Here’s the BeOS shipping forecast

While the Apple/Be operating system saga drags on, Sutherland Lyall assesses compatibility and conversion problems with Sony’s must-have widescreen HiDTV

You won’t have missed the story about Apple’s acquisition of Jean Louis Gassee’s Be Corp’s operating system, a story which will have developed more since these words appeared on my VDU screen. In the background were whispers about 100 very big ones about to change hands. If it’s all worked out Apple will at last look like a company interested in survival and growth and the Mac OS8 design team will be wondering whether people are calling them prats behind their backs.

Last month Be Corp demonstrated a PowerMac version of BeOS, as the operating system is imaginatively called, at Boston’s MacWorld Expo which just possibly shows how effective exhibitions can be for manufacturers. It was a technology demo, not shipping product. Now, it’s said, Apple will retain its own OS8 micro kernel and use BeOS’s application model. That may, of course, be a sop to the Mac OS team’s amour propre. And it may not be true either because Be’s little number is reckoned to be a winner on its own and stuff the dignity of the old Copland team.

Naturally, there are qualifications and problems. Be Corp wrote its own version of QuickTime functions when Apple asked an over the top price for the licence. Because QuickTime is seen as Apple’s long-time saviour as a universal, cross-platform, evolving (and pretty good) technology, it’s assumed that it will stick with it and drop Be’s. But what will that do for versions of BeOS for other platforms? What too of the 3D bit? Be Corp has just licensed Silicon Graphics’ Open- GL, the de facto standard 3D API, well, workstation 3D API.

So where does that leave Quickdraw 3D and its file format? More accurately, will Apple take OpenGL on as a kind of sub-licensee? Will it be able to? What will the current Mac 3D API team have to say? And what about the forthcoming PC Talisman architecture and the current Direct3D? Do we have convergence? And will any of this be visible on the new Sony widescreen monitor?

Yes, while Apple struggles into the 21st century someone in the computer industry has twigged on to the fact that TV viewers are slowly moving in the direction of high definition TV via the wide-screen route. For some time now some TV production companies have been shooting their stuff on widescreen 16mm – you see the black bands above and below the picture more and more on broadcast TV these days. Some glorious time soonish we’ll have the new format in high definition. Because HiDTV is really high definition you’re going to see a lot of programmes shot on location: sets have to be built to much higher standards – and prices. Although, come to think of it, sets will all be built inside the screens of designers’ computers, won’t they?

Anyway, if TV is going horizontal, it’s inevitable that the VDU industry will want to follow suit. Technology seems to have to go through a horseless carriage phase and this may be no exception, for Sony spin doctors are suggesting that people will use this screen instead of two separate screens – or for looking at double page spreads. Quark and Pagemaker jocks are going to kill for one.

But this kind of use is still halfway house stuff. Inevitably, the proportions of computer screen images will change in the letterbox direction. And although it is said that designers will happily adapt from what is itself an arbitrary TV-derived proportion, I reckon that the extra 20 per cent or so more on the side means that we’re going to have nicer controls and much less cluttered screens for our favourite graphics programs – plus the possibility of the aforesaid two screens side by side.

So, of course, there are going to be conversion problems, with some apps working only with the old proportions and some only with the new. So what, I say. That’s a generic issue also exercising commentators on the Be-Apple OS merger. Because although it’s very cross-platform-friendly, the new operating system isn’t going to be backwards-compatible with the Mac OS. And backwards-compatibility has always been the central truth of the Mac OS and Microsoft’s OS as well. Actually, that’s no longer true with the emergence of PowerMac-only apps (and Win95/NT-only apps on the rival system). So have we had marches on Cupertino town square and the Gatesian mansion in Seattle? No. If a new and demonstrably terrific system means going out and buying nice new kit people are going to do it at the next kit upgrade point aren’t they? Erm, did someone mention Next?

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