Interview with Jean Louis Gassée, President and Founder of Be, Inc.
Interview 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 Louis Gassée.


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.
THS: Good morning, Jean Louis.
JLG: I've been so difficult to pin down.
THS: 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.
THS: 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.
THS: 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.
THS: 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.
THS: 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.
THS: Yes.
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?
THS: Yes. Absolutely.
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.
THS: Right.

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.
THS: Yeah.
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 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.
THS: For copy-protection?
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.
THS: Sure.
JLG: This approach has attracted the attention of a lot of unfranchised software developers.
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.
THS: 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.
THS: Right.
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.
THS: 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.
THS: That's right.
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 your product, rather, and then, once in a while, you'll have a very interesting, innovative use of it.
THS: 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 of questions.
JLG: But of course, good morning.
JW: Good morning to you. It's an honor to talk to you.
JLG: Ah, same here.
JW: 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 by humans.
THS: It's interesting when you talk about the evolution of structures --- it's entropy. The loss of structure is the fate of all structures, isn't it.
JLG: Absolutely. Absolutely.
THS: 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 to reality.
THS: Right.
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.
THS: Right.
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.
THS: Yeah. Right. But what a way to go?
JLG: Exactly. But I'm serious about that, you know.
THS: Sure.
JW: What 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++.
THS: (Laughter)
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.
JW: 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.
THS:You 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, semi-post-industrial organizations.
JLG: Absolutely.
THS: 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?
THS: Exactly.
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.
THS: 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...
THS: They'll fail.
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.
THS: Right. (Laughter)
JLG: I mean seriously, if you try to punch the ugly taste out of a culture, it becomes an ugly culture.
THS: You have no edge when you do that. Exactly. Besides, the Internet is international, it's designed to survive a nuclear's going to survive Congress.
JLG: Yeah, well, I hope so.
JW: 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.
JW: 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.
THS: Yeah. (laughter)
JW: Do 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.
THS: 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?
THS: 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.
THS: 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...
THS: Nobody has a lock on things, so you can have new thinking.
JLG: That's 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 the BeBox..
THS: 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.
THS: Right
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 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.
THS: 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.
THS: Thank you.

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