Interview with Jean Louis
Gassée, President and Founder of Be, Inc.
conducted for Tech Head Stories by Roger B. Wyatt
| It's high
noon in Micro Dodge City. Striding down to the operating system
coral comes Jean Louis Gassée. Founder of Be,
Inc. , he has the makings of a charismatic computer hero.
Facing the combined guns of both Mac and Windows gang, Gassée
might be knocking on heaven's door. But maybe Gassée is
quicker on the draw. Certainly his computer is. With dual 603
Power PC processors, the BeBox with it's own operating system
is one of the fastest critters on the range. With this kind of
power the BeBox could be the the computer of choice for the bleeding
edge garage multimedia Digital Cinema developer of the 90's.
Smile when you say that pardner. To find out find out how he's
going to do it, Tech Head Stories spoke to the man himself, Jean
This interview was conducted
December 13, 1995, the day after a major storm hit the San Francisco
area and all of the northwest coast.
JLG: Good morning.
Good morning, Jean Louis.
JLG: I've been so difficult to pin down.
Not a problem. Not a problem at all. How is the power situation
in the Bay Area today?
JLG: Not good. There is still somewhere between 180 to 200 thousand
people without power today.
Oh boy! That's astounding. Well good luck with it.
JLG: I have never seen anything like this although I've lived
in the Bay Area now for more than ten years. It took everyone
by surprise. You know...the earthquake was not such a problem.
Right. So that's quite a magnitude there.
JLG: In a way, yes. I think that we see how fragile some of our
systems are. It's irritating.
Well, turning from the mundane, maybe we could talk about the
sublime, the BeBox.
JLG: I agree. You're very kind. Well, the BeBox is giving us
much joy these days. More than 800 software developers have registered
to develop on our machine, and we started shipping to them two
weeks ago. Some developers are so impatient, that they cannot
wait for the UPS truck.
Is that so? To set a baseline for the readers and listeners to
this interview, what is the BeBox?
JLG: The BeBox is a personal computer that relies on three ideas.
The first idea is that we create a product that has a distinct
architectural advantage in the freshness of its operating system.
The most obvious example of this advantage is that every BeBox
has two Power PC CPUs. Multi-processor PCs are actually quite
easy to do on the hardware side of things: They're a very inexpensive
way to increase computing power. And yet no one does it because
they don't have the infrastructure --- the the operating system
--- to support multiple CPUs. The other guys --- Macintosh and
Windows --- they certainly won't be able to anytime soon. I know...I've
lived inside one of these sausage factories; the layers of software
'silt" are deadening, it's cancerous.
JLG: It took Microsoft five years to go from Windows 3 to Windows
4. Apple will need six or seven years to move from System 7 to
System 8. You know what I'm trying to say?
JLG: Another example: we have a database engine built into the
operating system. This is a dream of all PC makers --- I can
attest to that. Then there's very fast, rich I/O, multiple serial
ports, MIDI ports...even a GEEK port that will let the bleeding
edge hacker lift the hood and do unspeakable things to our computer.
JLG: The second idea was that
we wanted to help the software developers reach the market. There
are so many software developers who are frustrated by the dominance
of a few large predatory birds in their ecological niche. A fledgling
software developer has a hard time developing, so to speak. Today,
imagine that you are a young Windows programmer and that I'm
a venture capitalist and you come and see me and say, "Mr.
Gasse, do I have a deal for you." "Yes?" "I
have the word processor for Windows that will kill Microsoft
Word." What am I to do if I'm a caring venture capitalist?
I have to open the drawer and instead of pulling out the checkbook
I should pull out the Magnum .357 and give you the coup de grace
because this will stop what otherwise would be a long, ugly,
expensive agony for your family. You can't compete --- you won't
get the money and you can't buy the shelf space.
JLG: What we offer is a much different way to reach the market:
You write an application and put up a demonstration version on
our Web site. I see the demo, I download the demo, I use it,
I like it...so what do I do then? I use the telephone. (Some
day we'll have credit cards flying over the Internet, but let's
rely on the existing infrastructure. ) I call you and give you
three numbers: my credit card number, my Internet address, and
my machine serial number so you can customize your application
for my machine.
