Guest column: Be there, does that. Wow!

There's a continual stream of way cool products these days, but few of them get a "Wow!" out of Gearhead. This is partially Gearhead's jaded, world-weary, ultra-cool personality (it's a tough gig, dude, but someone's got to be the coolest), but the fact is that real breakthrough stuff is at a premium.

That said, this week we have a Wow! product on our hands. It isn't new (Gearhead has been waxing lyrical about it for months), but the impending release of a free version makes it more than notable and very worthwhile to take a look at. The product we refer to is BeOS from Be Inc. (www.be.com).

The company was founded in 1991 by Jean-Louis Gass‚e, famous for his role as president of Apple's product division in the late '80s. In October 1995, he introduced BeOS to rave reviews running on Be's own now discontinued hardware platform.

Without going into the endless events and politics that lead from Apple to Be and back again, the genesis of Be has been convoluted and eventful (near bankruptcy, infighting - the usual start-up fun and games).

Today, BeOS is at Release 4.5 - accompanied by a staggering number of applications - and BeOS 5 is about to make an appearance. The company has also announced BeIA, a stripped-down version of BeOS designed for Internet Appliances (see www.be.com/world/ headline_news.html#beia).

So what is it that Gearhead so admires about BeOS? It's really simple. Be has built an operating system as they should be built: fast, elegant, beautifully architected, extensible, accessible, well-featured and robust. (Gearhead will eschew the opportunity to draw comparisons with better-known operating systems.)The goal of Be was to create a multimedia operating system, and that's what it did. Gearhead was at Be's offices some months ago, and the demonstration they gave was nothing short of amazing. Multiple movies were launched and played simultaneously, dropped into a book animation where they continued to play as the virtual pages were turned and the movies conformed to the shape of the turning pages! After 20 minutes of demonstrations, Gearhead was hard- pressed not to stand up and clap.

So let's take a look at BeOS features. First, it is designed to be fast, fast, fast and lacks something you've all become used to: a cursor that turns into an hourglass. BeOS uses a very slick and efficient preemptive multitasking system and something called pervasive multithreading.

Pervasive multithreading is a term used with BeOS because all levels of the operating system use multithreading. Even the simplest applications have two threads, one for handling the system interface and another to handle the application logic. This means you can't write a nonthreaded application, which ensures that the dumbest application has good multitasking characteristics.

Add to that support for up to eight processors (that limit is only due to current platform limitations - BeOS can actually support an arbitrary number of processors), and you have a lot of opportunity for performance enhancement. And because the operating system is designed to be robust, you can switch processors without damaging the system's integrity.

We've just begun to scratch the surface of BeO, and next week we'll delve deeper. You'll be saying, "Wow!" too.

Wow! stuff to gh@gibbs.com.

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