OS alternative is causing all the buzz

OS alternative is causing all the buzz

Be Inc.'s operating system installs rapidly with few problems but isn't ready to sting the market'yet

By Michael Cheek

GCN Staff

The industry is abuzz about Linux alternatives to Microsoft Windows operating systems, but BeOS 5 deserves more than buzz'a lot more.

Be Inc.'s desktop OS doesn't require a lot of hardware horsepower or technical expertise. Unlike Linux and Windows, BeOS installs quickly and works simply.

It looks a bit like Windows and Mac OS combined, but the underlying structure is more like that of Linux. So BeOS draws a little from each of the big-three desktop OSes.

BeOS' main claim to fame has been its strong handling of multimedia MP3 and video files. It lacks applications to make it an all-around OS, although it does have a minor office suite, Productive 2.0 from Gobe Software Inc. of Portland, Ore.

BeOS needs beefing up in the network arena, and its browser needs Java support.

Still, BeOS flies on its own.

The primary interface is clean, like that of Mac OS. There are icons for the trash, primary hard drive and home directory. The icons can be placed pretty much anywhere on the desktop interface, as with Mac OS.

The primary menu is fixed at top right. As with the Windows Start menu, clicking the BeOS icon brings up a cascading menu that any user will find easy to work with.

The descending menus show recently used applications and documents as well as all applications and preferences. They can be configured with new folders and items, but the primary menu can't be relocated like the Windows task bar.

One item I found confusing was Hide/Show Replicants. The word replicant does not show up in the dictionary, and at first I thought it was like a Windows shortcut or a Mac OS alias. It's not.

According to BeOS' documentation, a replicant is simply a replicated view, such as the BeOS clock, which can be dragged from its window and placed on the desktop. The Show Replicant command displays the handle for dragging.

Like its big-three brethren, BeOS 5 integrates several applets. The Web browser, called NetPositive, is functional but does not support Java. Be has made a commitment to incorporate Java2 at an unannounced date.

Opera Software A/S of Norway also has a beta version of its Opera browser available for BeOS. The GCN Lab recently reviewed Opera's Windows version and found the speedy browser generally solid [GCN, May 22, Page 29]. The BeOS version of Opera lacks Java, of course, because the OS so far doesn't support it, but Opera is a more full-featured browser than NetPositive.

Many other applets focus on multimedia functions that are not well supported, even by Windows.

BeOS has a CD-ROM burner, a Web camera applet, and other applets to view and manipulate audio, video and graphics files.

BeOS handles most standard file types without problems, especially multimedia .mp3, .avi, .jpg, .wav, .tif, .mid and .ram formats.

The StyledEdit applet can open simple Microsoft Word and other word processor documents, although it accesses only text data and not formatting.

BeOS is easy to install and use on any Pentium or faster Intel processor and some Macintosh PowerPC processors, requiring at most 600M of storage and 32M of RAM. Longtime PC users know how long it's been since such slim requirements could run much of anything.

Dose of download

The fifth version of BeOS comes in two editions. BeOS 5 Personal Edition can be downloaded free from several sites listed at free.be.com. The 45M download installs under almost any version of Windows, creating a 500M file.

Once installed, BeOS 5 sits dormant. When launched under Windows 9x, it reboots the system, kicking Windows out of memory and becoming the primary OS. Under Windows NT or 2000, a separate boot disk launches BeOS.

Although it took a while to download, I was running BeOS 5 Personal Edition on a Windows 2000 system within 15 minutes. I had no trouble accessing files stored on the Windows portion of my hard drive with a right-click anywhere on the screen followed by selecting Mount from the menu.

The BeOS interface draws from Windows and Mac OS features and is remarkably easy to install and use. The menus drop down from a primary menu at top right.

Existing hard drives and floppies appear on the menu. As with Mac OS, a click brings the drive to the desktop. You can browse it graphically just as with Windows or Mac OS. CD-ROM and Zip drives from Iomega Corp. of Roy, Utah, mount automatically.

BeOS 5 fully supports the 16-bit File Allocation Table, FAT32, Hierarchical File Structure and its own Be File System, or BFS. BeOS can read NT File System and Linux Ext File System partitions, too. I had no problem pulling files over from any NTFS drive.