JLG: For copy-protection, or to make sure I receive updates ---
whatever you need to do for me. So, anyway, you --- the developer
--- can sell your application for $49. Yoy lose about $2 to overhead...but
you still make $47, which is much, much more than you make in
the classical way of marketing, selling, promoting, advertising
and distributing software.
JLG: This approach has attracted the attention of a lot of unfranchised
The third idea we had draws on the experiences of our predecessors.
You look at Monsieurs Jobs and Wozniac when they did the Apple
II. They had no idea that VisiCalc would come out of nowhere
and be the tractor application for the Apple II. (I prefer tractor
application to killer application. If you don't mind...) Mr.
Estridge at IBM did homage to the Apple II and called it the
PC. He had no idea that a hippy disk jockey and transcendental
meditation teacher called Mitch Kapor would create Lotus. Back
to Apple: Mr. Jobs had no idea that Monsieurs Skitamore and Cannon
and Warnock and Brainerd of Adobe and Aldus would create desktop
publishing. And even the Amiga --- the guys who did the Amiga
had no idea that the Video Toaster would be such a tractor application.
So the third idea is that there will be a tractor application
for the BeBox. I have no right to predict what it will be ---
we leave that to the geeks on the bleeding edge, you know, the
more enterprising and technically competent users. They'll be
the guides to the next Motherlode. Then we'll jump ahead of the
parade, or, as they say in French, we will fly to victory's rescue.
Of course another side of my brain still thinks I know what the
tractor applications will be: I think they'll be concentrating
on digital audio, digital video, web applications, and signal-control
applications. I say this partly as a result of a reading 800
developer submissions. But you know, this is today, and I think
we need a little more time to discern what will clearly be the
VisiCalc of the Be Box.
Yes, right. I recall hearing Steve Jobs say that a new computer
platform must be perceived as having at least 500% value added
from the perspective of the end user, in order to persuade that
end user to migrate to a new platform. What is the challenge,
shall we say, of getting that message out to the end user audience?
JLG: This is a very interesting question. I've never heard that...You
know, our young Steve has said so many things ...and their contrary.
I followed NeXT quite closely, as you can imagine, because it's
a source of very interesting knowledge for us. It was like watching
an experiment that was being run run with someone else's money.
So we are very grateful to NeXT for the teaching. The 500% added
value model doesn't work well for us because right now, if you
came to my store (if I had one) and say, You: "Ah, Mr. Gassée,
I'd like to buy a BeBox machine from you."Me: "Thank
you, I'm honored." You: "Well, you know, I'd like to
get started in computing and I thought that I'd start with the
most powerful machine in PC-dom." Me: "Is this going
to be your first computer?" You: "Yes, Mr.Gassée."
Me: "Look, let me show you a nice Macintosh..." Because
for the next couple of years, this machine will be unfit for
consumption by normal humans. I mean this seriously. This is
not a mature product for end users --- we don't offer 500% beyond
Microsoft in office automation. We're not trying to put Bill
out of the office automation market -- he needs the money.
JLG: So, okay, we concede in the office automation market. But
--- look at how miserably Windows and Macintosh perform when
it comes to digital audio-visual. These are spreadsheet machines
that have been jerry-rigged to (barely) handle audio and video
streams. When the last typewriter manufacturer, Smith-Corona
went bankrupt earlier this year, we saw the fianl touches put
on the conversion to a fully digital office. A similar conversion
is starting to happen in the audio and video markets. Do we offer
a 500% advantage over a Windows machine when it comes to digital
video editing and signal control capabilities? It's not a comparison
that you can measure. There are things you can do with the BeBox
today that you'll never be able to do on a Macintosh.
That's right. I concur. You know, it's interesting to hear you
talk. It brings up a theoretical observation of mine--There are
at least two kinds of change: secondary change and primary change.
Secondary change is like that office automation example of yours.
It moved forward over a decade, as you say, from when it started,
to the collapse of the typewriter industry. However there's another
kind of change: primary change. Primary change is fundamental
change. This is change that alters how you do something, but
in addition, changes why you do something. For example, the introduction
of television is primary change, but the introduction of color
is secondary change. It seems to me that in today's world, that
secondary change, the incremental change, comes from the established
center, while primary change, which is innovative and unfettered,
comes from the edge, from the garage. The two Steves would be
the classic example of this. You were mentioning NewTek, the
Video Toaster, it's the same kind of thing. They created an industry
--- garage video producers and Lightwave animators overnight.
