, a VideoRecorder (in "experimental" form), a webcam utility, MIDI playback tools, two different CD players (one of which is capable of ripping tracks to hard disk), and sample 3rd-party audio and video applications. The next release of BeOS, code-named "Maui," will include a CD recording application capable of producing both audio and data CDs.

Perhaps most impressive though, is the fact that BeOS includes a multitrack mixer called 3dsound, which lets users mix multiple tracks of audio in both 2D (linear) and 3D (spatial) modes. When in 3D mode, each track can be moved around in space. Slide a track to the left, and it moves to your left speakers in the mix. Sliding tracks backwards and forwards changes their volume relative to other tracks. This is a really innovative approach to audio mixing, and is emblematic of the creative approaches BeOS developers take to old problems.

3dsound offers both linear and spatial audio editing modes. Click for full-size version

It's worth noting that people pay big money for multitrack audio editing tools for other platforms. BeOS itself costs less than this tool alone would likely cost on MacOS or Windows. 3dsound is young, but already quite functional, and an update is reported to be in the works.

Getting Real

Be and RealNetworks recently announced that they're teaming up to start shipping the G2 streaming media system with every copy of BeOS. This is just the kind of big-name support and backing that critics are constantly saying Be needs to survive. The player should become available at November's Comdex.

Real has faith in what Be is trying to accomplish here, and I won't be surprised to see them eventually releasing media content production tools for BeOS as well. It's a marriage made in heaven -- they'd be crazy not to.

Back in a Flash

On a parallel train, Macromedia Flash content is all over the web, and BeOS is potentially a great place to create Flash content. Fortunately, a native animation tool for BeOS called Moho (which made its debut last June at New York's PC Expo) has just gained the ability to export its animations to Flash files. BeOS users can now create Flash content and deliver streaming animation over the web without having to boot into another OS.

LostMarble's Moho lets you create vector animations by manipulating "bones," then export movies to AVI, QuickTime, or Flash. Click for full view.

Because Macromedia makes the Flash specification available to the world in the spirit of open source, BeOS users can view Flash files with the freeware Flush player. And, in a nice turnabout from the browser plug-in chaos found on other popular platforms, developers of the three major BeOS web browsers (NetPositive, Opera, and BeZilla) are purportedly cooperating on a single, unified plug-in specification that will allow users to install plug-ins once and have them "just work" with all installed browsers.

Get the Picture?

Meanwhile, content developers who want to work in more traditional formats such as animated GIF and/or JavaScript turn to BeatWare's e-Picture. e-Picture emerged from nowhere with both gloves swinging. Appearing on BeOS first, the company later produced a version for MacOS, which won MacWorld's Best of Show award a week later. e-Picture is an unusual bitmap/vector/animation web graphics tool, possibly best described as an inspired cousin of Macromedia's Fireworks with a few extra goodies thrown in for good measure.

Most users in need of a Photoshop clone currently turn to ArtPaint, which, while young and missing a few things, already sports a few real-time features that would make Photoshop users swoon. Meanwhile, a group called EventLoop is busy porting the popular Linux image editor GIMP to BeOS, vowing to clean up its interface in the process, bringing it into line with Be's elegant, native UI. Sum Software's Becasso offers an "orthogonal" interface, letting artists use the exact same tools and metaphors for painting or creating selections. Artists recreating natural media use Human Touch's Easel.

Making Movies

Everyone wants to know whether they can do digital video editing in BeOS yet. More importantly, people want to know why they should do it in BeOS rather than in Windows or MacOS. One of Be's big selling points is the fact that it makes it comparatively easy for developers to enable "real-time effects processing" in their applications.

Case in point: Most video-editing software for MacOS and Windows makes you sit back and file your nails while the application renders your changes, making video production a time-consuming and often frustrating experience. Adamation's personalStudio for BeOS, on the other hand, has no concept of "rendering." Want to change the transition effect between two clips? Just drag the effect onto the storyboard and the effect is applied in real time, even while the movie is playing. That kind of grace should be reason enough for media professionals to carve out a partition and try another operating system. Granted, personalStudio isn't a full-on video suite for professionals -- it's aimed more at the home market (yet; a more pro-video solution may be in the works).

Professionals, for now, will want to turn instead to Mediapede's UltraDV, which is aimed directly at the hard-core professional. A "Lite" version of UltraDV is scheduled to go into beta very soon now. One Mediapede programmer had this to say:

The BeOS API represents the state of the art in art in it's design. The whole concept of the the Interface Kit and The AppServer frees me from having to create and design an intelligent application framework. It is, in a sense, provided for you. Other platforms offer application libraries such as MFC or PowerPlant, but deep inside of them is a single procedural event loop that is interrupt driven. A BeOS app is truly multi-threaded and gives you the ability to do some amazing thing with both the UI and the internals of the program.

