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"BeOS is a quantum leap to the next level."
Scot Hacker, keeper of the BeHive and the BeOS Tip Server talks with Be Dope about the history of the BeOS and what needs to happen to get the BeOS on lots and lots of desktops.

Be Dope: What is your computer background?

I'm a relative neophyte, compared to the many 'nix gurus in the Be community. I took the obligatory BASIC programming course in high school in the early 80s, then didn't touch another machine until college, at UCSC, where I used the campus mainframe from a dumb terminal in my garage loft to write my philosophy papers. Got the terminal at a swap meet for $5 and a geek friend hooked it up to a 1200 baud modem. UCSC's system was all command-line at the time. Unfortunately, I didn't give a stuff about computers at the time, and learned just enough vi and nroff to get by. Sure wish I had dug more deeply into Unix now -- it would come in handy in Terminal.

Didn't touch another computer for several years, until I signed on at ZiffNet (now ZDNet) in '92. I took an editorial job and was bummed to find I had to sit a computer to do it. All DOS at first. Within a couple of months I begrudgingly admitted to myself that I kind of liked computers, and built my first 386 from free parts. That process yielded the same kind of satisfaction that building Volkswagen engines had formerly held, and I became obsessed with the tinkering. I've built dozens of machines since. Then the Web came along, which really gave me a reason to tinker, and I started building sites for myself and others. Ran a ZD intranet from a PowerMac for about 18 months, but found the MacOS a mild irritant. Messed with Linux for a while but didn't have the patience for it. I've focused on NT and BeOS since. Spent the last half of my career at ZDNet running InternetUser, and just left ZD six weeks ago to pursue BeOS full-time, as an independent contractor.

How did Be first attract your attention? What made you decide to do the BeHive series?

I was publishing some MacWeek/MacUser stuff on ZDNet when they ran a review of the BeBox, and I was entranced. Started reading Be's site, the newsgroups, anything I could get my hands on. This was right between DR7 and DR8. One day I mentioned Be to my editor-in-chief, who mentioned that he had worked closely with JLG in a previous life. He said that if I wanted to produce regular Be coverage we could probably arrange to get me a BeBox. Two weeks later I had one, and the BeBox Journal (now BeOS Journal) was born. That's one of the things I miss about being at Ziff -- constant access to the latest hardware and software. The rest you know.

What do you think of the direction Be has taken since you have been involved?

It's been exciting watching the company grow. Operating systems don't happen overnight, and Be's evolutionary course has been methodical, deliberate, and careful for the most part. One of the amazing things is that there are very few companies you feel like you can get behind 100%. There's always some aspect of a company's product or their politics that one doesn't like, but it's pretty hard to think of things I don't like about Be as a company or BeOS as a product. Sure, there are some things I don't like about BeOS right now, but Be is well-aware of what's missing, and they've got a proven track record of evolving the OS to meet the needs of users.

The hardest moment for me so far has been watching the death of the BeBox. It was just one of the coolest pieces of hardware ever made, and I'm proud to have one. However, the interesting thing is that I don't enjoy running it as much anymore now that I've got BeOS running on my Intel machine. I've got a total of 266MHz in the BeBox and a total of 600MHz in my Intel machine, but the Intel machine feels about five times faster than the BeBox. It's just so incredibly responsive. No cascading menu delays, no perceptible application launch times. It's the first time I've had a hardware/OS combination that responds as quickly as I can think. As Jean- Louis pointed out once, "Users will tolerate a lot of things, but they will not tolerate SLOW!" I still keep the BeBox jacked into my home network for the sake of PPC/Intel comparisons. I toggle between them with a switch on the front panel of my monitor. Anyway, I really was looking forward to seeing some cool things built around the GeekPort. I never even had a chance to test it out. Maybe someone will do a PCI GeekPort for Macs and x86 machines. I hope so.

By the way, despite my sentimentality, I know Be did the right thing by dropping the BeBox. They wouldn't be anywhere close to where they are now if they had stayed on that path.

Are you now using the BeOS 99% of the time?