And it seems to me that you're positioning Be to be the platform
of the garage, where that primary change comes from.
JLG: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. You know, in the office automation
market,if you ask people what they want, you know in the mainstream
journals... Mainstream people will always describe the future
as an extension of the present.
JLG: Which is understandable. I would do the same thing. You
know, if you asked me about things where I'm a mainstream user,
let's say a refrigerator, I'm not going to make a very illuminating
statement. I will want, you know, like in PCs --- more, faster,
cheaper, better, or whatever. More silent. You know, original
thoughts like that. And there's nothing wrong with that, you
know. I'd like a faster, cheaper PC. You know what I'm saying?
So there's a lot of good things to do, as you pointed out, but
you can only get innovative ideas from the bleeding edge because
these people will do unspeakable things with your product...to
your product, rather, and then, once in a while, you'll have
a very interesting, innovative use of it.
Jean Louis, I neglected to introduce two colleagues of mine who
are with me --- Conklin Buckley and Jameson Watkins. Jameson
in particular is a developer. I know he'd like to ask you a couple
JLG: But of course, good morning.
Good morning to you. It's an honor to talk to you.
JLG: Ah, same here.
One of the first things you said today was that the Macintosh
and the Windows have accumulated what you referred to as "silt,"
lack of compatibility. What will keep the BeBox from eventually
being filled with silt itself?
JLG: This is a very good observation. And you know, over a long
enough period of time, the answer is yes--the BeBox could become
as mired in silt as Windows is now. This is the destiny of all
structures, not just software structures or hardware structures.
This is the somewhat abstract property of the evolution of structures.
To take advantage of new technologies you fix, you remodel, until
it becomes incredibly baroque. If you cannot fight age, you can
manage the effects of aging. One of the things we're doing to
make sure that we can adapt without getting ugly is to keep the
development team small. This minimizes the effect of politics
on the design of the product. Because really, you know, what
kills a project or what makes it ugly, is the politics of the
development process. Let's remember, these machines are developed
It's interesting when you talk about the evolution of structures
--- it's entropy. The loss of structure is the fate of all structures,
JLG: Absolutely. Absolutely.
The role of the Internet in Be's thinking I thought was...
JLG: We have been incredibly lucky. I was having dinner with
John Fry, the gentleman who founded Fry's Electronics, after
our initial announcement at Agenda, where we were surprised ---
happily surprised --- by the strength of the reaction to our
product. So we were having dinner in Palo Alto with our spouses,
and he said: "Look, you got incredibly lucky." And
I said: "Yeah, yeah--I know." But he said: "No,
no, no... You got two lucky strikes: One is Windows 95."
And then I shuddered, because if we had met our schedule (laughter)
we would have announced our product six months before Windows
95. Everyone would have told us: "Ha! You're dead! Windows
95 will do everything you're offering and more."...
But we announced our product six weeks after Windows 95. People
had met the mother-in-law, you know, and so we were compared
JLG: That was the first lucky strike. Number Two, John Fry said,
"And the Web really helped you." (Now we're getting
to the answer to your question) We had originally planned to
effect the distribution of software through a bulletin board
system, such as Channel One on the East coast, which has some
140 PCs strung together with a Novell network serving customers.
We thought we could serve a lot of people with e-mail and demos
posted on bulletin boards. This would make our developers and
customers happy at a reasonably small expense.
JLG: And it would be incremental--you know, pay as you go. Well,
the Internet--the Web-- took care of all that for us. We didn't
see it when we started the company, so I claim absolutely no
foresight whatsoever. The Internet offers us a wonderful infrastructure
for connecting software developers, ourselves and our customers.
But more than that, the Internet offers an incredible opportunity
for new applications. You have no idea--excuse me, I had no idea--
how many developers would apply to do Internet-related "Web
stuff." (if you'll allow me the term), such as a personal
HTTP server, the personal Web server, if you wish. The BeBox
is powerful enough for it, and, in the beginning at least, you
don't need to have huge traffic. With our truly multi-tasking,
multi-threaded machine, you could have a very graceful little
task living somewhere in your machine, serving callers. You could
expose yourself to the world from your bedroom. I know, I know,
I'm going to get in trouble with metaphors...But, from your basement.
