What would you do if you had the money to rebuild the entire personal computer architecture and its operating from scratch and if you said ‘to hell with backwards compatibility’? Well that’s Menlo Park-based Be Inc has effectively done with its dual PowerPC 603-based BeBox which has a new hardware architecture, a new operating system and a new vision of exactly what a multimedia personal computer should be (CI No 2,764). The company, founded by Jean-Louis Gassee, former president of Apple Computer Inc’s product division, intends to make uniprocessor desktop machines a thing of the past. The strange new BeBox device – which is expected to cost about $1,600 (minus screen and keyboard and disk and even memory) – is aimed straight at the multimedia market somewhere between classic personal computer, Internet station, games console, embedded controller and video editing station. The idea, said Gassee, is to produce a completely new machine that is unencumbered by the baggage of supporting existing applications. He talks of it as a dual processor Amiga done right, using 90s technology. It is a courageous, but risky proposition.
Despite its intention of doing away with old baggage, the BeBox hardware is constructed as far as possible from personal computer standard components for the sake of economy. So there is a PCI bus, with three PCI slots and four AT slots. Expandability is one of the box’s strong points, with four serial, a parallel, two joystick and three infra-red ports, plus various audio imports and outputs and a ‘Geek port’ – a 37-pin connector designed to enable experimenters and small entrepreneurs to build things onto the basic machine. This includes power pins, two directional data ports, four analogue to digital pins and four digital to analogue pins. And it is all protected by fuses for when the experimenter tries to blow the thing up. The technophile market is particularly important to Be, said Gassee: We want to attract the hairy guys… we want to attract the lunatic fringe… they will find the interesting applications. The two-way PowerPC 603 box is only the first of a projected line of machines that are expected to scale up to eight processors and include a laptop. But if you thought the hardware was different, the operating system is even more so. The microkernel-based BeOS operating system contains a built-in object-oriented database, is multi-threaded and pre-emptive, and each window open on the screen has its own thread. Be said the operating system automatically assigns threads to whichever CPU can give the most efficient execution. Moreover, applications can temporarily take over one of the processors for time-critical work, leaving the other to handle the rest of the work. The operating system structure looks rather like IBM Corp’s defunct Workplace microkernel architecture – on top of the kernel sit various servers that provide low-level services such as the file system and low-level user interface work. On top of the kernel, servers and device drivers sit software kits, Taligent-esque components for building applications. These C++ building blocks include storage, graphical user interface, media, Musical Instrument Digital Interface, network and device kits. And Gassee says he plans to license the Java language. In a demonstration in France, an executive ran three video applications at the same time as two sound files and was still able to start up new applications without any noticeable delay.
By Chris Rose
It looks nice, but a proprietary operating system closely tied to proprietary hardware is not exactly flavour of the month with the information technology industry. Why should Be succeed in a market where NeXT Computer Inc had to give up hardware, and where Apple is being battered by falling market share? Gassee said the BeBox hardware is essentially a superset of the PowerPC industry’s standard PowerPC Reference Platform/Common Hardware Reference Platform architecture, with added input-output capabilities, there is little that is proprietary in it. Moreover he said the company will do handstands to accommodate Common Hardware Reference Platform manufacturers with dual-processor machines that want to take the operating system. And any manufacturer that wants to build BeBox will be able to license the hardware and software for $50, and no bullshit Gassee said. He is already talking to three manufacturers, one US, one Japanese and one European (no, that’s not Compagnie des Machines Bull SA – yet). The Japanese were particularly attracted to it because Windows NT just doesn’t make nipples harden over there to use Gassee’s own picturesque phrase. The company has also adopted a novel business model to try to attract application developers. Not only has it got Metrowerks Inc to produce a version of its Codewarrier tools for the BeBox, but the company also said it will have a demonstrably different attitude towards its developers. One aspect of this is the novel way it intends to allow developers to make use of its Web server to sell their wares. Each BeBox has a hard-wired serial number that can be used for software licensing. Gassee said BeBox shareware developers will be able to put their offerings on the Be Web server. Then to register and buy the software, users will need to electronically mail their machine serial number and credit card details. Be Inc, with 22 staff, has spent about $9m getting this far, says Gassee, $1m coming from his own pocket. The rest has been paid out by cash from venture capitalists and firms such as AT&T Corp, Compagnie des Machines Bull SA – and Seymour Cray.
AT&T’s involvement is understandable because originally the machine was intended to use the Hobbit RISC. Be is about to embark on a second round of venture funding and is gathering a syndicate of French investors who will contribute a further $7m and eventually own about 30% of the company – if all goes to plan. So does the Be intend to go up against the likes of Avid Technology Inc – the professional Mac-based video-editing system – with this box? Gassee laughs: No. But imagine, he said, an old-style IBM pyramidal view of the application market. At the top are the big corporate applications, in the middle sit the departmental apps, while the personal productivity tools sit at the bottom. Avid is at the top of the pyramid, we want to be at the base. It is not a market that really exists at the moment, but then desktop publishing didn’t exist before the Macintosh. And the Scitex operators, the typesetters, looked at the Macs and laughed – but where are they now? he asked. In addition, the company could well license its technology to Avid competitors. If you are the number four company competing with Avid, you can ask yourself ‘do I want to be on a level playing field and use Mac hardware, or do I want to upset things?’ he said. We have the ability to upset things. They might too. BeBox information can be found at the company’s Web site http://www.be.com