BeOS: The 10,000-Foot View

Scot Hacker, August 2001

After two years of covering the finer points of BeOS for, it recently occurred to my editor that I had never done a "Back to Basics" introduction to BeOS for Byte readers. This month, we're going to stand back a bit and treat BeOS like a brand-new subject for those who have regarded BeOS with curiosity but have never dived in head-first. We'll cover the advantages and disadvantages of becoming a BeOS user, examine the history and current situation of Be, Inc., take a 10-minute tour of the operating system, and finish up by recommending some of the best applications, utilities, and online resources for BeOS users.

What Is BeOS?

In a nutshell, BeOS is a modern, object-oriented operating system designed from the ground-up to be lightweight but powerful, quick on its feet, and very easy to use. Because it has both an elegant GUI and a bash 2.0 command-line shell, some describe BeOS as having "The grace of the Mac, the power of Unix." However, BeOS is not just a Unix variant with a borrowed kernel -- it's a fresh OS designed from a clean slate, with usability and media performance foremost in mind. If you're interested in alternative operating systems but have become frustrated trying to install, configure, or use Linux, you're in for a treat.

Click for larger version.
The BeOS 5 desktop running a variety of media applications. Click for larger image.

To run BeOS, you'll need:

You do not need any pre-existing operating system on your machine to run BeOS Professional Edition. The free BeOS Personal Edition requires an existing Windows partition, unless you're prepared to go through a few contortions.

A Brief History of Be, Inc.

The Be Operating System was originally created by Be, Inc. almost ten years ago to address shortcomings in Windows and Mac OS, and to usher in a new era of user-friendly, legacy-free, high-performance computing with an emphasis on multimedia performance. The central philosophy behind Be was that older operating systems were straight-jacketed by their own histories. As an OS evolves, it accretes layers of silt and baggage, which slow it down. At the same time, new versions of operating systems have to retain backwards compatibility with older versions, which means more layers of bailing wire and chewing gum. By designing a new, legacy-free OS from the ground up, Be would have the opportunity to "do it right" this time. By creating a new OS from scratch, Be felt they could unharness the latent speed in consumer hardware -- speed that was seldom experienced by users because commercial operating systems were soaking up all the performance. Be turned out to be right; the OS they created squeezed unheard-of responsiveness and workstation performance out of commonly available consumer hardware.

In its original incarnation, BeOS ran only on The BeBox -- a proprietary computer with twin PowerPC processors running on a custom motherboard, with I/O cards from the Intel/x86 world. Among other unique features, the BeBox featured dancing CPU load indicators on the front bezel and a "GeekPort®" intended to work with custom "mad scientist" hardware.

Later, Be ported BeOS to run on PowerMacs and PowerPC clone boxes, which gave the operating system a much broader reach. Mac users at the time were often astounded by the speed and responsiveness BeOS was able to eek out of their existing Macs. The hardware business is an expensive gambit for a small company such as Be, but easy access to the installed base of PowerPC machines meant that the company was soon able to discontinue the BeBox. Only around 2,000 BeBoxen were manufactured before Be became a software-only company.

In order to keep running on PowerMac machines, Be needed a constant stream of new information from Apple. Originally, this was not a problem. But soon after Steve Jobs reclaimed the reigns at Apple, the "information spigot" to Be was terminated. The 3rd-party PowerPC clone business was also cut off at the knees. Now stranded without a hardware platform to call home, Be moved quickly to port BeOS again, this time to x86/Intel hardware. At last, BeOS was accessible to the general computing public, and BeOS/x86 users were just as impressed at the performance boost as PowerMac users had been. After seeing his first BeOS demonstration, Intel CEO Andy Grove was heard to say "I had no idea my hardware was capable of this kind of performance." Intel even made a $25 million investment in Be, and assigned engineering staff to work closely with Be engineers. But Be still faced a long and difficult road toward mass acceptance.

