Web Development With Beos (r5)
Diamonds in the Rough


David Mertz, Ph.D.
Iconoclast, Gnosis Software, Inc.
April 2001

When choosing a platform for web development, too many users overlook BeOS R5 as a choice. BeOS provides just about everything a web developer could want, all in a friendly, pretty, fast and reliable, environment. It has everything but market-penetration and mindshare that one could want in an operating system

Getting Beos

On its intrinsic merits, BeOS R5 is probably the best desktop operating system you can find nowadays. Of course, what OS you actually use will depend on many rather extrinsic factors: what your workplace uses; where existing software runs; numbers of available free or commercial applications; and plain old familiarity. For many users, the possibility of working with operating systems where they can see and change the source code (and share the changes) is an extra benefit in itself. But if you have the option to just work on the best platform possible--and web development, being largely platform independent is one place the option is likely--BeOS is a great platform to work on.

BeOS is a closed-source operating system for x86 and (pre-G3) PowerPC computers. It was designed and built "from the ground up" rather than based on any existing kernels, and thereby was able to use many of the best ideas of OS design while forgetting accumulated cruft. BeOS is pervasively multi-threaded, extremely snappy in performance, multi-processor enabled, and has a fully integrated GUI. As well, BeOS uses a modern "database-like" filesystem with extended file attributes. Almost everything you do on BeOS happens a bit faster than it does on other OS's (on the same hardware). And R5 is as rock- solid and reliable as any OS I have worked with. Much of the design focus of BeOS is for multimedia work, where smooth multitasking and high-performance are particularly important. In many ways, BeOS is what MacOS X should have been (not just metaphorically, Apple was actually in negotiations with Be, Inc. in 1998; but they fell through in the end).

The interface to BeOS is Mac-like at first brush. The BeOS Desktop works like an improved MacOS finder, with the accompanying Tracker something like an improved Windows Start bar (or like the WarpCenter in OS/2, or the taskbars in Gnome and KDE). In most respects, BeOS improves on its various cousins, but I would wish for a bit more keyboard-friendliness than its mouse-oriented interface has (in much the same way as is true of MacOS, with which BeOS shares many keyboard shortcuts). Like the Mac, BeOS works with a user, rather than fighting a user with arcana the way the free *nixes do.

However, along side its GUI, BeOS offers a Bash shell, complete with a majority of the command-line utilities Unix users have come to love. To name just a few: gcc2.9, less, gawk, du, sed, rm, mount, sort, ls, pwd, gzip, kill, strings, diff (and dozens of others). Open a terminal, and you can just about convince yourself you are working in a *nix environment (if you ignore the pretty frame elements around the terminal window, and some directory differences). As well, for application developers, BeOS comes bundled with a version of Metrowerks CodeWarrior for C/C++ (and inline assembly).

To get everything described, you can either download the Free Personal Edition, or buy the BeOS Pro 5 version for $50. The free version performs an odd little trick of living inside a virtual partition (actually a big file) that must be launched from a Win32 platform. For more flexible multi-booting, and just to get the most out of your system, I recommend using the Pro version beyond an initial "just-looking" installation of the free version.

Web Development

Assuming you want to use BeOS as a platform for developing web sites, there are a number of tools you will probably want on hand. Fortunately, a remarkable number of tools have been either written for or ported to BeOS. On the other hand, most of the tools you are likely to use will be different ones from those you are familiar with on other platforms. In the rest of this article, I take a look at some of the tools available under BeOS in several categories relevant to web development: web browsers, text editors and HTML editors, scripting languages (for CGI, or batch site processing), web servers, and miscellaneous utilities. Given the breadth, the depth of discussion of each tool will be shallow. But my remarks should help readers get a feel for available options. One category not covered here is one where BeOS is strongest. Given its multimedia focus, a quite rich range of image editing tools are available for BeOS.

