I have a confession to make: I love BeOS. It's irrational, I know, but it has a special place in my heart. With the possible exception of SkyOS, no other operating system I have used offers a user experience even close to the elegant simplicity of BeOS. Even in these days of 3GHz+ PCs with gigabytes of RAM, the current version of BeOS, now called Zeta, has the gall to run brilliantly on a Celeron 400MHz with 128MB of RAM. Yes, it's true, no other OS I've used can run so well on so little. Moreover, BeOS stands alone as the last semi-major commercial operating system to try a significantly different approach in many areas. Zeta 1.1, produced by YellowTab, is the next step in the strange evolution of the Be operating system. It proudly follows BeOS' footsteps while pushing ahead to tentatively include support for what has long been desired in the BeOS community: New drivers, new hardware support, a modern browser and the start of decent 3D OpenGL support for a few video cards. But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself. First a very brief history lesson:
Be inc. was a company formed in the 1990's by several high-profile people from Apple. They left the then stagnant Apple inc. to start a new operating system. This system was to be completely free of the baggage carried in MacOS, Windows or the various Unix variants available at the time. They worked hard to complete a very buzzword-compliant operating system. It made remarkable use of multiple CPUs, was completely 32bit, ran in protected mode and was aggressively multi-threaded. It used a new and innovative query-based filesystem that could be extended with arbitrary file attributes. The OS was built from the ground up for speed, efficiency and ease of use. Their plan was to create the perfect media OS. The logical successor to the Macintosh OS of the day. Unfortunately for the people at Be inc., Apple didn't bite. When choosing a product to use as the base for their next-generation OS, Apple chose NeXT over BeOS. Such is life.
In the middle of the dot-com bubble, Be inc. tried in vain to crack into the already crowded x86 operating system market. Unfortunately, their timing was off. Microsoft, at the height of their arrogance and market share, quashed any hopes of OEM distributions for BeOS. On top of this, by the time BeOS had matured to be a usable system, Linux had gained the bulk of the mind and market share for alternative operating systems. Be inc. released BeOS 5PE for free in 1999 in hopes of spurring sales and market share. Unfortunately, this plan failed. The VC-funded Be inc., created to be bought by a larger company, found that their costs far outstripped their meager income. The company's burn rate was unsustainable and after many machinations, Be inc. died a slow, painful death. Their assets (and employees) were eventually transferred to Palm Source. Continuing Be's apparent kiss of death, this technology was then set to be the base for the as yet unreleased PalmOS 6.x before that company decided to switch platforms again, this time to Linux. Several of the brightest stars of Be's engineering team have since been hired back to Apple. The author of the remarkable BFS now works on OSX's HFS+ filesystem.
Near the end of Be inc's death throws, an odd German company emerged: YellowTab. They claimed to have a license to distribute the never-released version of BeOS 6, Dano. Dano was a major update. It offered completely rewritten networking bringing it more in line with Unix expectations. YellowTab started working on polishing Dano for release. After several years and many wild rumors as to the legality of whatever license was indeed given to YellowTab, they finally release Zeta 1.0. This is what would have been BeOS 6. Since then, they have released a minor update, 1.1. This (increasingly long-winded) review is of Zeta 1.1.
I have been following YellowTab since they announced that they would be releasing BeOS 6. Questions of the legality of this move surfaced almost immediately and it's still unclear as to whether or not YellowTab has the source code for the BeOS kernel. However, this is far less critical for BeOS than for other operating systems, as it is a true micro kernel design. Among other things, this means that the OS can easily be extended and components can be replaced without having access to all sources. YT has clearly replaced the USB stack, as Zeta has far better support for USB devices than BeOS ever did.
As was the case with BeOS, Zeta is as fast as ever. YT replaced the default GUI theme with a "more modern" look. To me, it was a bit garish, so I reverted to the classic theme immediately.
Hardware support is much improved in Zeta 1.1. It can be installed on P4s and even supports AMD Athlon 64 X2 processors. Video support has also been expanded, though I still needed to download R5 drivers for some fairly common chipsets, such as the ATI Rage Mobility (Mach64) found in the Sony Vaio that I am using primarily for this review.
Zeta includes many third party programs. It includes the complete Gobe Productive 2.0 office suite. This suite, while dated, does everything that you'd need for light office needs. It's certainly more than adequate for me. Zeta now uses Firefox as the default browser. This is essential, as NetPostitive (the default browser with R5) was quite weak even when it was current. The browser situation has improved much in the last six years. Both Mozilla Firefox and SeaMonkey are now quite usable for day to day work, though the mail component doesn't seem to work for IMAP. Of course, you can forget about plugins. No flash, no Java, no Real etc. VLC does exist though, so you can play just about any type of music or video.