In the early days, BeOS was primarily targeted at the "geek" market. But as the operating system matured, Be began to smooth out some of the rough edges and focus on usability for the general desktop market. Meanwhile, Linux was beginning to gain more traction in the press and in the public's mind. But while Linux was primarily a server OS created by and for Unix jocks, Be leveraged the Mac OS heritage of its engineering staff, embracing the philosophy that it was possible to have the power of Unix and the grace of the Mac in the same package, and to do it on x86 hardware. As this idea took hold, 3rd-party development houses began to come on board in greater numbers. Be intended to create profit opportunities for dedicated BeOS development houses as well as established software companies porting products to BeOS.

Excitement in the BeOS user community grew to a fever pitch as the possibility of becoming a major contender in the OS market grew. But Be faced difficulties on many fronts. For example, the company now had to deal with the de facto hardware monopoly and find drivers for the immense variety of video, audio, and network cards on the market. Few hardware vendors were willing to part with the required specifications, let alone willing to write BeOS as well as Windows drivers. As a result, BeOS has never offered the 100% hardware compatibility that Windows does.

Meanwhile, Be was finding that good press didn't necessarily translate to new users. Selling their operating system one copy at a time to individual users was turning out to be difficult. The Be user community was growing steadily, but not mushrooming. Be needed to get BeOS pre-installed on consumer machines from major computer vendors, but ran into obstacles related to the bootloader and Microsoft's Windows License Agreement (I'll cover that in detail in a future column).

It was all about achieving critical mass for Be -- they needed enough users to support a profitable third-party development climate, but without enough 3rd-party applications, users were reluctant to partition hard drives and give the OS a shot. To this day, BeOS has not found a way out of this chicken-and-egg dilemma. It was becoming apparent that amazing performance and a unique approach to usability in OS design was not going to be sufficient to crack the desktop market. Without either the volume and money of the Windows market or the open source and revolutionary zeal of the open source universe, Be was again caught between a rock and a hard place. They needed to sell their product in volume.

In January 2000, Be stunned their userbase by announcing a radical shift in focus. Industry analysts were saying that the days of the standard desktop PC were numbered, and that within a few years most computing devices would be "appliances" -- stripped down machines with Internet connections, dedicated to specific tasks such as distributing audio throughout the home, offering simplified Net access, or integrating the contents of the refrigerator with online grocery services. With their extremely efficient, unencumbered, and highly modular OS design, Be decided to attack the coming appliance market with everything they had. Be created a variant of BeOS called BeIA and announced a string of relationships with up-and-coming appliance vendors. Most significant of these has been Sony, whose impressive eVilla appliance runs on BeIA.

Simultaneously, the company made BeOS into a free download, packaging the OS in a Windows-friendly installer that didn't require partitioning of hard disks. Hundreds of thousands of copies of BeOS Personal Edition have been downloaded since that time, but, sadly, Be has not released additional major BeOS revisions since the focus shift. While major upgrades to BeOS' network, media, and OpenGL implementations are known to have been heavily worked on, the company is now mostly silent toward users of the desktop OS.

It is uncertain whether BeOS will ever be updated, and there are still holes in the OS begging to be filled in. Nevertheless, the quality of the desktop OS Be unleashed upon the world is so great that a tenacious and devoted userbase continues using and evangelizing BeOS. While major BeOS application development has now slowed to a trickle, surprising numbers of smaller apps and utilities from independent developers continue to emerge at BeBits, a dedicated repository of BeOS software.

BeOS Advantages

It's impossible to explain an operating system adequately in a few pages. To really see what BeOS is capable of, you have to immerse yourself in it for a while and become intimate with its unique capabilities. A bird's-eye view of BeOS' main advantages would read something like this:

BeOS Disadvantages

With all this incredible technology, how can BeOS be anything but perfect? It's a paradox: On one hand, BeOS has this incredible architecture and great user experience. And on the other...

