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BeOS Opening Screen

What was BeOS?

BeOS was an operating system created by ex Apple executive Jean-Louis Gassée's Be, Incs. in 1990. It was created and marketed as a completely new computer operating system for media professionals. BeOS was originally written to run on a specific set of hardware, (the BeBOX), but financial pressures motivated Be, Inc. to port the operating system to various other companies' products. Its most significant direct competitors were Apple's Mac OS, NeXT's NeXT Step, Windows 95, and Linux. Though it resembled UNIX and other popular operating systems, BeOS contained only new and proprietary code. Thus, one of the system's prime selling points was its newness-- it was not based off of the same 20 year old code and programming models that competitors used. It was said to have been "the ultimate operating system for processor-intensive multimedia and Internet applications", and had many innovative features which went on to become standard by the 2000's. The general idea for the operating system is captured from a section of the mirrored Be Inc. website from 1999:

Graph of Age From BeOS Marketing Material
"The company wanted to step beyond the evolutionary approach to personal computing architectures; to see what could be accomplished if you built a personal computer using new assumptions, based on cutting-edge software design concepts, and designed for the next decade's applications, rather than the last decade"

(BeOS Website)

General Decline

BeOS fell short of widespread use for a number of reasons. Most significantly, Be, Inc. was unable to secure the developer support necessary to build a wide library of compatible software applications. Another early limitation was the processor specific architecture-- BeOS was not originally portable across different hardware platforms, in an attempt to bundle Be, Inc.'s hardware and software together the way Apple, Inc. has historically done.

In early 2002, founder Jean-Louis Gassée left Be, Inc. after its intellectual property was sold to Palm Inc. BeOS was commercially discontinued shortly afterward.

Relevence of BeOS as a Dead Media

BeOS is a medium that depended upon highly specialized commercial support in the form of compatible software. Both its commercial death and rebirths through other OS's with similar features and the open-source community illustrate the importance of a large and diverse ecosystem of support in determining a medium's life cycle.

What BeOS said about technology

BeOS was created to be "the Media OS" (BeOS website). It was said to be "rebuilt from the ground up", created "today" for "tomorrow", using new code and avoiding without any of the "cruft" of old operating systems. This production method marked a drastic change from traditional software production.

For many software developers, progress is a function of modernity, with product iterations building on top of previous versions, systematically improved, repackaged, and sold as brand-new. The technological innovations of other 1990's era computer operating systems were marketed as "all new," despite their composition from previous iterations of the product.

Windows, Apple, and UNIX-based operating systems of the day were patched and revised from older models to achieve tasks that they were not necessarily created to do.

BeOS was created with a technological determinist position in mind: to create something which rethought prior innovations not as progressive improvement, but as a new starting point for developing from a clean(er) slate.

For example, from a promotional BeOS 'White Sheet':


Technical Benefits

In their place was put an architecture specifically designed for handling intensive tasks, such as digital audio and video. The building blocks include:

  • Symmetric multiprocessing - Take advantage of two, four or more processors in a single machine.
  • Pervasive multithreading - Multithreading takes large tasks, such as applications, and breaks them down into a myriad of smaller tasks. Pervasive multithreading means that this approach is used throughout the BeOS, from the kernel, through the graphics and I/O systems, and through BeOS applications.
  • Preemptive multitasking - The BeOS works on and rapidly switches between dozens, often hundreds, of smaller tasks. These tasks can be deployed on a single processor, providing a smooth multitasking environment, or across any number of processors in a multiprocessor system.
  • 64-bit journaling file system - This enables extremely large volumes and files, of terabyte size and more, enough to handle even raw uncompressed, high-resolution video and audio -- the foundation for high-quality editing systems. The Be file system goes even further, providing database capabilities allowing the storage of multiple attributes and indexes along with files.
  • Object-oriented APIs - The BeOS API makes programming easy and efficient. " - (BeOS Technical Whitepaper)

The BeOS was able to use these low level technological improvements to fundamentally change what was possible on a computer. End user features, such as playing multiple video and audio files simultaneously, virtualizing other operating systems, and fully integrated networking and internet systems-- all were features that went on to become adopted by competitors. However, the platform itself never caught on with consumers, and while this may have been a business-related issue, it also signals interesting truths about progress and modernity.

What BeOS said about users

The BeOS is a classic example of a product which had a very particular use value for its prospective consumers, perhaps targeting too small a demographic to sustain business. Be Inc. surmised that users would need high performance internet and multimedia terminals as they started to move their communications and expressions onto computers. BeOS was the first machine to bundle video, audio and image editing with full internet support. Though these features eventually became standard across numerous operating systems, BeOS suffered from a small userbase and lack of support by software developers. As a result, most computer users were exposed to these features later, in other operating systems.

The two most telling comparisons to make with BeOS are Mac OS 10 and primary BeOS competitor NeXT Step. Be, Inc. considered its primary target userbase to be media 'power users', those who were outside the mainstream. They treated lay-users as though they would never need such a system, a failure not of vision, but of scope.

Another feature which prevented widespread adoption of BeOS were its aesthetic qualities. BeOS was conceived as the ultimate tool for people to do amazing things, but very little focus was placed on user experience outside of being technologically elegant and powerful. This was in stark contrast to Steve Job's approach at NeXT, which shared some of Be, Inc.'s "rip it up and start again" ideology, but was much more focused on user experience. Gassée was even quoted to say:

"For God's sake, don't compare us to NeXT. We want to be a better tool for developers, not to be tasteful. We don't cost $10,000. We have a floppy drive. We do not defecate on developers" (Apple Confidential).

This difference may unlock the difference between the two companies' trajectories. Be Inc. was extremely close to actually being purchased by Apple as the basis for Apple's next OS, but the deal fell through and Apple ended up purchasing Steve Jobs's NeXT. The rest is history, and NeXT became the basis for one of the most popular operating systems of the early 21st century, while Be fell into relative obscurity.


BeOS may not be in use today as such, but a number of the technological ideas it contained are visible in subsequent OS's. Although Apple Computer did not buy BeOS, they still shifted their prospective with Mac OS X to target Media Consumers broadly, not just traditional computer consumer. The computer as a complete media portal is now the primary paradigm for personal computing, rather than just something for power users. Additionally, many of the lower level innovations have been adopted by both Apple and Microsoft. Additionally, BeOS may say something about how society views progress: although sometimes it may technically be the best idea to "rip it up and start again," consumers and others in the industry may always willingly give up what they already know and are comfortable with.


BeOS in Action
Sounds On BeOS

all images from BeOS website


Be Inc. BeOs Data Sheet. 1999.<>

Be Inc. BeOS Technical White Paper. 1999. <>

Be Inc. BeOs Data Sheet. 1999.<>

BeOS Promo Video. Prod. BeOS. 1996. <>

Linzmayer, Owen W. Apple Confidential : The Real Story of Apple Computer, Inc. New York: No Starch P, Incorporated, 1999. <>

Markoff, John. "A New Computer Dazzles a Jaded Industry Crowd." The New York Times 4 Oct. 1995. <>

"Mirror of Be Inc. Website Circa 1999." Be Inc. 1999. Be Inc. <>.

Sydow, Dan P. Programming the Be Operating System. O'Rielly, 1999. <>