It might have ended very differently for BeOS. At one point, it looked like BeOS, developed by Be Inc, might become the operating system for Apple hardware. Instead, Apple ended up tapping NeXT and used its OpenStep as the basis for Mac OS X (in the process bringing Steve Jobs back into the fold).
BeOS debuted in October 1995, running on the PowerPC architecture that was at the time the basis for Apple Macs (although initially BeOS was designed for systems using AT&T’s Hobbit CPUs). Be Inc was formed by Apple alumni Jean-Louis Gassée, who exited the Cupertino, California, based company in 1990.
But although BeOS made a splash, Be Inc’s final version of the operating system, BeOS R5, was released in 2000. The company’s end came in 2001.
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When it was released, BeOS was without the legacy code and designs that many of its contemporaries were stuck with in the interests of backwards compatibility. It was a modern operating system, with an impressive user interface, pre-emptive multitasking, symmetric multiprocessing and a 64-bit journaling file system. Be Inc’s BeBox workstation, which debuted in 1995, included dual PowerPC CPUs and extensive multimedia support, as well as the unique GeekPort.
But the death of Be Inc didn’t mean the death of BeOS; at least, not quite. The operating system’s legacy lives on thanks to Haiku: An open source project re-implementing and extending BeOS, adding new features such as internationalisation and Wi-Fi and support for modern hardware, while maintaining the original system’s speed and simplicity.
“Somehow BeOS resonated very strongly with some people,” Haiku developer Stephan Aßmus says.
“Most people who used it will mention how fast and responsive it felt. To me, that's only one aspect. The other is elegance. By that I mean how the system tried to avoid redundancy at all levels and how it tried to figure out clever ways to empower the user.
“It made everything so transparent. Just by looking at the system folder layout, it was easy to understand how stuff worked. The system provided more or less one clear vision of how all the components are supposed to fit and work together from the kernel to applications.”
Aßmus has been part of the Haiku project, which began in 2001, for seven years, contributing code and art, as well as representing the project at conferences and mentoring participants in Google’s Summer of Code program, which Haiku has been a part of.
The initial aim of the Haiku project is to create an open source, drop-in replacement for BeOS R5. “It's supposed to be binary compatible, so all old BeOS applications continue to run,” Aßmus says.
“Ideally, you could replace the contents of the system folder of your BeOS installation with the Haiku system and everything just continues to work.”
But although a system compatible with R5 is a “fixed goal” for project participants, Aßmus says that “Haiku is open to new ideas and many BeOS features have already been extended or replaced with modern versions.
“If an idea is too crazy however, we can always say, if it wasn't in BeOS R5, it doesn't need to be in Haiku R1. And it really helped the project stay focused.”