Jean-Louis Gassée, the president of Be, Inc., is crazy like a fox.
For those of you not in the know, Be, Inc. makes the BeOS, a very interesting operating system that was designed from scratch to be optimized for multimedia. It has recently become cross-platform -- it now runs on both PowerPC and Intel machines. And it's a good operating system: blazing fast (it boots in 17 seconds!), stable, intelligently designed, and has already collected a small but loyal following of developers. All of which, of course, would seem to put it right in Microsoft's path.
Microsoft doesn't like competitors, and how could BeOS not be in competition with the WinX platform? But if you ask Gassée, Be and Microsoft will never, ever be in competition.
Microsoft makes the dominant operating system for the Intel PC platform, he says. Be is only interested in being a multimedia development platform. Use Windows for your day-to-day work, boot to BeOS when you need to work on some high-end media project and you need the advantages of an aggressive multitasking OS with a 64-bit filesystem.
Does anyone else see how smart this is?
Be is a small company funded on venture capital. They're not interested in dominating the market -- they're too small to do it effectively, even if they wanted to. What they want to do is survive. They've spent a lot of time creating an operating system that is really quite good, and they want a place for it in the grand scheme of things. Not the top place, mind you, just a place.
They're carving a niche.
Gassée wants the multimedia niche in the Intel PC world. If BeOS gets accepted as "the multimedia operating system" in the same way that Apple was accepted as "the desktop publishing operating system", it has a reason to continue existing. It won't need to constantly be compared to Microsoft WinX platforms, you won't need to speculate on whether or not it can survive. Multimedia development is a smaller market than the market for a general use operating system, but it's a market of professionals. It's a market vendors will want to cater to. More importantly, it's a market with a lot of possibilities that haven't been tapped yet, meaning that to developers, the field is wide open.
And although it's a niche market, it's a market you can grow from. Multimedia developers don't usually sit in front of a computer doing just one thing. Multimedia developers want office suites with spreadsheets and word processors and databases, they want financial applications to balance their checkbooks, they want games to play when they're not creating dazzling cavalcades of sight and sound for our amusement and edification. And after a while, they'll get tired of booting from one partition to another.
The demand for BeOS to be more of a general purpose OS will, in time, grow. Vendors will meet that demand. As BeOS becomes more entrenched in the multimedia niche, the more comfortably it will be able to develop into a multipurpose operating system. It's a good, solid plan. It's brilliant. I might even say, it's inspired. Start small, go for a market no one is really concentrating on, and stake out your claim aggressively. Don't threaten anyone. Hang out with the carnivores, but dress like a herbivore. Watch what they do. Figure out what mistakes they've made. And don't make them yourself.
Hindsight being 20-20, IBM should have done this with OS/2 when it released OS/2 Warp 3. Instead of promising to be everything to everybody, it should have focused on one thing and worked on building that niche. These days, IBM has decided on a niche for OS/2, and it seems as if they're going to leave the rest of us behind.
But we can play this game just as well as IBM can. In my honest opinion, we can play it better because IBM can't seem to focus when it comes to marketing their products. OS/2 users have an amazing amount of focus (some would say it's due to willpower, others would claim it's due to dementia) when it comes to wanting our operating system to succeed. So I propose that we, as OS/2 users, must focus our efforts on creating a niche for OS/2. And I propose that the niche we need to create be the World Wide Web.
"OS/2: your turnkey solution for the World Wide Web." OS/2 Warp Server to host the web sites (or Warp client and Apache, for smaller sites), OS/2 Warp Client to develop them. In terms of the software available for web development, we already have all the tools you need to host and maintain a web site: graphics programs, html editors, html preprocessors, web servers, and most of the little tools that fill in the gaps in between. Web development could be our niche. If we pursued it aggressively enough, if we were able to get OS/2 vendors, developers, and end users in sync, we could even do it without IBM's help. OS/2 could be the SOHO dream turnkey solution for hosting a small business on the web.
But in order to it, we need to actually do it. Not just sit around talking about how it would be a great idea, but actually roll up our collective sleeves, get dirty, and take on IBM, Microsoft, the mainstream press and everybody else who thinks OS/2 is dead and that we have no future. If OS/2 is to survive as a client, it will require that we work hard to make it happen, because nobody else cares.
Don't get too depressed; we have a lot of things going for us already. More on that next week.
Christopher B. Wright is a technical writer in the Richmond, VA area, and has been using OS/2 Warp since January 95. He is also a member of Team OS/2.
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