BeOS to take the Linux road?

Will making the BeOS free open up the operating system to new developers? Or just dry up Be's revenues?

"If it works for Linux, it should work for us."

That's the thinking behind operating system developer Be's move on Tuesday to make its flagship BeOS freely downloadable to consumers -- a move that also puts it in competition with its open-source role model, Linux.

"We have decided to forgo short-term revenues on the desktop side of the market ... in order to lure developers into the home," said Jean-Louis Gassée, chairman and CEO of the Menlo Park, California, firm. "In a way, Linux helped us by opening minds and wallets to the fact that there is a world outside of the Windows OS."

Gassée hopes the move will draw enough developers to the platform to create a sizable pool of talent to develop applications for its new focus, the information appliance market.

That's not an easy task. With the Linux frenzy convincing a hefty number of developers to work on the free Unix-like platform and Microsoft continuing to flog the Windows CE horse, the 100-employee company has its work cut out for it to turn its late start into a viable market.

With its giveaway, Be runs the risk of sapping its revenues without gaining any useful ground in the new market. Some variation of that possible scenario seems to be buzzing around Wall Street: The company's stock lost recent gains, falling $3.56 (£2.20) , or 18.4 percent, to $15.81 on Tuesday.

And, Gassée and company are considering taking the BeOS further along the free road to the Internet -- perhaps even as far as publishing the company's source code under the GNU General Public License .

"(Whether to GPL the software or not) is a question that many have asked. We plan to answer it in due course," said Gassée, who added that he didn't want to do anything "half-baked."

"I have seen a lot of companies criticised because they made ... moves that developers have considered insincere," he said, pointing out that the initiative to create an open-source version of the Netscape browser -- known as Mozilla -- fell apart due to lack of coherent support.

Careful is one thing, but is Be moving too slow? No, said Kevin Hause, information appliance analyst for market research firm International Data Corporation. "I don't think we will see any other operating system -- be it Linux or Be or someone else -- establish a choke hold on the market," he said. He added that the brand name of the appliance, and not the operating system, is what's going to be important.

National Semiconductor, maker of an information-appliance reference platform known as the WebPad, agrees. "The whole idea of the operating system is to make it invisible so that when people turn it on, it just works, and works the way they want," said Paul Barbieri, spokesman for the company.

National Semiconductor has not only announced agreements to co-develop a Be-driven WebPad, but also one using Linux and another using a little-known operating system called PSOS.

It's just that sort of competition that has Gassée excited. He stresses that all he needs is an opening and a fair shake, pointing at an agreement with Compaq to create a Be-driven Internet appliance.

"The appliance market is immature," he said. "There is not a single monopolistic entity barring players in the market. What we have now is an opportunity to become a mainstream player."

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