BeOS in the Convergence Space

Scot Hacker, 9/19/1999

As the wired world careens toward its much-discussed "convergent future," Be has quietly been planning their own version of the perfect low-cost, easy-to-use, dedicated media device. Be's IPAD (Internet Personal Access Device)* doesn't represent so much a particular machine as it does a set of techniques that can be used to rope off a subset of BeOS for use in specialized roles. The precise implementation of the IPAD is not to be decided by Be, but by OEMs interested in marketing computing devices for the kitchen or garage, bus station or airport, assembly line or design studio.

So far, only one major hardware vendor has stepped forward to claim they'll be shipping IPAD appliances in the near future -- Microworkz is planning to sell their BeOS-based iToaster for $199. That's well under the magic price point considered necessary for wide adoption of consumer electronics devices... but for that price you get a complete computer with an operating system and applications, not just a VCR. An oft-cited stumbling block for the distribution of cheap computers has always been the fact that at low margins, the cost of the OS and applications can cut deeply into the total production cost for OEMs. Be isn't saying how cheaply they're selling custom versions of the OS to vendors, but assured me that their bulk pricing was "very competitive."

EDITOR: Please place this footnote at the bottom of the first page, wherever that turns out to be.

* According to hints dropped in a recent newsletter, Be may be casting about for a catchier moniker than "IPAD."

The Prototype

At PC Expo in New York last June, Be took the wraps off a heavily customized version of the OS running on a low-cost computer. The device, aimed at kitchen use, boots to a custom interface in around 15 seconds. Rather than needing to dig up links to applications or indeed to think much about how the machine is used at all, the user is presented with a UI that takes over the entire desktop.

Be's IPAD Concept
Be's IPAD prototype -- Using Be's multimedia capabilities to build a kitchen computer. In this shot, the broadband-connected user is watching recipe videos, playing mpeg audio, watching the news, and keeping an eye on the kids. The hardware looks funky, but is actually pretty standard stuff. The interface is completely unlike BeOS in "stanadard" mode. Click to enlarge.

Available operational choices -- get recipes, keep an eye on the kids, listen to streamed music, etc. -- are presented in the form of large, unmistakable buttons that can be navigated with flour-covered hands. Behind the scenes, BeOS is hoovering recipe text and videos down from the web over a broadband connection and storing them on the internal hard drive for future reference. The camera feed is coming in from the back yard, where the kids are playing in the pool. MP3 audio and email are likewise being fetched from the Net, and Be's mulitasking capabilities allow everything to happen simultaneously and smoothly. Users, according to Be, have been conditioned by years of exposure to television and CD players - devices with very limited interfaces and rock-solid reliability. One never questions the fact that your TV can do full-screen video all day and all night without blinking. The key to the success of IPAD-like devices at the consumer level is an operating system that can handle the same kind of media, with the same level of reliability.

So What Exactly Is an IPAD?

I talked to Frank Boosman, Be's Vice President of Business Development, to try and find out exactly what they've got up their sleeves here. Most importantly, I wanted to know why an OEM considering shipping such a device should choose BeOS over competing OSes - specifically Linux or Windows CE. What exactly is Be's concept of an Internet Appliance? Well, it's not a set-top box, and we're not talking embedded computing here. BeOS contains far less baggage than competing operating systems, and thus can take better advantage of existing hardware than can, say, Windows. It's not something that's going to run on a diskless, 4MB hand-held device, but it can get workstation-like power out of consumer hardware. Think of the IPAD as a sort of cross between an embedded OS and a full-blown desktop OS. The system, as you know, is optimized for high-bandwidth media throughput, so the IPAD is bound to take advantage of Be's unique features, such as pervasive multithreading, pre-emptive multitasking, and its database-like filesystem.

An IPAD can be anything from a low-cost machine with all of the complexity stripped away, to a dedicated terminal used by workers on assembly lines to identify and select parts in three dimensional space. Because the implementation is vendor-specific, it can be as simple or as complex as it needs to be. The vendor can hide or show any aspect of the OS, or take advantage of Be's object-oriented framework to utilize or discard any of Be's built-in technologies.

At this point, there are basically two working models of the BeOS IPAD: Be's own prototype, and the Microworkz iToaster. Others may be in the works, and Be may already have signed contracts with other vendors - they wouldn't say. The two implementations are quite different from one another, but not as different as custom IPAD implementations Be hopes to see in the future. Because the IPAD retains the full potential of a complete PC while still offering much of the compactness of an embedded unit, IPADs will one day become as diverse as the imaginations of vendors. Or, at least, that's the intention.

