October 31, 2005

BeOS rises from the grave, takes the name ZETA

Author: Nathan Willis

It's Halloween, and what better way is there to celebrate than by reanimating a dead operating system on your PC? The zombie of choice this year is the ZETA Live CD 1.1, the first free download to bring the long-lost BeOS back from the grave.

BeOS and ZETA fans may take exception to that version of events, so let me explain. When Be, Inc. sold its assets to Palm in 2001, German software house yellowTAB GmbH struck a deal to continue development of BeOS Professional, which they renamed ZETA. This was welcome relief for panic-stricken BeOS users, who feared both technological abandonment and the sunset of their beloved OS.

Rigor mortis

In the aftermath of Be, Inc.'s demise, several Be-like projects sprang up -- notably OpenBeOS, an open-source clone of the original BeOS (later renamed Haiku), BlueEyedOS, and Cosmoe, both reimplementations of the BeOS APIs running on top of the Linux kernel. But ZETA remains the only true descendant of the real BeOS code.

yellowTAB sells ZETA R1 Deluxe Edition online for $100, and up until now that was the only option for trying the OS. Perhaps some people have a hundred clams burning a hole in their pocket for such an occasion, but I myself was never counted in that number.

But then the company released ZETA Live CD 1.1 for free download in late October, alongside the 1.1 update for owners of the Deluxe Edition product. The download is around 175MB, a single ZIP archive containing two .img files and a .CUE file you use to burn a bootable CD-ROM. Surely, thought I, this is a sign that the time is now right, so I downloaded the live CD, set the CD-RW drive to "resurrect," and got to work.

Mad science

It was a dark and stormy night. At least, as far you know. The first obstacle was burning the CD itself. Apparently the layout of the CD image will not work as an ISO -- I think because of the BFS filesystem it is built on -- and none of the CD-burning applications on my system would burn it. Command-line clients like cdrdao failed with mysterious errors on the boot.img, and K3b reported the .CUE file as corrupted. Success came only with the time-limited trial of NeroLINUX, which burned the CD without complaint. Those of you with Windows or Mac systems may have nothing to worry about, as far more people with those systems have reported success on the yellowTAB forums.

CD newly minted, I prepared to reboot, pausing only momentarily as the wind picked up outside the window and slammed the gate shut with a clang. Somewhere, off in the distance, a dog howled. I threw the switch.

A minute later, the system sprang to life. Or near life, in this case -- the ZETA splash screen came up, the boot progress icons lit one by one ... then the system froze with a kernel panic message. Some research led to the helpful hint that hitting the space key as soon as the boot process begins allows you to enter "safe mode," which in my case worked more or less without incident.

It lives!

On the other hand, once ZETA was up and running, the system could not detect the built-in Ethernet on my otherwise uninteresting nForce motherboard. That alone is not a deal breaker, but the setup program allowed no way to manually configure it -- upon reporting "no compatible network cards found," it launched a modem configuration tool. Luckily I had a couple of older PCI Ethernet cards and managed to find one that worked through trial and error.

On the third hand, the default locale setting is German -- though not consistent -- and even when you find the "Sprache" control panel to change it to your language of choice, many of the secondary interface elements (and application programs) remain in German. I suppose that's the kind of lingering symptom brain-transplanting veterans are used to, but it may drive non-Germanic users quite delirious.

The big dilemma facing Dr. Frankenstein was, of course, what to do with the monster once he got it up and running (or more accurately, staggering). He's no good with the beakers and sensitive equipment, and he isn't going to get the hang of the phone system, so in most incarnations of the story he is relegated to simple manual labor or the occasional dance number.

The same issue arose with ZETA. Okay, I reasoned, now that it is running, what can I do with it? Surf the Web? Firefox is included, so I could do that, though it is no bigger thrill than on any other operating system. The ZETA Live CD includes a number of standard applications -- music players, games, editors, sound and video tools -- many of which will be familiar to Linux (if not BeOS) users. But there is no access to the myriad of BeOS applications available through BeBits, so you are left with a pretty bare-bones system. Since the CD image is less than half full, there is no good reason for this.

I was unable to access any of the files on my hard drive while running ZETA. This might be due to problems with either SATA or ext3 support; I could not find an answer. Unfortunately, hardware support is still sketchy -- in the support forums most problems with the ZETA Live CD were met with pleas to add an entry to the hardware configuration database. In fact, the machine on which I was finally able to boot ZETA as described above was the only one of the three that I tried on which it worked. I could not get the live CD to run at any resolution other than 800x600, which is disappointing, and it only recognized PS/2 keyboards, which is both disappointing and dated.

While limited hardware support is understandable for a company the size of yellowTAB, it still leaves users in the lurch. But don't let my ill fortunes deter you; dust the cobwebs off of an older PC and put it on the lab table yourself. You may be in luck.

The interface takes some getting used to, but does an excellent job of making almost every task on the system accessible within three clicks of the mouse, something few environments can claim today. Reading through the control panels, ZETA is apparently capable of real-time audio and video transport, though I was not able to tax my system hard enough to tell the difference. Nor are the advantages of BFS or the allegedly faster-than-X graphics apparent -- because the system runs from CD-ROM. If these features are a selling point of the full version of ZETA, yellowTAB needs to find a better way to show them off to potential buyers.

Looking into the crystal ball

The BeOS obsession is still an unsolved mystery to me. I threw open the crypt and ventured inside, but I left without revelation. Once I got ZETA to boot, yes, it ran reasonably fast, but whatever bug infects people with love for this OS didn't bite.

Fearing that I had missed something important, I set off to wander the streets at night, knocking on strange doors in search of that yellow window manager's glow, to ask the denizens within if they could help me solve the riddle. Some spoke in whispers of BeOS's journaling filesystem. Others of its integrated, non-X11 graphics subsystem. Still others merely shook their heads, informed me that I would never get it, and shut the door.

Perhaps there is no answer. Or perhaps when Haiku makes a public release, I will learn more. Perhaps, if the fundamental advantages of BeOS (and ZETA) are indeed BFS and the direct graphics subsystem, these ideas will find their way into Linux or other mainstream operating systems.

I confess, after my ZETA Live CD experience, I find myself inexplicably more curious about these ideas; sometimes I catch myself thinking about them on my way to work, or else I glimpse a ZETA logo out of the corner of my eye. Lately I've been waking in the middle of the night, wondering if the ZETA Live CD has inched a little closer my direction. Maybe I should purchase the full Deluxe Edition, I think, maybe I should...

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