From your garage.
Yeah. Right. But what a way to go?
JLG: Exactly. But I'm serious about that, you know.
are your feelings about Java?
JLG: To us, Java is a given, you know? Java has currency. So
to us, Java is a sort of "Yup,". One question: Does
C++ have currency? Yes, and so we use it. And so it is with Java--although,
here, we actually like Java. It has features over C++ which make
it more lovable than this work of the Devil called C++.
JLG: We're starting
to see audio and video on the Internet, we're seeing much better
Web composition. All this stuff is really, really exciting. And
the appearance of Java on the scene is making things even nicer.
Are there any Be developers working on a Web browser?
JLG: There are several
developers, including Netscape, on the browser side of things.
Metrowerks, the suppliers of Code Warrior tools, will have Java
tools in the next release and we have several developers developing
Java interpreters on the clarion side.
were talking about a personal Web server...A constant theme in
what you've been saying focuses on personal, customized control
of technology, but as well, upon the possibilities of an unpredictable
future. And it strikes me: yesterday was a big announcement that
NBC and Microsoft were porting what already exists --- television
or cable --- into the Internet. So they view the future in terms
of the present...more of what is already going on. But when you
talk about personal Web servers, a lot of capability for a cheap
price in the hands of mad developers, this illuminates a different
view of the future. One with discontinuties, a future that jumps
into being from unexpected directions. In your notion of the
future the individual gets empowered, rather than an industrial,
Do you see this notion?
JLG: Oh, absolutely! As you know, I'm French. For some reason,
the French have been interested in the structure of structures.
Structuralists have developed this idea of a rhizome, as opposed
to a tree. The rhizome is a root that goes underground and the
shoots appear in random places. Strawberries have these roots.
They grow underground, slightly below the ground, and then they
whoosh! pop up all over the place. A lot of organizations now
are in this type of lattice, if you wish: semi-random organizations.
Look at the Internet. This is the ultimate rhizome. Whereas in
the past the structure of power was tree-like, with choke points
or control points at the nodes...You know what I'm saying?
JLG: Now you have this more diffused rhisome-like structures
in many walks of life. Now I am not advocating personally, that
one is better than the other. What I'm saying is that we have
seen a more conscious work on the latter in the past than on
the former. Now on the other hand, when my bank manages my transactions,
I want that to be a tree-like organization. Let's not get carried
away here. You know, there is no new math in banking, although
some people tried that.
Yeah. Right. (Laughter)
JLG: This other type of organization gives the individual more
freedom, more power, especially when technology...and people
are down on techonology and, yes, there's much to criticize about
some uses of technology...But when you look at Personal Computing
with a captial P and the Internet, you see things that give power
to people --- access to information and a lot of power that does
not depend upon a higher authority. Even if Congress is trying
to put a cap on that, which I think is amusing...
JLG: I hope they fail. I say, look, I know some of these pictures
are awful, but I'll make two observations. One is that you can
get them at much better resolution at bookstores. And so, frankly,
let's not get so carried away. And what is it worth? On TV we
show people blowing each others' brains out with guns, and we
allow that to be shown. What's worse, the violence or the debasement
of sexuality? Admittedly, it's debasement. But you cannot have
a good culture without bad taste.
JLG: I mean seriously, if you try to punch the ugly taste out
of a culture, it becomes an ugly culture.
You have no edge when you do that. Exactly. Besides, the Internet
is international, it's designed to survive a nuclear attack...it's
going to survive Congress.
JLG: Yeah, well, I hope so.
In another interview I saw, someone asked you about the CHRP
compliance of the BeBox. And I think your response at that time
was somewhat cautious. Do you have any further updates on that?
JLG: Well, we continue to study CHRP very carefully. And today
we still believe that CHRP is an integral part of our product
strategy. Some of the key parts of the specifications have not
been published yet--we have to wait for a little bit more technical
information. And we need the information not just for itself,
but as a guarantee that it will be a truly open platform. There
is a bit of a temptation by some of the bigger guys to make it
a cozy platform, as opposed to a common platform. Beyond that,
I have some concerns about it being a little fractured. It's
not really a common platform, if, to run Mac software, you need
to buy--from a single supplier called Apple--a module that will
have ASIC ROMs and will provide I/O services...and of course,
the ROMs to run Mac software. I'm a little troubled by that.
