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There Be Rumors in Them Thar Hills

Prompted by a report last week in the Wall Street Journal, rumors are flying through the Macintosh world that Apple Computer is negotiating with Be, Inc., and possibly pursuing the BeOS as a replacement for Apple’s Mac OS 8.

Be, Inc., headed by former Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassee, introduced the PowerPC-based BeBox computer in October of 1995. One of the BeBox’s main attractions is its PowerPC-native, fully-threaded, and multi-processor savvy operating system (see TidBITS-298). More recently, Be demonstrated a version of the BeOS for Power Macintosh at Macworld Expo in Boston, running on Power Computing hardware.


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Although sources from both companies have denied that any sort of offer had been made by Apple, speculation has been rampant as to whether Apple intends to replace the oft-delayed Mac OS 8 with an operating system based on the BeOS. Among other things, such an operating system would be fully PowerPC-native, multi-threaded, support multiple processors, and provide preemptive multitasking – all features that have been fingered as engineering hurdles contributing to the delay of Mac OS 8. Further, such an operating system would feature a system-level database, along with high bandwidth data streams between applications and a clean programming interface, devoid of a more than a decade of legacy code, patches, and updates.

I can’t claim to have any inside track on what might be happening between Apple and Be, but it’s unlikely that Apple is pursuing the BeOS as a technological leg-up on the way to Copland. Contrary to some published opinions, such a task wouldn’t be as simple as slapping a Macintosh interface on top of the BeOS, putting a "Made in Cupertino" sticker on the package, and calling it Mac OS 8.

First of all, it’s important to remember BeOS wasn’t designed to run any pre-existing software, whether for the Macintosh, Windows, or for Unix. That means every Macintosh application would need to be re-written to run "natively" under a Be-based operating system. There are technological possibilities, such as building a "System 7.5 virtual machine" for the BeOS that would run current Macintosh applications (and system software) in emulation. However, such options for the BeOS are untried, challenging, and fraught with performance considerations. In fact, finishing Apple’s Mac OS 8 (which already has years of design and engineering effort behind it) seems simpler in comparison. With the transition to the Power Macintosh, Apple demonstrated what a tremendous issue backward compatibility is for the Macintosh world. It’s worth remembering that Apple has been designing Mac OS 8 with backward compatibility in mind; the design of the BeOS explicitly threw backward compatibility out the window.

(Developers will note that Apple’s Mac OS 8 – when complete – will also require applications to be substantially rewritten to take advantage of the new operating system’s features and services. At that point, existing applications will run in a "blue box" that essentially lets those applications act as if they’re running on a System 7.x system.)

Second, it’s equally important to note that Be is still developing the BeOS, and the operating system hasn’t had the years of industry burn-in that have contributed to the development of Windows, OS/2, the Mac OS, various flavors of Unix, and other operating systems. It’s entirely possible – even certain – that the BeOS contains technological gotchas. Because the BeOS has fewer legacy issues than other operating systems, correcting these problems should be simple in comparison, but it would be unwise for Apple to volunteer itself, its developers, or its customers for ferreting out unanticipated problems in the BeOS.

However, all this doesn’t mean Apple doesn’t have an interest the success of Be and the BeOS. From the start, Be has stated that it intends to port its operating system to other platforms, and those plans currently include PCI Power Macintoshes based on PowerPC 603 or 604 CPUs, as well as future PowerPC Platform (PPCP) machines from Apple, IBM, and other vendors. Like Apple’s efforts with MkLinux, there can be no doubt that Apple would benefit if the BeOS were to become a viable operating system option for Macintosh owners – particularly for power users working in video, audio, and other high-bandwidth arenas that are hurt by delays in Mac OS 8. If developers come through with compelling, unique applications for the BeOS, the argument only gets stronger. And it’s no secret that Be would benefit if, say, the BeOS were bundled with every high-end Power Macintosh and future PPCP-complaint Mac from Apple and other Macintosh vendors, like Power Computing and (soon) Motorola.


That said, Be can also benefit from Apple technologies: QuickTime would be a great addition to the BeOS, and Be would no doubt love to shake hands on a commitment from Apple to develop a Macintosh Application Environment (MAE) for Be, which would let the BeOS run many Macintosh applications.


So, I’m not surprised to learn of Be and Apple spending quality time together; however, rumors that Apple is looking to the BeOS as a ready-made replacement for Mac OS 8 should be taken with a grain of salt. The two companies have more substantive issues to talk about.

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