The tools mentioned come under a number of different pricing and licensing schemes. As a pattern, there seem to be a a lot more shareware and freeware (i.e. free-of-cost but closed-source) tools for BeOS than there are for free operating systems (e.g. Linux or FreeBSD). Unlike most Windows commercial programs, almost all programs for BeOS have downloadable trial versions available. In some cases, the trial versions are extremely crippled, in others they are fairly usable (but encourage you to register eventually). The situation is reminiscent of the old days of DOS and Win31, and also similar to the MacOS world today. A big plus for BeOS tools is that they are uniformly easy to install, and do not cause conflicts once installed (both the pricey and free tools)--none of the "DLL hell" of Windows, and none of the makefile hair-pulling of many Linux/FreeBSD applications.

Web Browsers

The first thing you need to do web development is a web browser to check your pages in. BeOS has a pretty good range of options, but not the ones you are most familiar with on Windows, Mac and Linux platforms.

Out of the box, BeOS comes with a browser called NetPositive. This is a pretty good browser, with a fairly simple interface. NetPositive does not support some fairly standard bells-and- whistles like JavaScript, however (Java can be enabled, however), so it doesn't work for everything. But the rendering of HTML itself is good (and quick).

To get a full featured graphical browser, you basically have two choices. The commercial Opera browser is an awfully good browser, with quite a few whiz-bang features for a large number of platforms. Opera does some of the most consistent rendering of any browser with maybe the best CSS support. Then again, it seems a bit hard to sell a $40 browser when IE, Netscape, and Konqueror are free for their supported platforms.

The other full-features choice for BeOS is BeZilla, the BeOS port of Mozilla. While I have had pretty good luck with recent builds of Mozilla on some other platforms (mostly Warpzilla), the binary BeOS port available as of this writing was not the most recent release, and had stability problems. Most likely, as some newer Mozilla candidates are ported, things will improve (and BeZilla will even become standard).

Beyond the graphical browsers, BeOS has ports of the full range of text-mode browsers, which appeal to a niche of users (including, at times, this writer): Lynx, Links, W3M. All of these are good to have on hand, mostly as sanity checks on the accessibility of websites.

It is worth noting that the Flash and RealPlayer plugins are available for the graphical browsers, and Java support can also be enabled. Other more specialized plugins are likely to pose a problem (but the native support for media formats is quite good, so you might be in luck).

Editors

After being able to view web pages, the next most important thing for a web developer is probably a text/HTML editor in which to create web pages--and also things like CGI scripts or Java programs that will be used in connection with web pages. BeOS does pretty well here also, even pretty well for free.

Out-of-the-box, BeOS comes with StyledEdit and BeIDE. The first is a lot like the built-in SimpleEdit under MacOS or WordPad under Windows. BeIDE is a bit more advanced--it is actually the Metrowerks C/C++ development environment. But the editor can be used for other file types (without most type-specific aids), and does a bit more than StyledEdit.

Still, you probably want to download a fancier editor if you are doing web development. The big monsters of the Unix world--'vi' and emacs both have one or more BeOS ports (vi has both vim and elvis, for example). You can also get some other Linux-land editors like joe if you want. But if you want to go in a more BeOS-oriented direction, you have a number of choices also.

Eddie is a nice freeware programmers editor with most of the enhancements you expect in a programmers editors. You get syntax highlighting for a lot of languages (including HTML) and regular expression searches. Some of the enhancements are directed at C/C++ rather than other languages, but a lot are general. HotEdit is another popular freeware text editor, this one with the most enhancements directed to HTML.

PE is a genuinely full-featured text editor. Lots of languages are recognized; and enhancments like code insertion, function jumps, syntax highlighting, multifile regular expression searching, and other powerful editor features are incorporated. HTML is quite well supported by a template insertion button bar. Unfortunately, you have to pay $50 for PE, and it is very badly crippled in the demo version.

InSite Designer is a visual HTML editor, in the style of HomeSite, PageMill, or Netscape Composer. It has no frame support, unfortunately. Otherwise, it is a well-arranged editor that lets you edit both WYSIWYG and text versions of a page at the same time (with cross updating). Insite Designer is also $50 shareware, and the trial version nags you constantly during evaluation.

