Linux backing is good news, bad news for Be

Red Hat Software's announcement of major funding from industry heavyweights might be making other alternative operating system companies green with envy. But one of them, Be Inc.
Written by Lisa M. Bowman, Contributor

Red Hat Software's announcement of major funding from industry heavyweights might be making other alternative operating system companies green with envy. But one of them, Be Inc., is praising the news -- and promising to make its own splash in the coming months.

On Tuesday, Red Hat, distributor of the alternative OS Linux, unveiled backing from Intel, Netscape Communications and two venture capitalists, lending even more momentum to OSes other than those created by Microsoft.

Jean-Louis Gassee, founder of multimedia OS maker Be, said the news should help people think outside the Wintel box. "We are absolutely delighted about all of the interest around it," said Gassee, who's also a Linux user. "It creates confidence in the marketplace that you don't have to abide by the 'Windows takes all' philosophy."

The Red Hat announcement could set the stage for Be's upcoming news. In November, the company plans to unveil a new version of its OS. It also plans to pull back the curtains on a Japanese edition, a slew of new third-party applications developers and a few PC makers who will ship BeOS along with Windows in their new machines.

But Dataquest analyst James Staten said the spotlight on Linux may leave BeOS in the dark. "Any overall attention that the development community is giving to one operating system takes attention away from another," Staten said.

Though both Linux and BeOS are alternatives to the nearly ubiquitous Windows platform, the similarities end there. Linux is used more often as server software, and Red Hat has its eye on ISPs and large companies as its major customers. It's also part of the increasingly popular open-source software movement, meaning developers have access to the main Linux code and can suggest changes and build extensions to the OS. BeOS, on the other hand, is a proprietary OS aimed at multimedia computers. It lets users perform a host of advanced editing and other audio and video tasks.

BeOS has relatively few users. But not so long ago, BeOS was the media darling, billed as a challenge to both Windows and the Mac, where it was originally designed to run. It ran into obstacles as the Mac clone market was cut off. The company adapted the OS to work on Intel machines and began touting BeOS as an enhancement to, rather than a replacement for, Windows.

What's more, many of the companies that have been a strong force behind BeOS have recently unveiled support for Linux, including Intel and Metrowerks Inc. Giga Information Group analyst Rob Enderle went so far as to sound the death knell for Be. He thinks Be lost its opportunity to slide into the space that Apple once occupied, now that Steve Jobs has come back to the company and raised its profile once again. "There is only so much room for an alternative, fully featured OS to get the hype. And unfortunately in this business it's all about hype," Enderle said. "Linux eclipses them."

Enderle said Linux has differentiated itself from Windows not only through its features and stability but also through its open source model.

International Data Corp. analyst Dan Kuznetsky said Be has to put more marketing muscle behind its OS, which he describes as technologically sound, if it wants to succeed. "The history of computing is just littered with the bodies of companies that had wonderful products and lousy marketing," he said.

But Be chalked up such criticism to the fact that the company's been lying low and working on products instead of marketing. "To those critics, I say 'You're right, but give us a break,' " Gassee said. "We've been hiding out because we've had a lot of work to do."

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