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Be reveals IPO plan

Modestly priced shares may not be enough to tempt investors

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Alternative operating system vendor Be yesterday unveiled details of its upcoming IPO. Six million common shares will be offered, at $6 apiece. That's not quite up to the level of the most recent online music IPOs, but then Be's probably glad it can make anything out of a share issue. It hasn't made a cent so far, and needs capital to continue developing the BeOS. Be's problem is that it doesn't have much of a track record to show potential investors, and only a very broad plan to focus on the emerging Internet appliance market as a teaser for future success. The BeOS is certainly not a poor product, but it has yet to win major support among the users or the software development community. Having largely failed to win over the Mac market -- at a time, mark you, when Apple was on the verge of collapse -- Be has more recently focused on Wintel. The trouble here is that Microsoft's Windows licensing terms made it damn difficult for PC vendors to offer the BeOS as a machine's main OS. The few PC suppliers who have bundled it, most notably Fujitsu on a range of multimedia machines aimed at the Japanese market, have installed it in parallel. But since the machine boots into Windows, it's really left to the user to explore the BeOS if they feel like it. Hardly a ringing endorsement. Hence the Net appliance approach, which promises better results. Or, rather, it would if the company wasn't facing competition from Linux and, to a much lesser extent, Windows CE. CE brings with it the mighty Microsoft brand, but then there are plenty of OEMs and customers who don't want Microsoft product. And when Linux is free, it's hard to see too many companies opting for the BeOS instead. Some will, because it's ready to use and arguably better developed -- Be's QA has to be better than Linux's less well focused community efforts -- and that may be enough to justify the extra cost. What Be really needs is some solid support from OEMs. It's best opportunity here is Microworkz $199 iToaster, a BeOS-on-Intel based Net access device. If Microworkz' anticipated deals with AOL and UK free ISP Freeserve come off, that's going to bring a very wide audience to the BeOS, and might well be enough to persuade other device vendors to hop on board. Sounds good, but the snag here is the persistent concern that Microworkz may not be able to supply quite as many boxes as it hopes to. And if it gets it wrong, that could easily tarnish Be's reputation (such as it is) too. ®

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