BeOS Today

Because Be has been almost entirely focused on their appliance operating system for the last year and a half, little attention has gone into improving the desktop offering. Communication with application developers and users alike is at a minimum. This has resulted in a serious shake-out; many application developers have pulled out of the platform altogether, and many interested users have given up. Today, only the most hardcore OS afficionadoes continue to use BeOS. But that group of hardcore users is fervent and ever-hopeful. Fact is, the BeOS user experience is exciting despite the operating system's shortcomings -- Be did so many things right when BeOS was being actively developed that the OS continues to ignite passion even today. In fact, new users come on board every day, convinced that BeOS can't help but become the next big thing. I no longer believe they're correct in that assessment, but their enthusiasm is telling.

While most commercial software development houses have pulled out of the market, individual and hobbiest developers continue to churn out new tools, utilities, and small applications. The list of software available at BeBits continues to grow.

Interestingly, one of BeOS' greatest strengths today is as an MP3 storage and playback platform. The operating system's extremely low audio latencies and multitasking mean no audio glitches even when performing lots of other simultaneous tasks. BeOS' database-like filesystem means it's possible to sort and search through immense MP3 collections, and to create query-based playlists with ease. The power and flexibility of the 3rd-party SoundPlay is unrivaled on any platform. And the Be In Your Stereo project lets you remotely manage your MP3 collection from any browser on any platform -- perfect for building and working with a home / office MP3 stereo component (a stripped down, quiet computer running BeOS and connected to your home stereo).

According to recent press releases, Be is currently looking to be purchased, have their technologies licensed by other companies, or to otherwise find funding to keep rolling. The future of BeOS for the desktop may well hang on the question of who injects money into the company and why. Speculation in the user community abounds, but Be is tight-lipped about their dealings, and none of us really know what will happen next. Our great hope, of course, is that a deep-pocketed company with plans to continue the challenge against Microsoft will purchase the company.

Naturally, many users ask why Be doesn't simply open the source to BeOS and let the community take over development. Unfortunately, BeOS includes many technologies licensed from other companies, the source to which cannot be made available. Removing these pieces would be a complicated process, and would leave BeOS in a possibly unbootable state. Nevertheless, Gassee stated recently that he would do so immediately if he could come up with a reason why it would benefit Be shareholders. But there are so few profitable open source business models, it's difficult to see how opening up BeOS source code could benefit anyone financially.


BeOS 5 comes in two flavors: Personal and Pro. The Personal Edition is freely downloadable from (42MBs), and can be installed without partitioning your hard drive. When you install Personal Edition, a standard Windows installer places a 500MB file on a Windows volume, inside of which is the Be File System (BFS) containing a pre-installed version of BeOS. When you launch BeOS, Windows is kicked out of memory and BeOS boots in its place.

There is one possible gotcha here: Because this process occurs via software reboot rather than a cold or warm boot, Windows may cling to IRQs and memory addresses. Some users may experience a missing mouse pointer, odd video artifacts, or unconfigurable network or sound cards. Machines with two CPUs will probably find the 2nd processor disabled. To fix these problems, boot back to Windows and use the provided utility to create a BeOS boot floppy. This allows you to warm or cold boot your machine so that BeOS can allocate resources on its own. If you continue to have hardware troubles, enter your system's BIOS and disable the option "PnP OS." If you find that your graphics card is not supported, you should be able to use it in unaccelerated VESA mode. While not optimal, you will at least get full color and resolution this way.

The Pro Edition is distributed by Gobe Software and comes in a box with CD and manuals. The Pro Edition also includes a licensed MP3 encode/decode system object, RealPlayer G2, the Indeo 5 video encoder, a limited version of PowerQuest's PartitionMagic, and technical support. BeOS Pro is designed to be installed to a real partition, like a normal operating system. Otherwise, the two versions are identical.