And it's the multimedia performance of Zeta that really sets it apart from the competition. Unlike Linux, Mac OS or Windows, Zeta seems always at the ready. It runs blindingly fast on low end hardware. I have installed Zeta on several PCs for my testing: a Celeron 400MHz with 128MB of RAM, a P4 1.6GHz with 256MB of RAM and a Sony Vaio Z505LE laptop running at 650MHz with 192MB of RAM. The OS is very responsive and the GUI works perfectly on all three systems. Media files all play without hiccups, and video also plays remarkably well. Folders and files open effortlessly instantly. Smaller programs like the text editor and Gobe Productive launch in an instant. Even Firefox starts up in a few seconds on the Vaio. A complex 20 page PDF file launches and is open in front of me on the Vaio within 4 seconds. There is no busy cursor for BeOS/Zeta. The system runs as quickly as you can think. This is what makes it so frustrating. The system is just burgeoning with potential, but due to a total lack of applications, you can do almost nothing with the system.
Zeta is better on this front than BeOS R5 ever was. It does include the basics like a decent web browser, office suite and media applications. Unfortunately, the few commercial applications that run on Zeta are mostly from the R5 days, so are five+ years old and haven't been updated since then. Thankfully, R5 programs for the most part run perfectly under Zeta. I can now run RealPlayer, CL-AMP and BeIDE from my previous R5 Pro installation. Still, it would be nice to see some new development efforts. The computer landscape has changed quite a bit since 2000. Things do seem to be picking up a little of late, but Zeta is firmly in the realm of the hobbyist-OS now, so I wouldn't hold my breath waiting for any major announcements from top-tier software producers. On a happier note, the re-written networking has allowed Zeta to include good support for mounting Windows Samba shares. I was able to mount drives from a Samba Linux share, an XP share and my PowerBook. Printing is also much improved. As with Linux and Mac OSX, Zeta uses CUPS. This means that if your printer works in OSX or Linux, it should work fine in Zeta. I was able to print to out JetDirect-shared network printer without issue.
A decent X11 server is also available through BeBits. This and the integrated ssh client make Zeta suitable for most of my remote administration. As was the case with BeOS R5, Zeta is a strange mix of almost Unix. It includes a bash shell, a terminal application, and is quite capable of compiling and running most Unix applications. Graphical applications such as the Gimp are more difficult, as you would either have to port the GUI toolkits to BeOS, or use the X11 server and have the applications divorced from the rest of the system.
One of YellowTab's contributions to BeOS is to replace the preferences with a unified application that lets you change all system settings. Some reviewers have panned this move, but I find it quite convenient to be able to change everything in one place. Another nice improvement with Zeta is the inclusion of a real, modern browser. Firefox 1.6a1 is the default browser. While it is hands-down the best browser for BeOS, it doesn't really feel like a native browser. It's a bit sluggish compared to the other applications installed. I'd be interested to see how a KHTML-based browser would perform on the OS, as the light-weight rendering engine that provides the foundation for Konqueror and Safari is very capable while remaining small and fast. It seems to fit in better with the BeOS feel. I'd also like to see a modern IMAP-capable mail client included in the OS. The mail_daemon_replacement almost works and Thunderbird, while available on BeBits, doesn't seem to run well on Zeta. The bundled mail client is a sore-spot in the system, as it lacks IMAP support. You get get around this by installing the Mailer Daemon Replacement from Haiku, but it has stability issues. Thunderbird and SeaMonkey are available through BeBits, but I couldn't get them to display my IMAP messages. As a result, I've found myself grumpily using web-based IMAP clients. Until there is an Open Source equivalent to GMail, this is obviously less than optimal.
All of the features that I remember fondly about BeOS are still there. The workspace manager that lets you configure each workspace with a different colour-depth and screen resolution, the speed of the system, the ease of package installation and the simplicity of operation are all still there. Unfortunately, the lack of polish and instability of some applications are also still present. Still, many people, myself included, used BeOS back in the day and were never really able to let it go. It was a far lighter OS than any of the modern competitors. While it never was able to do anything particularly useful or unique from an application point of view, the potential has always been undeniable. On the whole, the majority of the applications I care about actually run quite well on Zeta. I have a terminal, a decent browser, ssh, an X11 server and VLC. However, the lack of high-quality applications like the Gimp, and a good IMAP-capable mail client really limit the usefulness of Zeta for day-to-day work. In the end, Zeta's target market will likely be limited to nostalgic BeOS users like myself. Using Zeta can be justified by the fact that it does run quickly and stably on low-end machines. However, at the end of the day, an off-lease, fast PC can be purchased for peanuts these days. So, was buying Zeta to install on my aging Vaio a frivolous purchase? Certainly. Do I regret it? Absolutely not.