Mac Musings

Why BeOS Was So Different

Daniel Knight - 2002.01.02

The biggest difference between all the varieties of Windows and all the variations on Unix is unimportant - both families or operating systems are hopelessly rooted in the deep dark past.


With roots going back to 1969, Unix is the older of the two families. Over the years the family tree has split into "genuine" Unix and BSD Unix families, and the most famous member of the family is the independently created Linux operating system. Apple has adopted the BSD version of Unix as the core of Mac OS X.

Unix has always been robust, multiuser, multithreaded, and portable, making it popular on a wide variety of hardware platforms.


Windows grew out of MS-DOS, which grew out of CP/M, which was influenced by Unix. The biggest difference is that CP/M and DOS were designed for a single user performing a single task on a personal computer. Although generally robust, this was primarily because these operating systems didn't try to do to many things at once.

Windows was created as a graphical shell for DOS, allowing Intel-based PCs to emulate the graphical orientation and ease of use of Apple's Macintosh. Early versions of Windows were shells, just like the variety of shells for Unix and Linux today. It was only with Windows NT that Microsoft evolved Windows into a full-fledged operating system.

Unix and Windows

Microsoft's goal was to build a better server OS than Unix, something we should all find laughable. Sure, Windows NT/2000/XP is a much better operating system than Windows 3.1/95/98/Me, and it definitely benefits from a single user interface (compared with several different shells fighting for a share of the *nix market), but even the latest, greatest version of Windows is chock full of security holes, bugs, and other problems.

The Mac OS

The original Mac OS was designed for a single user running a single program on a single computer. The brilliance of the Mac OS was the desktop metaphor, which allowed users to directly grab and move files, launch a document with a double-click, and preview projects visually while creating them. Over time Apple added the ability to juggle multiple applications, but this made the fairly robust OS less stable.

Apple realized that the classic Mac OS would never rise above its roots. Apple needed to create or adopt a modern OS that was more robust when running multiple applications and handling multiple threads.


After being ousted from Apple, Steve Jobs created NeXT Computer in 1986, developed the NeXT Cube, and NeXT Cubeintroduced an operating system rooted in BSD Unix. The company was never a serious contender, although those who used NeXTs loved them - and the World Wide Web was invented on a NeXT computer.

NeXTstep, the NeXT OS, became the foundation for Mac OS X when Apple bought NeXT in 1997. Four year later it has finally evolved into a very stable, relatively efficient, fairly useful OS with a growing market.


There was another operating system Apple was considering when they bought NeXT: the Be operating system.

BeOS was a thoroughly modern OS. It wasn't tied to the Unix family tree and didn't have the accumulated baggage of 25+ years. Nor was it tied to the Window family tree and the skeletons of a dozen years of Microsoft development. The design goal of BeOS was to develop the best possible operating system for a single user running multiple programs on a multiple processor computer.

Be was conceived by Jean-Louis Gassée, formerly head of Apple's French subsidiary and later president of its products division. It was designed from the start to handle multimedia, linking it spiritually to the Amiga OS. Be wasn't designed to be backward compatible with any existing OS; instead, it was meant to be an operating system for the future when media would become a crucial element of personal computing. Just think of MP3s, QuickTime, DVDs, video editing, Flash, and anything else that goes beyond static text or images displayed on the screen to imagine how visionary this was in 1990 when Gassée started Be.

BeOS was first designed around the AT&T Hobbit chip, which was canceled before Be was ready to produce computers. Be chose to implemented BeOS on a custom computer, the BeBox, which had dual PowerPC 603e processors. Be abandoned hardware design in January 1997, choosing to port BeOS to Macintosh hardware. As it became clear that Apple didn't want anything (BeOS, mkLinux, Windows, etc.) but the Mac OS running on their hardware, Be created a version of BeOS for "Wintel" hardware.

Where Windows and the Unix variants are pretty much buzzword compliant, BeOS went beyond the buzzwords by optimizing the entire OS for symmetric multiprocessing, pervasive multithreading (including the journaling file system, all forms of graphics, I/O, and interface), internationalization via Unicode, and native Internet services.

Apple's Choice

It's hard to fault Apple for choosing Steve Jobs and NeXT. Although it had an insignificant market share, NeXT step was running successfully on Wintel hardware (since 1992) and some of the other NeXT projects - especially Web Objects - were revolutionary. Unix had a known track record, and Steve Jobs had the vision to drive Apple beyond beige and introduce insanely great products like the curvaceous iMac, a blue Power Mac, iMovie, and the iPod.

Apple bought NeXT in December 1997. Steve Jobs became iCEO in September 1998. Mac OS X Server first shipped in March 1999, the beta of "regular" OS X shipped in September 2000, OS X was officially released in March 2001, and it finally became polished with version 10.1 in September 2001.

Four years after acquiring NeXT, Mac OS X is all the buzz, but it's still a minority OS on a minority platform. All that will probably change in 2002.

What Could Have Been

BeOS was very impressive. I remember running the Mac port when it was first released. It had a distinctive look, definitely felt faster than the Mac OS, and seemed very promising. It was the perfect candidate to become the next great personal computer operating system.

But something odd happened - the world of personal computers became infatuated with server operating systems. That's a whole different kettle of fish. Instead of designing the OS for the user, you create an OS that can support a lot of users at the same time. You use logins. You set privileges. You get Unix, Windows (the NT family), Linux, and Mac OS X.

Instead of a personal computer operating system, you get users to work within a server OS. You don't get Windows (the 9x/Me family), the classic Mac OS, Amiga, or BeOS. This isn't to say that the classic Mac OS and BeOS don't make good servers, but it does say that the emphasis is on personal productivity, not sharing resources with multiple users.

If you have the opportunity to play with BeOS, give it a try.

Unfortunately, Apple prevented BeOS from establishing a beachhead on Mac hardware, and Microsoft's restrictive (and ultimately illegal) licensing restrictions kept PC makers from providing BeOS, leaving the great media OS with a very small installed base.

If you have access to PC hardware (Pentium 133 or faster), there's a good chance you can download, install, and run BeOS 5.0 Personal Edition (freeware) from Tucows and several other sites. But if you have a Mac, you may be stuck. I've searched the Net for a downloadable version of BeOS for Mac (any version) but found nothing. (If you know where BeOS from Mac can be downloaded, please email me.)

That's a shame, because BeOS followed the path that should have lead to success in the era of digital video, MP3s, 3D gaming, and so much other rich media content.

Further Reading