Getting BeOS Personal to work on a Win98 system proved a bit more challenging. I could boot into BeOS, but it never quite finished booting. My guess is that the Universal Serial Bus was the culprit. Both the mouse and keyboard were connected to USB ports and, as BeOS found neither of them on the PS/2 ports, it couldn't finish the boot process.

BeOS does incorporate support for many USB devices, however.

Getting rid of BeOS Personal proved as easy as installing it. Under Windows, I simply launched Add/Remove Programs in the Control Panel and uninstalled BeOS. It disappeared from the hard drive like an application'without any Dynamic Link Library file hangovers.

Box Score

BeOS 5 Personal Edition

Alternative OS that coexists with Windows

Be Inc.; Menlo Park, Calif.;

tel. 650-462-4100; free.be.com

Price: $Free

+ Easy installation

+ Clean and easy to use

Real Life Requirements:

Windows OS, Pentium or faster processor, 32M of RAM, 500M of free storage

BeOS 5 Professional Edition
Desktop operating system

Gobe Software Inc.; Portland, Ore.;

tel 503-228-6308; www.gobe.com

Price: $70

+ Easy installation including hard drive reformat

+ Works with most peripherals

' Needs more enterprise support

Real life requirements:

Pentium or PowerPC processor, 32M of RAM, 600M of free storage, CD-ROM drive

The BeOS 5 Professional Edition costs $70 and comes on a CD-ROM from Gobe Software.

I installed BeOS in less than 30 minutes from the CD-ROM drive on a brand-new ClientPro Cf from Micron PC Inc. of Meridian, Idaho. In contrast, Linux took me several days to install [GCN, Nov. 22, 1999, Page 25]. Windows installation, too, often takes hours.

An easy drive

With BeOS 5, I partitioned and formatted a hard drive, then installed the OS rapidly without any problems.

The often-ornery Windows Plug and Play causes frequent difficulties with new PC hardware. But under BeOS, video and audio worked without any prompting. The company explains at www.be.com that BeOS is not a plug-and-play OS. It can, however, read the basic information to load correct hardware drivers.

In my experience, it does the job better than Windows. I've never had such an easy time getting a system onto the lab network.

With all Windows versions, an administrator has the long, arduous task of adding adapters and protocols to the OS and rebooting several times before network connectivity is achieved.

I never had to reboot BeOS, which sticks to basic TCP/IP. The lab network uses the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol, so I clicked the 'Obtain settings automatically (DHCP)' button and then chose Restart Networking.

BeOS grabbed an IP address and was on the network and the Internet without delay'even on a dual-boot system.

I could print across the network, too. If your printer allows AppleTalk, enable it. BeOS found a Tektronix Phaser 850 and, via Adobe PostScript and AppleTalk, printed with ease.

Although BeOS fully supports TCP/IP, it's not yet strong in enterprise connectivity. Beyond AppleTalk printers and the Internet, I could not access network drives or any other enterprise resources.

At the www.bebits.com Web site, I found a utility to mount Novell NetWare file system drives, but I couldn't find anything to access volumes on servers running NT or Win 2000 Server.

BeOS' resemblance to Windows and Mac OS and its Linux-like underpinnings are not accidental. As the company Web site said, 'Our engineers come from lots of backgrounds, and we have implemented the ideas [from other OSes] we like best.'

BeOS incorporates some features of the Portable Operating System Interface for Unix, although it's not completely Posix-compliant at this time.

Be Inc. apparently hopes Unix developers will consider porting to the OS. Many Gnu applications have already made the leap.

Perhaps the Unix development community will add more commands to the existing command-line interface, which would not be a bad thing.

Linux enthusiasts ought to take a serious look at BeOS. It's superior already to Linux's poorly organized graphical interfaces, confusing installation and complex operation. BeOS development tools are also free for the downloading from Be's Web site.

Time is up

Like Linux, BeOS has rock-solid uptime. I ran it for more than a month, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I never had a crash or needed to reboot in that time. I'd wanted to see how BeOS would handle a crash, but getting anything to conflict or break down proved impossible.

Applications operate within a protected memory space, so when one crashes, others do not.

Of course, the fact that I never experienced a crash also comes from the shortage of applications. Native BeOS apps are few but growing.

So far, BeOS represents no more than a minor irritant to the Windows, Mac OS and Linux markets. But as the buzz grows, BeOS has the potential to sting the big three.

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