And now for something completely different - the BeBox. Alan Stewart reports
Supposing someone were to introduce a new type of personal computer that couldn't run applications from either Windows or Mac. Wouldn't it be a hopeless task? "Totally hopeless," laughs Jean-Louis Gassee, chairman and chief executive of Be Inc., which has just done that very thing with its BeBox computer.

Gassee is no idle dreamer, though. Brought from France to the United States in 1985 by the former chief of Apple Computer, John Sculley, Gassee ran the company's R&D and manufacturing divisions, until the same Sculley fired him in 1990.

Late last year, hard-bitten Silicon Valley cognoscenti watched in amazement as Gassee ran his box through its paces. He showed several Web pages together, played riffs on a Midi device, ran three videos simultaneously, and performed database look-ups, all the time backed by the Beatles' "Let it Be".

"What's so special about the BeBox is largely the software," Gassee says. "Both Windows and MacOS [the Macintosh operating system] are mature and sophisticated, but also large, cumbersome and hardware-hungry. They show their age and the results of accumulating 15 years of software 'silt'. There is no good real-time performance in both Windows and Mac."

Earlier this month at the MacWorld show in Boston, Be Inc. demonstrated the BeOS operating system running on a Macintosh clone. "People suspected we had some hardware trick in the BeBox," Gassee says. "When you demonstrate on another computer, one minute you run the MacOS, then next minute you run the BeOS, and you can easily contrast and compare."

BeOS is a true multi-tasking, heavily threaded system, which means it's very fast indeed. Developer release 8 will be shipped in early September. The BeBox itself contains two Power PC chips, either 66MHz or 133MHz. Fully configured (16MB Ram, 2GB disc, 6X CD-Rom) these sell for $2,195 or $2,995.

So what's the catch? No applications software. Yet. About 700 software developers around the world, including some in Britain, are busy writing code for the BeBox. "It would be suicidal," confesses Gassee, "to try to break into the office market, but there's plenty of room in the digital media creation side."

The BeBox and BeOS would seem particularly well suited for the new type of Internet applications appearing today, such as TV and radio broadcasting, and video-conferencing. Gassee agrees: "The BeBox is well adapted for emerging, demanding, media-rich applications."

Jean-Louis Gassee is certainly not the average large corporate executive. He uses software himself.

"I like firsthand experience," he says. "That's why I do some bizarre things, like working a couple of days at a well-known electronics store to see what it's like."

Being fired by Sculley gave Gassee, as he puts it, "the physical and financial kick to start the company". His generous severance pay gave him seed money for the venture he had first conceived back in 1986. Several leading Silicon Valley venture capital firms are also backing Gassee's "little venture" to the tune of $14m.

Unsurprisingly, Gassee has set up Be's European Headquarters in Paris rather than London. "Right now we are serving the true geeks from Paris," he says. "At MacWorld ,we met a number of people interested in distributing and supporting the product in the UK. Hopefully, in the next couple of months we should reach a decision."

As to the future of Be, Gassee is cautious. "We still have a lot to prove," he admits. "We need to deliver applications next year, to develop more hardware, with more audio and video features. We need to create distribution all over the world, so we have a huge task ahead of us."

A huge task, indeed, but if anybody can do it, that person is surely Jean-Louis Gassee. Let it Be.