So I'd like to see how it evolves. Our design is very close to
CHRP, so us being the scrappy little company, we're more than
happy to do what's needed to fall in line behind CHRP. It's not
a problem to us, it's an opportunity. We'd just like to see some
of the questions answered with a degree of precision that allows
us to do digital design, not analog press releases. Oh, one more
thing about CHRP: It troubles me that the IBM guys are stupid
enough not to make their CHRP machines out-of-the-box capable
of running Mac OS.
Right, I would agree.
JLG: You know, if IBM
still thinks that OS2 will save the company, I've got news for
them. I mean seriously. IBM claims that yes, yes, yes, yes...OS2
is a wonderful server. I'm on the board of a company (which shall
remain nameless), that has run server tests comparing the performance
of Lotus Notes running on OS2 servers and Lotus Notes served
by Windows NT. The Windows NT servers can support about twice
as many users as the same hardware running OS2. Those guys in
their blue suits are in denial.
you see the BeBox coming out with a similar package like Apple,
with a ROM BIOS and things like that?
JLG: I don't know yet,
frankly. We have conversations with Apple that I don't want to
discuss now. There are a number of ways we can make a lot of
people happy. And, ah, we have lots of friends at Apple who'd
like to work with us. So I'm optimistic.
Getting back to the video-multimedia production capabilities
of BE...I was thinking about some of the applications that one
needs. Can we expect non-linear video apps, or perhaps ports
of existing programs such as Premiere or the AVID Media 100?
JLG: There are a lot of developers who have expressed interest
in developing video production apps. I'm cautious today when
it comes to predicting exactly what software developers will
actually do with the product. For example: A developer comes
in and shows me his calling card. He's written a paint program
on the PowerMac. So, just to start conversation, I say, "Well,
do you want to port this?" And he looks at me like I've
said something gross. (Laughs) He says, "No, no... Been
there, done that. I want to do something totally different. I
want to make a Photoshop for the BeBox. But he doesn't want to
make a Photoshop clone, because Photoshop is a wonderful program,
and all that, but it's also old, it's complicated, you need cookbooks
to use it. Right?
Right, there's a whole industry built around Photoshop cookbooks.
JLG: Yeah, big industry. And he says, "I can't really kill
Photoshop becuause it's entrenched in the Mac market, but on
the BeBox...ah, on the BeBox there isn't a dominatrix."
So he can flourish on the BeBox with his new app, and when users
see how much easier and faster it is, they'll be attracted to
the box as well. That's the kind of attitude I prefer.
When you set up a new platform, everything goes back to zero,
in a certain sense; everything is possible once again.
JLG: That's right...
Nobody has a lock on things, so you can have new thinking.
JLG: That's right...you never know what 's going to happen. I'll
give you another example: A developer writes in to say he or
she wants to develop an Apple II emulator. What should I do?
Well, I could chuckle to myself and politely...well, disengage
this person. But...I should just say to myself "Have faith,"
and ship a machine to this developer and then hope that he or
she will start to learn the machine, and will slap his or her
forehead and say, "What was I thinking?" and then produce
something completely different and unexpected that really paces
They see the features of the machine, and....
JLG: That's right...One more example, one that's a bit more subtle.We
have this feature in our product called multi-threading.
JLG: Some people say, "Oh, we know multi-threading.
" But they've never really used it on a PC --- not
really. I speak from experience here. I come from the minicomputer
industry, so technically, theoretically, multi-threading isn't
new. But the experience of it is new. And once you've
used a computer that has very good multi-threading, that never
tells you, "I'll get back to you..." or makes you stare
at its wristwatch or hourglass...it changes the way you use the
computer, and, for the developer, it can really change the way
you design your application. And multi-threading is just one
of the features that makes the BeBox so delightful. The box is
full of opportunities.
Right. Well, Jean Louis, thank you.
JLG: My pleasure, my pleasure. I sense interest in our product
and I appreciate it. We appreciate it. Thank you very much.