Not quite. More like 84.7%. I run several sites out of MS Access relational databases, using a scripting tool called GDIdb under NT. I'm dying to see a SQL database and scripting solution emerge to maturity on BeOS so I can move that over. Especially for the sake of the BeOS Tip Server -- I feel guilty generating that under Windows, but it's a necessity right now. I'm also a Eudora addict, and while I do most of my emailing in BeOS now, I'm looking forward to the existing mail clients maturing a little more. BeMail suits me fine for the nonce.

I hear you are writing a book called "The Be Bible". Tell me about this project.

Well, I wasn't going to announce that publicly for several more months since it isn't due until Christmas or possibly January. But the cat appears to be out of the bag, so what the hey. The BeOS Bible will be a complete reference for end-users, not programmers, and will follow in the tradition of The Macintosh Bible, The PC Bible, and The Windows Bible(s). The trick is to leave no stone unturned, and it's proving to be a mighty task. Right now my concern is care of my wrists, and getting my home office fully ergonomic. I have a lot of pages to crank out still, a lot of screen shots to take, and a lot of meetings with Be to schedule. Peachpit Press is the publisher, and they're great to work with.

Are you planning to develop software for the BeOS?

I've always wanted to learn to program, but have just been too busy. BeOS' API makes the prospect even more attractive, but time is still a problem. I've learned to hack shell scripts a bit, and I study the code samples on BeDevTalk, but the basic constructs still elude me. I'd love to just give six months of my life to learning C++. Maybe after January.

In your opinion, what needs to be done to make BeOS R4 successful as a "consumer release"?

Well, obviously, the many installation and hardware-detection issues need to be worked out and handled more gracefully. Right now it's heaven or hell. If you've got the right hardware, installation couldn't be easier. If you don't, you're staring at a blank screen. R3.1 and the coming pre- install hardware probe should clear up a lot of that. I think BeOS needs some equivalent of Win 95's excellent Device Manager so people can see at a glance how their hardware is configured, and make config changes to all their PnP cards without having to boot into Windows or do it in the BIOS. I'm still a little unclear on how hardware is detected and configured. No interface onto the situation makes me feel powerless, and doesn't fit the geeky Be model, in my view. And of course, "Drivers wanted" (as Volkswagen would say). All a matter of time.

I think the keyboard situation is still messy. I understand the evolutionary problems of going from Mac hardware to Intel hardware and the keymapping problems it presents, but I believe keys should behave as their labels indicate. I can never remember whether to use left- or right-side Alt and Ctrl keys, the app pulldown menus map to a funky Windows key that I've never once used in Windows, and the Delete key doesn't move files to the Trash. I can get used to this stuff, but I think Be might be underestimating how much Win users love their keyboards. The mouse is not the same friend that it is to Mac users. Perhaps they just need to build some alternate keymaps for 105-key keyboards. I know for a fact that they are continuing to work on this, and we'll see what R3.1 and R4 bring.

I love the MIME solution, but find it somewhat buggy and think the FileTypes app could be made even more intuitive for neophytes. We really need a way to set MIME types on entire batches of files, or directory structures. Like, the ability to say, "scan this directory tree and turn all text/plain files to text/html files, skipping everything else." Can't wait.

On the application front, we'll need more mature productivity applications and broad support for more file formats. Hopefully we'll see translators for all the Office file formats and a Windows emulator to parallel SheepShaver. A kick-ass, user-friendly scripting solution would go a long way, and so would a browser that does all the fancy stuff we associate with a MediaOS -- DHTML, XML, CSS, JavaScript, Java, etc.

Trivial or not, people love to customize their UI. I understand why it's not a priority, but Linux' Enlightenment is going to function as a tractor app for that community -- some people really will install an OS if they know they can customize it that deeply. Makes for great demos, too. I hope to see Be provide hooks in the UI so that third parties can do things like this. The current method of changing icons is pretty messy too. People will want a way to store icons as separate files or libraries they can zip up and offer as downloads. It's too easy right now to paste over a system icon and never be able to get it back again. Not a priority, but this is the kind of nicety people have come to expect. Especially in an OS aimed at creative audiences.

