Issue 1-21, May 1, 1996

Be Engineering Insights: Shaken, not Stirred

By Doug Fulton

A developer release is like a family photo taken on the last day of a week-long Italian wedding party. The photographer shouts "Dite formaggio," and, reflexively, the grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, esposi y monelli look up for the flash to capture an accumulated forced smile. That little moment passed, they return to the arguments and the serious drinking.

Of course, there's always somebody missing from the picture. Our prodigal, in developer release 7, is the fortune cookie, the verbum nerdum that you (used to) get with each shell. Fortune cookies are easy to despise: They're rarely worth reading, and the concept is embarrassingly geeky. But after indulging in this initial, priggish scoff, I settled into a patronizing tolerance, from which middle road it was an easy slide into guilty anticipation.

The fortune cookie phenomenon used to be the domain of UNIX-grade systems. But there's an equivalent in PC-land: Microsoft Word's Tip of the Day. My introduction to Word came when I offered to help format a newsletter at my daughters' school. Although I'd never used Word before, I figured it was probably similar to Frame, which I knew all too well. The newsletter document was already open when I sat down to fiddle with the heading styles; within a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks, the machine froze. I thought this was serious. Not only was I unfamiliar with Word, I'd never really used a PC before—I had yet to understand that crashing is a proof of existence.

Acting quickly, I power-cycled the machine, logged in using my friend's name, guessed at the password (right the second time), found the Word icon, and restarted the program. Up popped a little box that said something like:

"Did you know ... If you applied built-in heading styles to headings, you can create cross-references...."

and so on. I realize now that it was just coincidence, but at the time I thought the program was actually trying to tell me what I had done wrong —after all, I had been playing with heading styles when the machine crashed, and here it was recommending... My God... Was Microsoft actually bundling a laudable form of artificial intelligence? Was I going to have to recant my snobbish dismissal of these toy computers? On the verge of apostasy, I tried to banish the knife before me—I quit Word and relaunched. Another little box:

"Did you know ... If you use fewer words, your documents will be shorter?"

Somewhere in the back of my pea brain a night light glimmered. I quit and launched again:

"Did you know ... You can check grammar in a document?"

I got it.

(Years later, I concatenated a couple of Word's tips:

"You can check grammar in a document. Word can analyze the readability of a document."

and ran them through the program's grammar checker. They scored an appalling 52.58 out of 100. (By the tool's own estimation, an average document should score between 60 and 70.)

The Be fortune cookies are—excuse me, were—distinctly more amusing and less annoying than Word's Tip of the Day. For me, one cookie in particular stood out from the batch:

"When confronted by a difficult problem, you can solve it more easily by reducing it to the question: `How would the Lone Ranger have handled this?'"

Admittedly, this isn't one of the shell's wittier offerings. Until recently, I would have dismissed it as an easy and uninspired cliche. But that was before my awakening.

Some months ago I was driving peacefully, dreaming along a pleasant boulevard, when my reverie was shattered by the frothing bark of an angry young white male, muscle-bound at 6 feet tall and 200 pounds. There, in the left turn lane, was the evidence of a minor collision between Mr. Tank Top's American pickup (in front), and a teeny foreign sub-compact driven by my mother (speaking figuratively). The two drivers were freshly out of their vehicles in preparation for what is, normally, a graceful insurance card gavotte—but here, instead, we had a red-faced goon, fists raised, screaming obscenities at my cowering mom.

Understand that I was driving in lightly heavy traffic two lanes to the right. The scene pressed itself into my awareness in an instant: A defenseless woman in obvious need of a champion. An instant more, and the moment for action would be lost. I wasn't obliged to stop; none of this was my doing; aside from her being my mother, I'd never seen the woman before. It's at times like this, when the present becomes remarkably immediate, that we show who it is we really think it is we are. So, what's the first thing that pops into my head as naturally as instinct?

"What would Sean Connery do?"

Literally. I have two smallish children and one large mortgage at home; I have advanced degrees in music from major universities; I hitchhiked across East Germany before the wall came down; I don't watch much television. Yet, when spontaneous action is necessary, I find that my personal standard for adult behavior is measured against James Bond.

Dazed by my superficiality in the face of an imperative, I reviewed my life: When I was a kid, my favorite uncle was a bachelor who owned a small English sports car. As a teenager, my best friend (also a bachelor) had a small English sports car. The first car I bought when I arrived in California—while still unmarried—was a small English sports car. It began to make sense.

When I got back to Be, I thought I'd retreat from my sickness by firing up a shell and, oh, I don't know, maybe reel off a few psloop's. That's when the Lone Ranger quote popped up. A few days later, the fortune cookies were gone. My mother gets out of the hospital next week.

(According to Word's grammar checker, this document was written at a seventh-grade level.)

Be Developer Profile: Make It So Pty. Ltd.

According to a recent newspaper article, the average number of digital shots in special effects movies this summer will exceed 500. That's up from 400 shots in the movie "Caspar" in the summer of 1995, and a mere 55 in the 1993 blockbuster "Jurassic Park."

Demand for digital video and special effects software is growing fast. Visual effects that used to require expensive, high-end workstations can now be achieved on low-cost personal computers, and in much less time.

Daniel Koch, a director at Make It So Pty. Ltd., isn't complaining. Make It So, a Be developer based in Crows Nest, Sydney, Australia (the Australian equivalent of Hollywood), makes special effects software for film and video, assisting in all post-production aspects from processing, to editing, to compositing. Make It So's current products include Digital Fusion, which was used in several movies including "Sirens," as well as in corporate videos, movie trailers, and a number of television ads. (Digital Fusion is available now for MS-DOS; a port to Windows NT is in process.)