The Real World

In contrast to the prototype, Microworkz' iToaster is a general-purpose machine aimed at your Aunt Margaret. Rather than having to contend with the vagaries and complexities of a typical computer interface, Microworkz has created a custom interface of their own, sitting on top of BeOS. The key difference between Be's IPAD prototype and the iToaster implementation is that the iToaster's UI is done in HTML, using Be's native Web browser (NetPositive) with a few modifications and running in full-screen mode. Not that the user cares, or will even notice. On top of this custom UI, the user has access to the basic applications an entry-level user needs - email, word processing, web browsing, and a few other fundamentals.

Aside from the splash screen at boot time, nowhere in this UI will you find Be's logo. Be isn't necessarily interested in forcing their brand identity on the user here. The vendor or OEM is completely free to create any custom interface they need to get the job done. This is an interesting possibility for vendors, who either go with Linux and create virtually everything from scratch, or use Windows CE, which is not only underpowered for the kinds of jobs Be wants to enable, but also requires that everything be done within the confines of the Windows UI.

Be has completed their work on the iToaster implementation and delivered the results to Microworkz. It shouldn't be long before thousands of inexpensive, BeOS-based computers are in the hands of the general consumer, in the best acid test Be could possibly conduct for metering the viability of the concept. The results will be interesting to watch.

Speaking of Linux...

All of this is well and good, but can't a vendor create any kind of solution they want by going with Linux, assembling freely available bits and pieces into virtually any form factor? Sure they can... if they can afford it. How's that? Linux is free, right? Well, sorta. Any vendor sending out custom Linux implementations to hundreds of thousands of users is going to need a support system, and they're either going to have to provide that themselves or contract with one of the major Linux distributors. And what about the work it takes to create the custom implementation to begin with? As soon as you depart from an existing distro, you incur the costs of time and engineering effort you're probably not going to get from the open source community overnight. Those legions of free programmers are going to work on the apps and bug fixes they need, not the ones you need for your highly customized, hacked down version of Linux from which your commercial enterprise intends to make a handsome profit. While Linux itself may be free, the big picture is not.

Meanwhile, Be is interested in working with vendors on their custom implementations, providing a turnkey solution tailored to the specific needs of the OEM, whether that be for a kitchen computer or an airport kiosk. Vendors won't need to take on the responsibility of creating and maintaining their solution - that will be Be's job. Why should an OEM choose BeOS over Linux? In addition to maximum media performance, vendors will enjoy a close partnership with Be engineers, rapid development times thanks to a very clean API, the potential for extremely customizable user interfaces, reliability parallel to that of Linux, and purportedly very low costs.


An important question remains: Just how deeply can BeOS be hacked to suit a different set of needs than those for which the desktop version of the OS was intended? While BeOS can't be taken apart into little pieces and reassembled by anyone with sufficient skill, like Linux can, there's still a lot that can be done. Unnecessary components can be removed to minimize storage space, and unneeded drivers can be stripped out to further improve boot times. In "headless" implementations, the Tracker and Deskbar can be disabled in the system bootscript. Do you really need OpenGL in a cheap machine designed for email and web browsing?

Be is in the process of adding custom hooks to the OS to give vendors control over the look and feel of widgets and UI elements. Custom UIs can be coded in C++ or in HTML, and brought up automatically at boot time. The entire OS (or portions of it) can be loaded into Flash memory for near-instant-on capabilities, or the system can be suspended when power is switched off, then awoken quickly when needed.

While BeOS may not be as hackable as Linux, a small group of BeOS users have already banded together, apart from the auspices of Be, Inc., to build their own dedicated home and car MP3 playback devices. Realizing the potential of BeOS as a potentially great "convergence" OS, these users are taking it upon themselves to create homebrew BeOS machines for use in the living room, alongside the home entertainment system.

But Will It Work?

It sounds like a pretty good formula. But will it work? After all, Be does face a few obstacles. Mindshare is one of them, but this is not as much of a problem in the dedicated device space as it is on the desktop - OEMs are looking for solutions, not necessarily giant name brands. And then there's the driver situation: Custom hardware designs may include hardware for which BeOS drivers have not yet been written, requiring additional scrambling. Of course, there's the old Winmodem problem, since a lot of low-cost hardware includes the dreaded soft modem.

Finally, Be needs world-class browser support, and fast. NetPositive is lightweight and absolutely great for information gathering, but it doesn't yet deliver when viewing some of the Web's flashier sites. DHTML, Java, and a plug-in API are all still lacking. Fortunately, Mozilla is on its way and the Opera browser for BeOS is coming along at a handsome clip.

Nevertheless, Be has got a lot to offer in this space. The proof will be their ability to announce efforts with key OEMs and other partners over the coming weeks and months.

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