To install BeOS Pro on a Windows machine, insert the CD and run the installer, which will guide you through the process of resizing your Windows partition to make way for a BeOS partition. However, the partition sizes offered by PartitionMagic are limited to 1.5GB. If you have a spare hard drive, or would like to allocate more space than that, use a 3rd-party partition manager such as fdisk or PartitionResizer to create your space, then insert both the BeOS CD and floppy and restart your machine. The installation process is so painless that instructions would be pointless. Just take care to check that the destination partition is an empty or unwanted partition, not your existing Windows or Linux partition. You should be able to boot into BeOS for the first time in 10 minutes or less.

Getting Configured

You'll probably want to start by changing your screen resolution from the default of 640x480x8bpp. Look for the BeOS logo on the "Deskbar" in one corner of your screen. Clicking this invokes the "Be Menu," which contains links to commonly used files, applications, folders, and system controls. Navigate to Preferences and release the mouse button to open the Preferences folder, similar to Windows' Control Panel.

While you're setting your preferred screen resolution, be sure to check out the picklist at the top of the panel, which will let you apply your changes to all workspaces or just to the current workspace. A "workspace" is a virtual desktop, and BeOS can utilize from 1 to 32 of them, as you prefer. Once you get the hang of using them, you'll want to spread your work out in different workspaces to reduce screen clutter. To switch quickly between workspaces, hold down Alt while pressing the F1-F12 keys. To move a window quickly to another workspace, click and hold its title tab while switching workspaces. You can also use the Workspaces preferences panel to drag windows from one workspace to another. If you're a web developer or programmer, remember that each workspace can run at a different resolution and color depth, and with a different wallpaper or background color. This is a great way to see how your work will look on other people's screens.

Speaking of appearances, here's a cool tip: Hold down Ctrl+Alt+Shift on the left side of your keyboard while accessing the Be Menu. You'll see a new Be Menu entry labeled "Window Decor," from which you can make BeOS windows look like MacOS, Windows, or AmigaOS windows.

While you're in the Preferences folder, check out any of the 23 other configuration options. You can set up wallpaper for your workspaces, customize mouse behavior, configure printers, route audio and video streams through the BeOS Media Kit, increase the size of your swap file, partition or initialize hard drives, and more.

Be sure and spend some time studying the FileTypes panel, which lets you associate preferred applications with various filetypes, change icons, and most interestingly, create custom file types and attributes, so you can use the Be File System as a sortable, queryable database.

Getting Online

If you'll be connecting to the Internet via modem, use the Dial-Up Networking panel to configure your account and modem. If you don't find your modem listed in the built-in list, go to to find an intialization string for your modem, then add it from the Custom... button in the Modem panel. The best-supported modems in BeOS are external models, followed by internal hardware modems. If you have a software modem ("Winmodem"), note that only those with Lucent and PCTel chipsets are supported in BeOS 5. If the DUN panel doesn't show the serial port for your modem, you may need to configure it manually -- see the Internal Modem Configuration page for help.

If you're connecting over DSL, cable, or a LAN with a supported network interface card (NIC), you should find it automatically listed in the Network preferences panel - just double-click to set your IP address, gateway, DNS servers, and DHCP options (if any). If you don't see your card in this panel, BeOS probably couldn't find a driver for it (you might be able to get one from BeBits). If you're using BeOS Personal Edition and don't see your card here, you may need to boot from floppy as described earlier. Don't get confused by the Custom... button -- that's just for configuring non-PnP ISA NICs. When done, click the Restart Networking button -- no need to reboot your machine.

Note that is currently impossible to use PPPoE connections commonly provided by DSL and cable providers -- try to get a static IP from your provider. If this is impossible, run your connection through an inexpensive firewall/router that does do PPPoE. With luck, this problem will be rectified in a future version of BeOS.

While the network stack in BeOS 5 is fine for most purposes, it isn't yet state-of-the art. A new network stack (BONE) based on BSD networking is known to be in the works, but is not yet available to most users. When and if BONE becomes available, BeOS should be suitable as a world-class server OS in addition to its existing prowess on the desktop.

