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Palm scuppers BeOS co-op hopes

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As Silicon Valley's vultures and sentimentalists gather today to inspect the assets of Be Inc prior to its liquidation auction, Palm has told community site BeUnited that it won't be licensing the BeOS operating system it acquired from Be to any third party.

In an email, David Nagel of PalmSource - the software division that will eventually be spun-off from Palm - writes:

"We have fully discussed the possibility of licensing the BeOS operating system. At this time we have made a firm decision NOT to license any part of this technology other than that which we incorporate into the Palm OS. There are a variety of reasons for this, both technical and business. We are a small (and new) company that simply must focus all its energy on the principal task of providing great operating systems and other platform components to the handheld computing and communication device market… It is a final decision."

However we can bring to light a parallel proposal that at least merited consideration from Be and Palm. Although the bid has been naysayed by the BeOS owners, it's unusual enough to explore in some detail.

Former Electronic Frontier Foundation sysadmin Robin Bandy, who launched the alternative DNS co-op OpenNIC, proposed first to Be Inc and subsequently to Palm, that a community of developers be allowed to fork the BeOS code base. Under Bandy's proposal, Palm would receive $10 million over ten years, and get the rights to all modifications made in the fork. That's a pretty good deal, you'd imagine, for an asset that Palm doesn't want or need, and that has a rapidly diminishing commercial value. BeOS was last updated almost two years ago in March 2000. And it almost matches the $11m Palm paid for Be's assets in August.

Developers would pay an annual subscription in return for the right to modify the forked OS code. That would help repay Palm, with a balance to the developers. Binaries produced as a result of the work would be freely distributable. Under these sums

"It's essentially an open source model within a limited community," says Bandy.

Both Be Inc's former CEO Jean Louis Gassée and Palm's current hardware chief Steve Sakoman found the unusual proposal intriguing, says Bandy, but Palm clearly has no intention of letting go. Palm had asked for an upfront figure of $2 million. But that proved a stumbling block, as the fledgling "BeFork" community didn't exist apart from on paper.

"It's the standard capitalisation line: we have an asset, we're not going to do anything with it, but we're not going to let you have it."

Another pitfall that emerged was that the new co-op would have had to pay Be Inc's winding up costs: essentially, it could have found itself paying the shareholders directly. You can read details of version 1.0 of Bandy's proposal here.

One merit of the closed co-op proposal, reckons Bandy, was that stakeholder developers would be rewarded:-

"I'm strongly opposed to open source because it doesn't allow the author to be paid. Only parasitic organisations like Red Hat get revenue."

But today's news extinguishes hopes of a new leash of life for the much-loved OS.

However a binary-compatible alternative, OpenBeOS appears to be gaining ground. The team is writing a kernel from scratch, using published APIs. On Sunday the team reported that the replacement media kit was working well enough to run BeOS SoundPlay and CL-Amp binaries successfully. There's more information here.

Other projects include BlueOS, a BeOS source-compatible OS based on the Linux kernel, and the GPL'd, Be-like (but not clone) AtheOS. ®

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Be getting ready to open source BeOS?
Open source BeOS clone gives Be a righteous nudge
For Palmed-Off BeOS fans, hope springs eternal
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