To be or not to Be Inc.

Earlier today Palm announced it would purchase the assets of operating system developer Be Inc. for US$11 million — a fire sale price compared to the US$200 million its chief executive, Jean-Louis Gassee demanded of Apple when it was interested in the firm five years ago. Once a promising, innovative player in the OS scene, Be is now being looked upon as a might-have-been that deserved more success.

It didn’t.

I’m not faulting the technology, which was almost universally praised by anyone who got the chance to see it at Comdex or PC Expo in the mid- to late 1990s. Finally, it looked as though there were someone interested in creating the OS capability necessary to exploit the sort of symmetric multi-processing and object-oriented design to support emerging digital video and audio applications in the PC market. There seemed to be no reason why Be’s offering could not eventually become the OS of choice among new media specialists in content creation and graphics processing.

But there was a reason: Be never had the courage to compete. The company was willing to do almost everything else, however, trying new business strategies the way Madonna makes over her image with each album. When the PC market was strong, they tried making PCs. Internet appliances? They gave it a shot. Even when Linux began stealing much of its thunder as a Windows alternative, Be provided an open source version of its product.

But when it should have been spending 95 per cent of its time on shoring up developer support, Gassee and co. were trying to convince major computer manufacturers to include its OS as part of a dual-boot PC. That’s right, you heard me. Rather than stand up for itself and take on Microsoft, Be. Inc. imagined a world where users would work in Windows for word processing or spreadsheets, then switch over to Be for multimedia applications. This is a fool’s dream from which the company has finally been forced to wake up after accumulating a staggering $54.6 million debt.

Granted, competing against Microsoft is a frightening prospect that must seem nearly impossible for many entrepreneurs. But it is precisely this kind of attitude which stifles innovation and allows a handful of companies to dominate our industry in a monopolistic manner. Be might never have even focused on the Intel side of the market if Apple hadn’t killed off its clone business (Gassee was an Apple expat). In many interviews, including one with CDN, Gassee deflected any questions about the OS supplanting Windows. Humility is a virtue, but it’s also possible to pair modesty with ambition. There would have been nothing wrong with Be seeking merely to be the second-best PC operating company in the world. We need that.

Now that Palm has made the wise decision to spin off its OS business, I look forward to seeing someone make use of Be’s technology. The older Windows becomes, the more unrealistic it may seem to challenge Microsoft’s dominance on the desktop, but PocketPC is young enough that with a great product and management know-how, we can at least maintain some healthy rivalries. There’s no point in being a visionary if you’re too realistic to start a revolution.

It seems to take an open source movement like Linux, in which anti-Microsoft naysayers can hide behind the anonymity of a development community to really offer an OS alternative. What’s disappointing is not that Be has died but that it always seemed to work with one foot in the grave.

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