Tips for Windows Users

If you're migrating to BeOS from Windows, remember that you can access your Windows partitions by right-clicking the Desktop and choosing disk volumes from the Mount sub-menu. If you don't like the fact that the default modifier key in BeOS is Alt rather than Ctrl, you can switch it system-wide from the Menu preferences panel. Miss your Windows fonts? BeOS uses standard TrueType fonts, so all you have to do is mount your Win partition and copy your fonts from C:\WINDOWS\FONTS into /boot/home/config/fonts/ttfonts, then open the Fonts preferences panel and click Rescan. If you need to read or write Microsoft Word or Excel documents, get yourself a copy of Gobe Productive.

Recommended Applications

There are a couple dozen applications that come with BeOS, including a native e-mail client (BeMail), web browser (NetPositive), audio recording and clipping utility (SoundRecorder), audio CD burner (CDBurner), digital camera capture utility (Camera), formatted text editor (StyledEdit), and three-dimensional multitrack audio mixer (3dmiX). But the fun really begins when you start downloading 3rd-party applications and utilitites. There are more than 2,200 listed at BeBits. Here's a quick list of what I feel are the most important / full-featured / powerful applications available for BeOS right now.

Category Application Comments
Office tasks Gobe Productive Word processing, spreadsheets, graphics, presentations, all in one file format.
E-Mail BeatWare Mail-It Multiple accounts, customizable, great keyboard shortcuts.
File management OpenTracker Includes the BeOS developer community's enhancements to BeOS' native file manager.
MP3 Playback SoundPlay Great performance, Internet broadcast / streaming, plug-ins.
MP3 Creation RipEnc or GOGO Gadget RipEnc -- more features, uses Be's database filesystem; Gadget -- has a GUI.
Animation Moho Excellent 2-D cartoon animation, exports to QuickTime, AVI, and Flash formats.
Graphics / Imaging Easel or ArtPaint Easel specializes in natural media, ArtPaint more on image editing.
HTML Editing Pe Powerful text editor for writing, scripting, building web sites.
Application Launching LnLauncher Stays out of the way, but pops out to store links to files and apps.
Calculator DeskCalc Resizable, accepts color drops, Replicant-enabled.
Synthesizer ObjektSynth A modular, polyphonic, multi-timbral, MIDI-controllable software synth.
Web Serving PoorMan, Robin Hood, Apache 2.0, diner PoorMan comes with BeOS but is simple. Robin Hood is full-featured and does CGI, SSI, etc. Apache is beta, but very powerful. diner does interesting things with BeOS attributes and queries.
Chat and file sharing BeShare BeOS community discussion, file sharing with networked attributes. See also Bowser for standard IRC.

Online Resources

There are many web sites, IRC channels, and USENET groups devoted to covering BeOS news, offering assistance, and providing software. Here are some of the most popular online resources.

News and Information



Immersing Yourself

Exploring a new OS is not like exploring a new application. The rules of engagement are different, the assumptions are different, and routes to achieving particular tasks are different. It's a bit like visiting a foreign country -- it doesn't make sense to travel to another land and expect the natives to do everything the same way you're accustomed to doing it, so expect to learn some new tricks. The loyal BeOS user community is helpful and friendly, and eager to help you acclimate to the new rules. Don't be shy about asking BeOS newbie questions on the forums listed above; you'll probably get a courteous and helpful response quickly, even if it's "Sorry, you can't do that just yet."

Part of the trick of really understanding a foreign country is to stay there a while and get to know the natives and their customs, rather than just peeking your head over the border. If you'd really like to understand what BeOS can do for your computing life, challenge yourself to live in the OS for a few weeks, rather than just visiting briefly. Many of us use BeOS as a full-time OS, only booting to Windows for occassional tasks. For those who become hooked, there's no going back.