Let it Be over, already

Call it the return of the living dead operating system.

Or call it BeOS BS. Whatever the case, this week’s announcement that the company formerly known as Be Inc. is suing Microsoft

Corp. for anti-competitive practices is great news for lawyers, but no one else.

The lawsuit claims that Microsoft’s licensing deals shut out smaller operating systems developers from making their own deals with computer manufacturers.

It’s a sad end note to a roller-coaster ride of a story. Launched in 1990 by former Apple exec Louis Gassee, Be developed user-friendly, easy-to-run operating systems that were variously touted as an alternative for Apple Computer Inc. users, Windows users, multimedia developers, Internet appliances, and wireless devices.

The OS technology won kudos in recent years for its ability to run multimedia applications quickly and smoothly, and garnered the support of companies like MGI Software (now part of Roxio), makers of PhotoSuite. At times, free versions and source code were put up for grabs, adding to Be’s popularity.

Licensing deals with Compaq, Sony and Hitachi also boded well, as the company started to make inroads into the Internet appliance market. Last year, Sony rolled out its “”eVilla”” offering, a Web-browsing device for home users, running the BeIA operating system.

But it just wasn’t enough to keep the company going. Be went public in 1999, only to sell off its OS technology to Palm Inc. last August — for US$11 million in Palm shares. Palm officially completed the buyout last November, and Gassee departed shortly after.

So now comes the lawsuit.

You might remember last fall’s settlement between Microsoft and the U.S. Justice Department, which saw relatively light sanctions against the software behemoth. Nine states are still unhappy with the deal and are pushing ahead with antitrust legal action.

This provides an opening for Be’s suit. Here’s what the company says in a press release:

“”The lawsuit alleges, among other claims, that Microsoft harmed Be through a series of exclusionary and anticompetitive acts designed to maintain its monopoly in the Intel-compatible PC operating system market and created exclusive dealing arrangements with PC OEMs prohibiting the sale of PCs with multiple preinstalled operating systems.””

Apparently, Be had a verbal agreement in 1998 to have the OS pre-installed on Hitachi PCs. Be claims in its court filing that Hitachi had to water down its commitment (by not installing the Be boot manager or the BeOS “”launcher”” icon on computers — leaving users stuck with booting Be from a floppy disk). Gripes concerning Compaq Computer Corp. are also outlined, as well as alleged attempts by Microsoft to interfere with Be’s financing efforts.

The result?

Be claims in its filing that “”nearly the entire market value of Be as a publicly traded going concern, which once exceeded one billion dollars, has been eliminated.””

I’m certainly no fan of Microsoft’s previous business practices, but I find this lawsuit too much to swallow.

Be may have had sound technology and some market potential. It may have had a chance at becoming a strong niche player, but the question remains: which niche? Multimedia? Handheld? Web device? Disgruntled Apple or Windows users?

The biggest problem Be faced wasn’t the Redmond bully. The company just couldn’t define itself. After fumbling a deal with Apple in 1996, reportedly worth US$125 million, Be had to find other directions. Unfortunately, it found too many. In the short term, this may have helped gain media and user interest, but the changing focus hurt the company’s business prospects in the long run.

To me, this lawsuit seems like a desperate effort to squeeze one final bit of cash out of a company whose time has come and gone.

Just let it be. Please.

johnsaunders@sympatico.ca

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