In the mid-1990s, Be Inc. had the audacity to create a brand-new personal computer operating system from scratch. It gained critical acclaim for its ahead-of-its-time features, but failed to capture significant market share. It’s still a cult favorite 25 years later, and here’s why.
BeOS is a now-defunct multimedia operating system that was first introduced in October 1995 for Be Inc.’s BeBox computer. The driving forces behind Be were Jean-Louis Gassée, Apple’s former vice president of product development, and Steve Sakoman, creator of the Apple Newton. With these tech credentials, Be had the industry’s ear right from the start.
BeOS was unique among the computer operating systems of the ’90s due to its lack of legacy code. By the mid-’90s, Windows, Mac OS, OS/2, Solaris, Linux, and even NeXTSTEP, were evolutionary operating systems with at least a decade of history. With BeOS, though, Be dared to create an entirely new operating system from scratch to meet the needs of the era: multimedia and internet support.
Be developed BeOS in conjunction with a custom dual-processor, PowerPC-based hardware platform called BeBox. First released on Oct. 3, 1995, it was equipped to handle digital audio and video more adeptly than the contemporary Macs and PCs.
The BeBox was an odd, but desirable, machine. It originally retailed for around $1,600 ($2,700 in today’s money) and was intended to be used as more of a development platform than a general consumer device.
It also served as important proof that Be’s multimedia-centric vision of desktop computing could work.
Soon after BeOS’s launch, the press was skeptical about the project, but, generally, praised its clean and uncluttered interface. BeOS’s button use is minimal and prudent. Instead of bars at the top of every window, BeOS had window tabs. Its icons were also cute and uncomplicated.
BeOS’s Deskbar menu system (roughly equivalent to the Windows Start menu and macOS’s Dock) allowed for a compact, yet robust, interface for managing applications and preferences. By Beos release 5 (R5), it could also be stretched across the bottom of the screen like a Start menu.
Unlike other operating systems of the time, BeOS supported multi-threaded applications and included support for multiprocessor machines from the start. After an upgrade, it also included a multi-threaded, 64-bit journaling file system called BFS. This had a built-in database designed to support digital multimedia recording and playback, which was novel in the mid-’90s.
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The goal was to make the OS feel lightweight and quick (reportedly, booting on the BeBox took as little as 10 seconds), while still being robust enough to play several digital video files simultaneously. This was quite a breathtaking achievement for 1995.
BeOS also shipped with a web browser and had UNIX-like elements, including support for a Bash command-line interface, despite the fact that it wasn’t Unix-based. It also supported virtual desktops for productivity, a feature that still isn’t implemented at BeOS-levels in most modern operating systems.
With its highly-praised tech and close run-ins with success, BeOS is almost a textbook case of painful tech what-if scenarios. Most famously, in 1996, Apple made an offer to purchase Be and its intellectual property with the intention of making BeOS the core of a new Macintosh OS. Be’s executives balked at the price offered (reportedly, around $120 million), and negotiations soon stalled.
When Steve Jobs got wind of the potential BeOS deal, he offered up NeXT and its operating system, which ultimately won. Thus, Apple’s Mac OS X was born, but its impetus could just as easily have been BeOS had Be accepted Apple’s initial offer.
Without the sale to Apple, Be was left to go it alone. After selling only around 1,800 units of BeBox over two years (and with no acquisition forthcoming), Be decided to develop versions of BeOS that would run on Macs and commodity Windows PC hardware. There was even a Personal Edition that could run inside Windows.
Unfortunately for Be, the personal computer operating system space was intensely competitive at that time. Apple, Microsoft, IBM, NeXT, and desktop Linux were all vying for dominance. Like OS/2, BeOS lacked ample third-party application support because developers were targeting OS platforms with larger install bases first.
Still, Be made some promising deals. It negotiated with several PC manufacturers to include BeOS in a dual-boot configuration with Windows. In the end, the only PC hardware (other than BeBox) to ship with BeOS was the Hitachi FLORA Prius 330J line in Japan.
Unfortunately, due to monopolistic pressure from Microsoft, its BeOS installation remained hidden unless it was unlocked via a cumbersome process. Be sued Microsoft over this practice in 2002, and the suit was later settled out of court.
Ultimately, Be decided to shift gears and support internet appliances. Palm, Inc. purchased Be for $11 million in 2001 and discontinued support for the desktop version of BeOS. Until around 2006, BeOS lived only as an embedded operating system in some recording and video-editing products from Roland and Tascam.
Today, you can download and use a functional modern descendant of the desktop BeOS called Haiku. This free, open-source project is still in beta, but it’s compatible with legacy (and new) BeOS applications. It’s a joy to experiment with, on either a virtual machine or as a direct install on Windows-compatible hardware.
Haiku’s lightweight and efficient interface feels like a breath of fresh air compared to Windows. It also includes a modern web browser based on WebKit, so you can still get a lot done with it, even though BeOS and Haiku application support is generally lacking. Check it out to get a taste of the future that could have been.
Happy Birthday, BeOS!