With the BeBox, it was a case of instant attraction. “It's got multiprocessing, a cool API, a good OS, and lots of I/O,” says Daniel. “All that at a low price, and not dominated by Microsoft. Hooray!” Daniel is especially excited about symmetric multiprocessing at a decent price. “My application requires lots of MIPS, smooth multitasking, and a rich graphics capability. The Media Kit could be a tremendous asset. The multiprocessors definitely will be.

First-hand experience with a BeBox in-house has been positive. “I was spoiled by the speed of the interface on my old Amiga—it's very hard to work with NT as a result. The BeBox is better still, and I think I'm going to love the quad-604,” Daniel says. “The best part, though, is the uncluttered API. Drag and drop was never a lot of fun on the Amiga, and on NT it's a Nightmare. The Be OS does it the way it should be done -- very, very easily.

What about the BeBox business proposition? “We don't plan on making a profit on the BeBox just yet. That will come later, when the BeBox takes off as a powerful, low-cost film/video post-production machine. That's why we're interested now: Having a solid offering early on in a new platform's life could prove to be very lucrative down the road.

I'd like to see the BeBox achieve a respected position in niche markets, particularly (and selfishly) in the video market,” Daniel says. “Ideally, the machine will take over where the Amiga left off, before Wintel machines have a chance to get a stranglehold.

Currently, Make It So is developing freeware utilities and drivers for the BeBox; their projects include a simple Font Manager and a driver for the Perception PVR video record/playback card. After they become more familiar with the system, they plan to rewrite Digital Fusion for the BeBox, with an anticipated availability in 6 to 12 months.

Summing up, Daniel says, “The BeBox is a clean new machine, with a rich feature set, for a reasonable price. It's far better than Windows (including NT), and has much brighter prospects than Apple and Amiga. Aside from that, it's an intriguing machine in its own right.

For more information on Make It So Pty. Ltd. or their products, send e-mail to To find out about the current MS-DOS version of Digital Fusion, see the 4DVision Web page at

The Meaning of DR7

By Jean-Louis Gassée

DR7 (our latest developer release) leaves me with mixed feelings. Not that I'm unhappy with it, on the contrary. It's just that it reminds me of the Sysiphean task of building system software: There's always so much more to do.

But let's focus on what DR7 accomplishes, for a moment. A little over three months after DR6 shipped, DR7 shows the most significant amount of progress between releases—so far. (Please refer to for details, the list is too long for this column.) I'll skip quickly over bug and feature fixes. Fixing annoying bugs in a serial driver or allowing support of bigger than 540 MB IDE drives is good hygiene. It's only revealing when you don't practice it.

One of the harder things in our business is arbitrating between the urge to move forward, adding features, and the nagging feeling that something needs to be rethought, and perhaps redone. The need to ship and the need to do it "right." Put another way, it is exceedingly rare, or foolish, to think a piece of software is absolutely right. Some features are either good or amenable to a straightforward fix. For some others, we have to go back and rebuild in order to avoid unfixable problems later, or missed opportunities.

The file system changes fall in that category. Not surprisingly, we liked the idea of a dual-fork system as found on the Macintosh: It offers nicer creature comforts. What we found out, however, was it made it difficult to coexist with other file systems. In order to better interoperate with UNIX and Windows systems, we're going back to a single-fork file system and, in future releases, we'll improve the integration and performance of the combined file system and database engine. I fully expect we'll have other such painful but healthy "opportunities" as we move forward; they'll make a difference to our long-term success. A number of changes in the user interface were the result of comments we received on Very early, we got vigorous feedback for our passe scroll bars. Nobody, but nobody wants to be seen with nonproportional scroll bars these days. So there: Customizable scroll bars and arrows to suit (almost) every taste. One of the most conservative members of the technical team finally blessed them as more convenient "because they're larger." De gustibus... The more serious point with improvements such as a better architecture for drivers, 32-bit color, multiple IP support, and many others is we're "excited," sort of, when someone takes the time to criticize our work. Especially if it hurts, because it usually means the gentle reviewer is striking a nerve, a painful pointer to an opportunity.

As DR7 exposes a larger area of our work, there will be no dearth of new darts. We also added features that were not quite in the grand plan for the Be OS. The Posix layer is one example. From the very beginning of Be we made extensive use of UNIX tools and utilities. Programmers know them, some even love them, many are freeware floating on the net, why re-invent the wheel when the value we add is under and above the level at which these tools operate? As stated before, this doesn't mean we're in the workstation business. We just want to ease the migration path to the BeBox for some tools and applications relevant to our business. Multiple workspaces represent another idea that occurred to us as we compared the workings of some UNIX desktops and of Windows and Mac systems. Our implementation of workspaces picked up on the idea of grouping applications and documents by affinity and switching between contexts with a mouse click, or a keystroke. We added a few twists, such as switching screen depth and resolution on the fly when moving from one workspace to another, and using drag-and-drop moves on a miniature representation of the workspaces. It's not the most important improvement we've made, but it is one of the more immediately pleasing to those of us who have cluttered desktops. If you check our web site you'll be invited to test-drive the development environment. This points to perhaps the most important improvement: CodeWarrior DR 1 is now available on the BeBox. It's the native version of Metrowerks' award-winning IDE. CodeWarrior DR1 makes writing code for the BeBox a more pleasant, faster, and less expensive experience as the user interface improves dramatically and the need for other hardware—such as a Mac or a UNIX system -- diminishes or vanishes altogether.

In an earlier column, I made the point we were in the early phase of the life of this platform. As a result, we were in a period of increasing returns while older systems were showing signs of slowing down. Hopefully, DR7 buttresses this contention. And I'll hasten to say we're painfully aware of the task ahead of us. We know the feedback we'll receive from DR7 users, old and new, will keep us as focused and grateful as we are today.

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