In a decisive and bold move, Be CEO Jeanne Louis Gassee has issued a challenge to PC makers: Preload the company's BeOS on your PC systems and it's free.

Yup, free. And it's worth looking into.

The BeOS is a beautiful and blazingly fast operating system for Intel machines that uses a Macintosh-like user interface with all-new 32-bit underpinnings. From a programming/technical standpoint, it is easily the most elegant OS ever created. It supports symmetrical processing, multithreading, and all the other technical buzz-terms you can think of. It boots in about 10 seconds and shuts down in about a third of that time. And it can coexist peacefully with Windows. As a test, I installed the full BeOS R4 on my Pentium II 400 last night in a dual boot scenario with Windows 98: It took all of 10 minutes from start to finish. There isn't a viable OS on the planet that can compete with that.

So what's the problem? From the user's standpoint, it's software. The BeOS doesn't come to the table with a full complement of games, applications, and server software like Windows does (even Linux fares better in this regard). But the rudimentary stuff is all there, from word processors and text editors to email, graphics and multimedia software. From the PC maker's point of view, Be represents a bit of a problem because of their agreements (both documented and understood) with Microsoft Corporation. And though Be has always positioned its OS as something that can work with Windows, and not compete with it, this week's revelations from Gassee change everything.

"We started with a thought experiment," Gassee says. "We end with a real-life offer for any PC OEM 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. Help us put a crack in the wall."

This cry to arms comes at a good time for Be: Microsoft is embroiled in the fight of its life with the government and PC makers are, for the first time, feeling free to step outside of the Redmond sphere of influence. As for Be, it's losing bid to be acquired by Apple Computer has led the company into perilous waters and a world where Linux gets the press as the alternative OS-du-jour. Maybe this will turns things around for the company