Monday, September 10, 2001

Bye-bye bay-BeOS Be closed down last August (for those who don't know, Be produced what Neal Stephenson described as the "Bat mobile" of operating systems). After the rubble was picked up by Palm, Jean-Louis Gassée, Be's CEO, argued that Microsoft's anti-dual boot policy made it impossible for OEMs to include it on their machines, even though the operating system was free (like beer, but not like speech). While this is exactly the sort of anti-competitive behavior the government has decided to overlook, I don't think that Gassee's argument holds water--Be would have been doomed anyway.

Once upon a time, the operating system was a layer that sat on the underlying hardware and provided APIs for applications. To avoid being commoditized away, Microsoft essentially tied its OS to applications, such as the word processor, spread sheet, low-end database, and most recently, browser. All of these applications (except for the browser) have strong demand-side externalities, i.e. they're much more useful if many people use them because folks can then share files. Be, even if it was a better OS, had no hope of displacing this huge installed base of installed applications. The only thing that can compete with Microsoft Office products is newer Microsoft Office products. And although they chased the embedded market, they were dead in the water there too -- that belongs to Linux, the ultimate commodity OS. Be would have been better of going after some niche like video editing and getting installed as the standard in dedicated digital editing suites. Engineers should know by now that great technology cannot beat the economics of networked information.
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