(scripting) Languages

An area where BeOS has almost shockingly broad support (for a niche OS) is in ported programming languages. Pretty much everything you might imagine using for CGI work--or for general batch and interactive programs has a free/open-source BeOS port.

Perl 5.005_03 is available, as is Python 1.5.2. Neither of these is quite the latest language versions, but hopefully those will be done soon also. For Python, there is a module called "Bethon" that lets you get at the BeOS API for local apps. Also of interest to web developers is the availability of PHP 4.04.

BeKaffe is a free and open JVM and development toolkit for BeOS. Beyond the usual candidates, a partial list of available programming languages includes: BeBRexx; BeProlog/BinProlog; BeScript; betcl; BForth; BeSqueak; guile; Gwydion Dylan; Hugs 98; Lua; NASM; OOC (Oberon-2); OpenScheme; PForth; REBOL/Core; REBOL/View; Regina Rexx; Ruby; SmallEiffel; Squirrel (Logo dialect); Xalan-C (XSLT); Xerces-C (XML parser). Most web developers will probably not have heard of, let alone use, most of these. But it is nice to know so many options are supported.

Web Servers

Depending on your development pattern, you may want to either host websites directly on BeOS, or just develop pages and code for uploading to a different OS webhost. Either way, you are in good shape.

Built in to BeOS is basic web server called PoorMan. This is on the order of Windows' Personal Web Server or MacOS's Webshare. It is not necessarily super-high-performance, nor extremely sophisticated. Then again, for basic sites, turning it on is only a mouse click or two away. Using PoorMan is extremely easy and straightforward.

Beyond PoorMan, you have BeOS specific web servers, diner and RobinHood, as well as a variety of servers for NNTP, FTP, POP3, IMAP4, SMTP, DHCP, and other protocols.

But for serious web hosting on BeOS, go with the world's standard server. Apache is available in both 1.3.x and 2.0 (alpha 7) versions for BeOS. All the knowledge you might have about Apache administration on other platforms is put to equally good use on BeOS.

Other Useful Utilities

There are any number of useful utilities that a web developer on BeOS might want to pick up. Browsing BeBits (see Resources) is a useful way to spend some time. But a couple that I find particularly useful are worth mentioning (not web-related per se).

If you plan on connecting to other machines, two utilities are particularly important. Secure shell (ssh) is a basic necessity for making connections to remote shell sessions, such as on webhosts. This should probably be the very first thing you download for BeOS. I do a lot of my work on remote hosts (of various sorts) this way; ssh gives you a shell window into any machine you have permissions on.

The second utility that every BeOS user should have is Virtual Network Computing (vnc). vnc is a wonderful technology for just about every OS platform under the sun (at least those that use GUIs). The idea in vnc is to allow one computer (running any old OS) to serve as a remote graphic terminal to another vncserver computer. I can display a Linux desktop, a MacOS desktop, a Windows desktop, or even a remote BeOS desktop inside a BeOS window (or fullscreen in a workspace). For those times when you need tool native to other platforms, you can turn your BeOS machine into a control console for every other machine in the world that you have permission to use. Getting vnc installed and setup everywhere necessary is a little bit of work, but less than you might think.

Resources

The best--and semi-official--source of almost all the BeOS software discussed in this article is:

http://www.bebits.com/

To obtain BeOS 5, start at the company's website. Links to retail sellers of both the Pro version and downloads of the free Personal Edition can be found at:

http://www.be.com/products/freebeos/

General news and information about BeOS can be found at:

http://www.benews.com/

Opera Web browser:

http://opera.com/

Virtual Network Computing:

http://www.uk.research.att.com/vnc/

About The Author

Picture of Author David Mertz wishes to let a thousand flowers bloom. David may be reached at mertz@gnosis.cx; his life pored over at http://gnosis.cx/publish/. Suggestions and recommendations on this, past, or future, columns are welcomed.