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Be offering free OS to PC makers

To undermine Windows, Jean-Louis Gassee will give away BeOS to PC companies that make it the first interface a user sees at startup.

Free to Be?

Former Apple Computer executive Jean-Louis Gassee is offering PC makers an operating system for free. The CEO of Be, Incorporated made the offer in a column posted on the company's Web site yesterday.

Gassee is attempting to thwart Microsoft's sway with PC manufacturers by offering Be's own software for free, with the condition that the OEM (original equipment maker) configures the machine so that the BeOS is an initial interface choice a user sees when the computer is turned on.

Gassee's Be has received high marks for its BeOS operating system software, but has so far failed to make a dent in the desktop PC market. The executive has tried to circumvent Microsoft's dominant Windows operating system by positioning his OS in a niche market, advocating it as specialized software for audio and video-based computing.

In the column, Gassee questions the motives behind licensing schemes currently utilized by Microsoft, and wonders how it is possible to offer an alternative through computer hardware firms, or OEMs, who rely on Microsoft's licensing policies to drive down costs.

"A free market is exactly what we want," Gassee writes, "One where a PC [maker] isn't threatened by financial death for daring to offer operating systems that compete with the Windows monopoly," he penned in "A Crack in the Wall."

"We started with a thought experiment. We end with a real-life offer for any PC [maker] that's willing to challenge the monopoly: Load the BeOS on the hard disk so the user can see it when the computer is first booted, and the license is free." Gassee writes.

Be has had little luck in attracting third-party hardware firms to its software. Only Hitachi has said it will bundle the BeOS with its computer systems, and that deal is only for Japan.

Gassee referenced the deal in his column, asserting that Microsoft's licensing restrictions are so onerous that one can't even tell that another OS is on the system. A user must read separate documentation and can enable the software only by inserting a floppy disk.

In an interview, Gassee said he has had a competitive "epiphany." The executive noted that if any OEM takes him up on Be's offer, it will show that Microsoft's contractual agreement with OEMs can be broken.

"The way to expose this is if someone takes us up on our challenge," Gassee said.

After failing to be acquired by Apple Computer in 1996, Be has survived mostly on venture capital, including a reported infusion of cash from the likes of Intel last fall.