A Glance At BeOS

A common thread

By Steve Duff, Contributing Editor, See staff list for e-mail address

Now that Amiga, Inc. has stated that at least AmigaOS 4.0 will be based on a third-party kernel, with Linux, BeOS, and Java as the likely candidates, I thought I'd talk about BeOS, which I have running on my PowerMac. The version I'm currently running is Preview Release 2.

We all know about BeOS, and how Jean-Louis Gassee has claimed inspiration from AmigaOS, and how Be has made a grab for Amiga programmers. We also know that Be achieved a certain amount of success in that regard, snagging the likes of Tinic Urou and the big one so far, Christian Bauer of ShapeShifter fame. The main thing he has in the works for Be is SheepShaver, a (you guessed it!) Mac emulator.

BeOS itself is a pretty nice operating system. The GUI looks like a better version of Windows 95, contrary to all the reports I've heard of its 'Mac-like' appearance. Unlike the clunky, overly-thick window borders of Win95, Be windows are lean and clean and can be dragged from any edge, a really nice feature. They are also always solid when dragged and move very crisply on my 132-MHz Mac. In common with Windows and many Amiga programs, each app lives in its own little desktop, and overhead menus have underlined hot keys. The Be 'desktop' is thus more like the Amiga 'Screen' rather than Workbench.

Even the menus of BeOS have options more reminiscent of Windows than Mac, only done better. A classic example is the 'Move To' option in the File Menu. The equivalent of Win95's 'Send To' command, Be's version goes far beyond the strangely limited Win95 version. In BeOS, you can move a file to any directory on your drive, right from the File menu, very intuitively.

Another feature of the BeOS that's shared with Amiga and Windows is proportional scrollbars and realtime scrolling. Actually, I've never experienced realtime scrolling on my PC, but with the Amiga and BeOS, response is instantaneous. Unfortunately, BeOS has the lamentable 'always click to front' feature of the mainstream GUIs, and at present lacks the handy 'Alt-Tab' feature of Windows, which at least brings you closer to the Amiga way of doing things.

The more immediately Amiga-like features of BeOS are the DataTypes and Libs directories. The BeOS implementation of DataTypes is very effective and fast. Further Amiga-like features include the Terminal, a UNIX Bash shell which you can leave out on the Desktop, and of course, you can multitask from the Shell and the GUI at the same time. Also well-known is the BeOS ability to run multiple screens at different resolutions and bit depths. While there's no screen-dragging in BeOS, there is the WorkSpaces option in the Preferences menu. By default, it gives a nine-paned window, each pane representing a different screen, each accessible merely by clicking. This is one area, IMHO, where Be actually improved on the Amiga approach.

In summary, BeOS is sorta like an improved Windows GUI with an Amiga running under the hood. This is only an analogy, of course!

BeOS gets easy to live with on a day-to-day basis. Although its performance is limited on my machine because it runs off a SyQuest SyJet partition rather than a proper hard drive, it is still quicker in general than MacOS, though it certainly feels more sluggish than my Amiga. Unfortunately, it has so far failed to recognize my Mac's LaserWriter. BeOS has been dogged for some time thanks to its inability to print, but my Printer Prefs show several supported models and progress is clearly being made. Despite this rather large problem, BeOS still has a better 'feel' than MacOS.

There are still certain surprises. For example, opening a text document frequently results in a partially open window. If you expand the window, it draws back like a curtain over unmoving text, revealing previously hidden words. This is unique in my experience. You can do the same thing in reverse, too. Some of the GUI routines are also unfinished or poorly implemented. Because of this, one often finds buttons whose text actually overflows the button border! In another case, a mail app had a slim side window with vertically-stacked folder icons, but you couldn't read their names because fully 75% of each folder was invisible, cut off at the window border. It took some time before I had my mouse in just the right spot to see a window-resizing indicator. Another aspect which will certainly annoy Amigans is the tremendous amount of RAM BeOS grabs for itself. On my machine it snags 30 MB just to idle. On the plus side, even with several apps running, it seldom uses much more than this.

So we've established that BeOS has a clean, pleasant, and intuitive Windows-like GUI, with many Amiga-like powers lurking beneath, but that it still has some quirks and shortfalls. But what about the apps?

Well, this is the greatest weakness of BeOS. Despite having more than 5,000 developers for over a couple years, and despite having a rep as being very helpful to even the smallest developer, there's still very little out there for BeOS. Most of what there is consists of toy programs that do one or two little tricks.

Not all is lost. To Be's credit they ship a home-grown web browser (NetPositive), along with an e-mail app and a nice TCP/IP stack. You can make a terminal connection as well with supplied software. The browser is limited in functionality and slow, but at least it's there. File downloads each produce individual download windows, rather like the method used by VoyagerNG. Also included in the standard install is Be's nice selection of high-quality MIDI players.

Some of the third-party apps are also quite nice. BeAMP, for example, blows away MacAMP for sound quality. Tinic Urou's DualPlayer can play almost any format you care to name and is one of the two MOD players available for BeOS. The other is the Be version of APlayer, by Thomas Neumann. Alas, the Amiga version of APlayer is no longer being developed. Another app, WallPaper, makes up for the BeOS inability to display picture backgrounds on the desktop.

One of the truly cool and handy apps is Software Valet. This app will spring into action when you download a file. It will offer to expand a file if it's archived, then offer to install the unstuffed archive if it's a program, and finally will launch a standard registration app so you can get the whole shot done in a single go. It saves a lot of window and file shuffling.

There are also authors who wish to try new and different GUI approaches. In general, these don't work for me, perhaps because my mind is trained in the ways of the Big Three GUI's. Others resurrect ideas that were bad to begin with. For example, one mail app I looked at had an icon bar where all the mail icons were identical except for which way their arrows were pointing. There were no words with the icons, just the arrows. This is basically a NeXT-like way of doing things -- all icons, no words, but it seems a bit silly for the icons to be identical. The app struck me as a GUI nightmare.

For an operating system that isn't quite finished and which has hardly any useful apps, BeOS has a lot of momentum behind it. Many pundits want it to succeed. The company is also making smart moves, such as porting the OS to Intel hardware. Be has already sold out their first run of BeOS For Intel CD's. Given that Be had already distributed over 750,000 copies of the PowerPC version, it's possible that BeOS users already outnumber Amigans. If not, it will certainly happen in the next six months, even though Be has had a fairly rocky intro on the Intel side, marked by numerous hardware incompatibilities.

For any Amigan who has a PowerMac or Pentium PC on the side, BeOS is fun to play around with. As a kernel over which a new AmigaOS might ride, it provides full buzzword compliance with the pre-emptive multitasking we already have, plus protected memory, multithreading, virtual memory, and symmetric multiprocessing. The OS also performs. Even on a single 604/132 CPU, you can select six movies and launch them. They appear almost instantly, already playing. Not bad. Multitasking is smooth. I had no problem playing two games (NerdKill and Abuse) simultaneously.

So, will BeOS, the multimedia OS inspired by Amiga, be the new kernel for AmigaOS? It would certainly have a cool irony to it, wouldn't you say?

Return to the May 1998 (Volume 2 Issue 10) Main Index