Like cars and appliances, software gets old. Every time developers crank out a new version, they have to make sure it can handle everything that has come before.
Operating systems face the biggest challenge. They are the basic software that allows all the other programs to run on a computer. The most popular ones, Windows 95 and Macintosh System 7.5, have become unwieldy because they have to keep the code that runs decade-old programs while adding new code to run the latest advances.
But what if you could start from scratch? That's exactly what Jean-Louis Gasse, former chief technologist at Apple Computer, has done with a new computer called the BeBox and its operating system, BeOS. The most important piece is BeOS, a compact piece of software that can run rings around Windows and System 7.5 in certain key areas. With its technology already licensed by a Macintosh clonemaker, Power Computing, Be Inc. is considered likely to play a role in Apple's next-generation operating system.
Whatever happens to the company, BeOS is a glimpse into the future of computing.
What makes Be's system stand out is its ease in handling multimedia. At a recent demonstration at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Be company executives showed a BeBox running four video streams simultaneously while rotating a three-dimensional object in real time, running a high-level math demonstration, playing an audio CD as well as the soundtrack from a computer game. No personal computer on the market today can match that kind of performance.
And yet, there's nothing too exotic about the technology. The BeBox simply takes full advantage of technologies that weren't available when the first personal computers (PCs) came out. For example, the computer runs on two microprocessors, rather than the single one found in most PCs. Even more important, it uses a technique called multi-threading.
What this means is that instead of completing a task one step at a time, the BeBox breaks it into individual streams of computations and does them simultaneously. For example, the system breaks a video into two streams: one for decompressing each frame, the other for drawing those frames on-screen. Windows and the Mac do this to a degree when the program calls for it, but the Be system does it whether the program calls for it or not.
In case the BeBox hardware doesn't sell, the company is also grafting its BeOS software onto other computers, most notably, the Power Macintosh. Though not as speedy, the BeOS-enabled Macintosh still runs rings around a regular Power Mac. For example, the video doesn't stop playing when users hold down the mouse button to call up a menu.
It's clear that what Be has done, the programmers for the next generation of Windows and Macintosh hope to accomplish. They're aiming to make machines better equipped to handle video, graphics, and sound than are today's models. And they'll take better advantage of more than one microprocessor.
What's not so clear is the future of Be as a company. While great at handling multimedia, the operating system doesn't distinguish itself in handling the all-important Internet. And with the world standardized on Windows and a significant minority of computer users dedicated to the Macintosh, it's hard to see how a third operating system can survive.
Even Mr. Gasse concedes he faces an uphill battle. "A lot of people think we're totally crazy," he says. Still, the company has attracted some 1,500 software developers. Gasse hopes that one will come up with a program that's so compelling, computer users will be willing to shed the compromise software of the past.
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