When Jean-Louis Gassee, former president of Apple's product division, formed a company called Be, Inc. in 1990, most people weren't sure what he was doing. Gassee was a visible and much-admired figure at Apple, an executive who knew his company's technology and what he was talking about. His decision to leave Apple R&D and manufacturing to head up a company dedicated to "overcoming the limits of today's computer architectures" puzzled many of industry watchers. After all, Apple was already light years ahead of its competition in terms of the design and functionality of its computers, right?
On 03-Oct-95 at the Agenda '96 conference in Arizona, Gassee announced his company's first product, the BeBox, and suddenly it all made sense.
Being Defined -- In a nutshell, the BeBox starts over with what we consider a personal computer, using high-performance hardware and tools designed to give advanced performance at a low price. The BeBox is not a Mac clone, but nor is it a Windows machine or a Unix workstation, and it doesn't run any Mac, Windows, Unix, or other legacy software. The BeBox uses its own multithreaded, multitasking operating system, and takes advantage of existing, inexpensive expansion hardware (mostly from the PC world) to keep costs down. Theoretically, just about any video card, hard disk, modem, networking card, or other peripheral device can be used in a BeBox, giving it unrivalled hardware versatility.
The BeBox is built around two PowerPC 603 processors running at 66 MHz. You might say that two 66 MHz 603s doesn't sound all that fast, but when you consider that the entire operating system is native code, fully-threaded, and permits preemptive multitasking, a lot of those doubts disappear. Be's OS can support up to eight PowerPCs, and future models will likely sport faster and more numerous processors.
The BeBox includes three 32-bit PCI slots as well as five 16-bit ISA slots to take advantage of the wide range of ISA peripherals in the PC world (mostly inexpensive modems and networking cards). The BeBox supports IDE and SCSI devices, flash ROM, and 8 slots for 72-pin DRAM (rated at 60 ns or better). Also included are two MIDI ports, a joystick port, four serial ports (two are PReP-compliant), a parallel port, and three infrared (IR) ports for sending and receiving IR data. The BeBox also features a 16-bit stereo audio system with line, mic, and CD audio inputs, along with headphone and line-level outputs.
In a highly unusual move, the BeBox also includes an utterly non-standard, 37-pin "GeekPort" aimed purely at hobbyists and experimenters so they can do cool things. The GeekPort allows bidirectional data input and output, D-to-A/A-to-D conversion, and is configurable to 16 inputs, 16 outputs, or 8 of each. The 37-pin connector isn't likely to be confused with anything in the PC world (or any world, for that matter), and could be a dream come true for tinkerers and wireheads who love to goof with this stuff. Imagine the multi-player game controllers, hardware interfaces, and other devices that could sprout off a port like this.
Though the BeBox is based on the original PReP specification and uses a number of PReP-compatible chips, it should be noted the BeBox is not PReP-compliant and will not be able to run future PReP-compatible operating systems from Microsoft, IBM, Apple, or other vendors. The BeBox runs Be software, and that's it.
The Be Operating System -- If the hardware sounds interesting, that's just half the equation. The Be system software provides features you'd expect in a state-of-the-art OS, including protected address spaces, preemptive multitasking, inter-application messaging and data streams, built-in networking, a modern graphic interface, support for dynamically linked "shared" libraries (DLLs), loadable device drivers, a fast graphics environment and (of course) a multiprocessor microkernel. The Be OS also comes with TCP/IP built in (including Telnet and FTP, along with support for PPP connections) and is designed to allow real-time manipulation of high-bandwidth media like audio and video.
Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the Be system software - aside from its lack of pre-historic components - is that the file system is integrated with a relational database where information can be viewed as pre-defined or arbitrary "tables." Information can be presented in a normal file system-like hierarchy, but also as a database query. Via multithreading, database queries can be "live" and continually updated to reflect changes to the stored information. These services are also available to applications, which can retrieve information as if they were using a traditional file system or looking it up from a sophisticated database.
The BeBox also gives each window its own graphics environment. Although that's not a new idea, since each window has its own thread, they don't have to wait for each other to update or compete intensely for resources, enhancing the system's overall responsiveness to the user.
The Be interface looks like a suspicious cross between the NeXT, Motif, and the Macintosh. The Finder equivalent is called the Browser, and lets users navigate the database and file system, manipulate applications and files, and (interestingly) open command-line console windows.
Be Developing -- With the BeBox, Jean-Louis Gassee faces the same uphill battle the Macintosh nearly lost when it was introduced: no software. In an open letter to developers, Gassee puts it all up front: "we need each other." The BeBox ships with a few applications and the Browser, but there's no "BePaint" or "BeWrite" that immediately make the advantage of this machine clear to high-end users, much less the consumer market. Be is trying to woo software developers to its platform with the admittedly attractive scenario of a modern operating system (unburdened by a decade or more of patched, outdated APIs), high performance hardware, and the chance to really put their mark on a product.
Given Be's connections to Apple, it should come as no surprise that Be is targeting Macintosh developers. The BeBox is currently bundled with a Macintosh-hosted version of CodeWarrior (meaning you do development on a Mac, then bring the application over to the BeBox), and a version of CodeWarrior specifically for the Be operating system is expected shortly.
Be also plans to take full advantage of the Internet and online worlds to facilitate communication between developers, resellers, users, and other parties, thereby bypassing a traditional bottleneck in developer and customer relations.
To Be or Not To Be -- Nobody is going to place a rush order for a BeBox so they can do print merges or write memos. Without the ability to run legacy software, the BeBox targets users, developers, and companies willing to look beyond today's technologies and take a chance on a brand new product with no track record. Apple was in a similar position a little over a decade ago, and as Mac aficionados are fond of pointing out, the rest of the personal computing world still hasn't recovered.
The BeBox should be available in mid-October (directly from Be or from selected resellers) at prices starting around $1,600.
Be, Inc. -- 415/462-4141 -- 415/462-4129 (fax) -- <firstname.lastname@example.org>