The concept of the object API also extends down into the areas of the system that are not visible to the user through the UI. The Media Kit, the file sytem and other lower level services all use an object API.

All of these features contribute to the ability to create rich and powerful applications in less time that are more robust and usable then what you can do on other platforms.

Finally, MGI is bringing their VideoWave home video-editing solution to BeOS from Windows. Often, ports from other platforms to BeOS mean sacrificing Be's advanced multithreading advantages. However, MGI has wisely chosen to deeply re-write many of VideoWave's internals, which should help it to perform as well as a native BeOS application would.

Making Music

Because BeOS offers such low latencies when communicating with audio hardware, and because the programming API offers a lot of extras for media developers, audio has long been one of the most populous BeOS application categories. New digital sequencers, MIDI tools, audio CD rippers, MP3 encoders, .wav editors and other goodies appear on a regular basis.

The downside? Professional-quality, multi-track audio apps are complex beasts, and take a lot of development time no matter how clean the API. As a result, most of these tools don't yet have the years of maturity or millions of backing dollars that tools on other platforms do. Fortunately, this is changing, as vendors are discovering that their applications simply perform better on BeOS than they do on their native platforms. For example, I spoke with a representative from Steinberg last June, as he showed me the multi-track NUENDO port-in-progress. After years of development on other platforms, Steinberg was finding that they could control more tracks more efficiently on less hardware with BeOS than they could do on their native platforms.

Similarly, an old Amiga favorite called Aural illusion will be making its BeOS debut this Fall. I asked Ai's author, Nicholas Blachford, about his experiences bringing the product to BeOS:

Thanks to Be's multithreading, I can start loading a sample and begin processing an effect on it while it's still loading. On dual-processor machines, the two threads are automatically assigned to different processors. That would be quite difficult if not impossible on other systems but on BeOS it's easy -- so easy, in fact, that I never intentionally added this capability! It's a side-effect of the way mutithreading is implemented in BeOS.

Another vendor, ObjektSynth offers a modular, polyphonic, multi-timbral, MIDI-controllable software synthsoftware synthesizer for BeOS. ObjektSynth says:

BeOS allows us to provide the responsiveness of a hardware synthesizer on a general purpose computer. ObjektSynth automatically takes advantage of 1 to 8 processors to provide awesome synthesis power without the need for proprietary and expensive DSP cards. And the BeOS Media Kit guarantees cooperation and synchronization between applications from any vendor.
Fans of the well-respected Peak mixer / MIDI interface for the Mac will be pleased to learn that a BeOS port is in progress.

T-Racks packs a few grand worth of compressor / limiter / equalizer hardware into a compact software package for professional musicians. Click for full view.

MP3 Me

MP3 heads enjoy two popular MP3 / multi-purpose audio players for BeOS, including CL-Amp, which is free and more or less a WinAmp clone, and SoundPlay, which takes better advantage of BeOS real-time capabilities. In fact, SoundPlay can play multiple simultaneous MP3 files at speeds of +/- 400%, and even integrates with a unique hardware solution called FinalScratch, which lets DJs "scratch" MP3 files in software by manipulating vinyl records on actual turntables, taking advantage of Be's very low hardware latencies.

Users can take advantage of Be's database-like filesystem to organize, sort, and query on MP3 files by copying ID3 tags to BeOS filesystem attributes. This allows for MP3 playlist creation control much tighter than you can get on other platforms, without using 3rd-party tools. BeOS users in need of a complete ripping, encoding, and ID3 tagging solution are currently beta testing the very polished UltraEncode from MediaPede, which will offer functionality similar to Windows tools like MusicMatch Jukebox. However, MusicMatch benefits from access to the very fast Xing encoder while UltraEncode will be forced to use the slower ISO-based coder for now. I'd love to see a fast MP3 coder built into BeOS as a "media node."

UltraEncode lets you rip, encode, and ID3 your MP3 files all in one step. Click for full view.

If audio is your thing, you should be reading LeBuzz on a daily basis for the straight scoop. LeBuzz also produces a weekly BeOS Internet radio show called AudioBuzz, available in both RealAudio and MP3 format. Well worth tuning in for five minutes a week, just to stay abreast of the latest developments.

There's More

Surf around BeWare, BeBits, or BeDepot, and you'll see that I haven't even scratched the surface of what's out there in the BeOS media arena. But it's not all about media -- people need to get their daily work done too, and BeOS makes a great general purpose operating system for many users as well (depending how you define "general purpose").

I'm not kidding myself -- I know evolution to full maturity takes time. But I also know that a lot of people are missing out on some great opportunities because they're going on bad information. Don't kid yourself, kid -- the media apps are out there. And the ones that aren't are just around the corner.

BeView Content Archives