BeOS: The Alternate Universe’s Mac OS X

You’re likely familiar with the old tale about how Steve Jobs was ousted from Apple and started his own company, NeXT. Apple then bought NeXT and their technologies and brought Jobs back as CEO once again. However, Jobs’ path wasn’t unique, and the history of computing since then could’ve gone a whole lot different.

In 1990, Jean-Louis Gassée, who replaced Jobs in Apple as the head of Macintosh development, was also fired from the company. He then also formed his own computer company with the help of another ex-Apple employee, Steve Sakoman. They called it Be Inc, and their goal was to create a more modern operating system from scratch based on the object-oriented design of C++, using proprietary hardware that could allow for greater media capabilities unseen in personal computers at the time.

Meet The BeOS

Could you imagine emailing someone a video file in 1995? Be Inc. did.

BeOS was, at the time, a foray into a new way of doing home computing. The features it introduced that were brand new at the time are now ubiquitous — things such as preemptive multitasking, journaling filesystems and an uncluttered desktop design. In a way, it was forward-thinking enough that if you look at a screenshot of it today you’d swear it was just any other modern Linux environment, ’90s graphical aesthetic aside. The main strength pushed by its developers was the multimedia support the platform offered: not only was the operating system designed in such a way that audiovisual formats were easy to work with, but also the hardware itself was built with a variety of I/O ports to accommodate such work.

In a time when dual-core computers were still a distant dream, the very first BeBox prototype was already being developed as a dual-processor AT&T Hobbit system. The Hobbit was a short-lived RISC processor specifically designed for the C language. However, since AT&T stopped the production of the chip, Be Inc. quickly shifted its development to a PowerPC-based system instead, which would become the BeBox we know today.

A PowerPC BeBox, including the Blinkenlights at the lower left and right of the case.

The BeBox finally debuted in October 1995, sporting a dual-PowerPC architecture clocked at 66 MHz each, with 133 MHz models following a year later. To emphasize the innovation of having two distinct processor cores, the front of its creatively-shaped case had two stacks of LEDs called “Blinkenlights”, each one of them displaying the current load of each CPU. On top of that, it offered interfaces no other home computer at the time had as standard: two MIDI I/O ports, multiple line-level audio channels and a connector dubbed “Geekport”. This connector was an experimental electronic-development oriented port, featuring power pins, two bi-directional 8-bit lanes and D/A and A/D converters, doing its name rightful justice.

Coulda Been A Contender

In 1994, Apple’s System 7 was showing its age. The company invested efforts into the development of a successor, codenamed Copland, to be released as System 8. By 1996, after missed deadlines and dysfunctional management, the project was deemed unviable and was cancelled. Now on the lookout for outside sources for their next operating system, Apple showed interest in acquiring Be Inc., which was rapidly gaining notoriety as a company pioneering new desktop computing paradigms. The object-oriented BeOS did everything Apple wanted the new Mac OS to do, and more.

Unfortunately for the Be Inc. employees, Apple wasn’t so set on the deal. Gambling on a new technology, the company low-balled an offer of only $125 million USD, which Be executives refused. Later that year, Apple would announce that they were buying NeXT for over twice that amount ($425 million USD). Of course, that deal included Steve Jobs in the package, something Be Inc. couldn’t offer, and the rest is history.

The Sony eVilla, one of the appliances designed to run BeIA software.

With the lack of an acquisition, Be’s hardware was left in a state of commercial unviability; after only about 1800 units sold, the company was forced to shift its focus on the software rather than hardware. BeOS was then ported to the more commonplace x86 architecture to cope with this change, but sales continued to decline.

The company finally resorted to giving BeOS away for free and focusing on BeIA, a version of BeOS meant for use on internet appliances — but even that pivot wasn’t enough to save the project or the company. Be Inc. laid off the majority of its employees in 2001 and sold the company’s assets to Palm, Inc., who decided not to pursue the project further. Aside from the leak of the minor version update R5.1 “Dano”, official production on BeOS was shuttered for good.

Haiku Marches On

The commercial demise of BeOS did not spell an end to the core vision of the Be Inc. employees. Since then, a new open source project called Haiku was started from scratch, picking up from where BeOS left off. The first beta of this new operating system was released on September 2018, and nightly releases continue to update it. New features include a full package manager such as the ones commonly seen in Linux distributions, and support for more modern media formats.

The original experience of BeOS as it was presented two decades ago can still be recreated through emulators. Since this method uses the later x86 port of BeOS, you don’t quite get the whole bells and whistles the custom BeBox hardware could give you, but it’s still a partial glimpse into the future world of yesterday. Adafruit has written a guide that walks you through setting up BeOS R5 using VirtualBox, however, since I had no luck in getting it to work no matter what I did, I ended up writing my own guide using PCem instead in case that one doesn’t work for you either.

What’s left for us now is to wonder, how different would the desktop computer ecosystem look today if all those years ago, back in 1997, Apple decided to buy Be Inc. instead of NeXT? Would Tim Berners-Lee have used a BeBox to run the world’s first web server instead? How would Mac OS X look today, would it still have its iconic (pun intended) dock? Or maybe the tendency for technology to have a point of convergence means that eventually everything would develop the same way regardless. There’s no way of knowing, but it’s always fun to take a trip down memory lane.

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