Consumers are going to want the USB and multiple monitor support available in Win98, many of us want SCSI, broad printer support is essential, networking beyond TCP/IP with other machines will go a long way. PPP is pretty flaky right now. When you're the odd man out, you have to bend to accommodate the rest of the world.

That's a lot of stuff, but nothing Be isn't well aware of. They're working really really hard, and September is going to be a month to remember.

Which are your "must have" BeOS applications?

Without a doubt, Pe is the application I use the most. It's one of the most complete BeOS applications out there, and is well-poised to be a long -term favorite. I also love SoundPlay, and often have my MPEG collections running in the background as I work. I'm stoked to see that DeposIt finally made it to Intel -- it's the first launcher that really does it for me, and I missed it from my BeBox. TermHire I use constantly. I think Felix is really well done, and BeInformed is coming along nicely. I'm starting to do some of my billing time tracking with the spreadsheets from Gobe and BeatWare. Haven't decided on a favorite there yet. I like the little TimeLog utility.

I could really use a Word document reader, or at least an RTF interpreter. The trick is, it has to be able to handle Word's revision tracking, a feature I use heavily with my editor at Peachpit. Without that, I end up writing in Pe and then transferring everything to my NT machine for the edit cycle. I'd like to write the entire book from within BeOS.

I note all of these things as personal wants, but they're all going to be important in the side-by-side comparisons you're going to see as Be reaches into the consumer space with R4.

What is your favorite computer game?

I'm not much of a gamer. I caught the Myst bug a few years ago, and have messed with Riven. They still stand to me as the absolute pinnacle of the immersive gaming experience. They're challenging, beautiful, creative. I did get hooked on Descent a couple of years ago, and still like that, but in general, shoot-em-ups bore me to tears. They're all the same. At least in Descent you're not killing humans or humanoids. I find it sad that people get a thrill out of pretending to kill sentient beings. I don't mean to sound all holy, and I'm not above having a visceral thrill myself. I just think it's weird that we don't even question this phenomenon as a culture. I hope to see game concepts on BeOS that prove that the OS truly is capable of feats that are impossible elsewhere. Rise above, as both Black Flag and Nietzsche say.

What books (work-related and otherwise) do you consider a must-read?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez' "100 Years of Solitude" is one of my favorite books of all time. I used to read a lot of Wittgenstein. Right now I'm reading Carla Sinclair's "Signal to Noise," about the San Francisco South of Market scene, and Wired Magazine culture in specific. It's okay, not as well-written as I had hoped. I read more magazines and newspapers than books now, to be honest. Wired, The New Yorker, and I browse some of the Ziff publications. Going through "Learning the Bash Shell" now. Not exactly compelling, but important for what I'm working on.

If the BeOS was an animal, what kind would it be?

Probably a dolphin. Sleek, attractive, efficient, and sporting an intelligence that mere mortals can only begin to comprehend. They say that the most efficient transmutation of matter into energy is a fish swimming upstream, just as BeOS offers the most efficient transmutation of hardware power into computing energy. Dolphins have been known to rescue people from storm-tossed seas, which is exactly what BeOS is doing in the ocean of operating systems. Breathes through a hole in its head... oh, wait -- BeOS doesn't do that.

Who is your favorite muppet, if any, and why?

Gonzo. Because he's gonzo.

Finish this sentence: "Writing about the BeOS kicks ass because _________"

I have the opportunity to document one of the only things going on in the computer industry that isn't re-hashed and warmed over for the seventh time. Everything else going on out there is incremental... baby steps forward. BeOS is a quantum leap to the next level.

More Interviews:

Mike Clifton
creator of Moho

Scott Barta
NetPositive author

Joe Palmer
the father of the BeBox

Seth Flaxman
CEO of ABiSoft

Scot Hacker
BeOS Bible author

Michael Alderete
Be's Webmaster

Melanie Walker
Be Web Diva

Dominic Giampaolo
Be engineer and creator of the BFS

Douglas Irving Repetto
creator of geektoys

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