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Tiny Be carves niche out of vast Microsoft-owned pie


November 10, 1999
Web posted at: 3:33 p.m. EST (2033 GMT)

By Correspondent James Hattori and Producer Bob Melisso
CNN Newsstand

(CNN) -- If the computer operating system market were a boxing match, 'Microsoft vs. Be Inc.' would be the mismatch of the century.

Bill Gates' Microsoft weighs in with sales of $19 billion and a product line, Windows, that runs 100 million computers, 90 percent of the market.

In the other corner, Jean-Louis Gassee's company Be Inc. weighs in with less $2 million in revenue and a market share estimate at one-tenth of a percent of Windows' share.

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    So what does Be have on its side? Be's operating system, according to the company, is clean, stable and a whiz at handling multimedia tasks.

    "In multimedia what you need is the ability to manipulate multiple streams of digital video and audio concurrently," Gassee said. "And we can do these very well. Windows cannot do these very lively or very gracefully."

    BeOS lets musicians play with compositions, makes complex video editing seem easy, and creates elegant graphic effects with no waiting.

    In many ways, BeOS makes a regular computer simulate a high-priced graphics workstation.

    Before he founded Be in 1990, Gassee was in charge of Apple's French subsidiary. Later, he took over all new product development for Apple.

    Now, with 100 employees, he's taking on Microsoft and its 31,000 employees.

    Gassee defends his small company and its Herculean effort to make a dent in Windows hegemony.

    "One, we are new and we need to prove ourselves," he said. "The other explanation is right now if you buy a PC, what are the chances that you, will see any other operating system than Windows on the PC? Zero."

    One huge obstacle facing any new operating system attempting to gain a toe-hold in the market is that virtually all new computers come pre-loaded with Microsoft Windows. If you want to use Be, or any other alternative OS, you have to go out and buy it and install it yourself.

    "The infrastructure of today's computing environment is for good or ill structured around the Windows operating system," said Mark Hall, West Coast editor of ComputerWorld. "Can you get around that? Yes you can, but you have to work harder to do that and most individuals and most corporations are not going to make that extra effort."

    During the Microsoft antitrust trial, Be got a backhanded compliment when Microsoft used the small company as an example of how Microsoft does not have a monopoly on operating systems.

    "This is cheeky on their part to, to use skinny little BE and try to hide behind us," Gassee said. "In a way we could be flattered. In another way we could feel a little threatened because they took the time of dissecting everything we do.

    "They have a simple goal in life: Everything. So when you are in the kind of businesses we are, you are one way or the other competing with Microsoft, but we're not trying to compete head on."

    BeOS handles multimedia very well  

    Gassee likens his predicament to the tactics of ancient tribes.

    "Look at how the barbarians dealt with the Roman Empire. This is perhaps more appropriate, or you would call it guerrilla marketing. We are trying to find alliances with like-minded barbarians and, you know, gain the mass and carve out territory where we can lead a profitable life.

    "[Microsoft is] coming after us, of course they are. And they should, that's what they should do."

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    Be Incorporated!
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