Wakefield 2004 show reportBy Martin Hansen. Published: 22nd May 2004, 15:32:10 | Permalink | Printable
Views from the LaunchpadWakefield 2004 Exactly one week on from the start of this year's Wakefield show weekend and in our final article on the event, drobe.co.uk writer Martin Hansen insightfully reports on his show experiences, as a news correspondent and as a first time independent exhibitor.
Wakefield is this way
It was at 3.25am on the Saturday morning that I realised that it just would not all fit into my car. Spread around the moonlit drive were display boards, a couple of RiscPC's, an A6, an Iyonix, four boxes of user guides, a hundred floppy discs, a bin bag stuffed full of decorative cloth, and three 19" CRT monitors. As if in a dream I had watched myself carry it all out through the front door. Was I a contestant sitting by the conveyer belt on that old TV show, The Generation Game, watching the prizes roll by? My main wish was that my neighbours were still asleep. My reputation as a 'nutter' would be confirmed if they witnessed any of this.
In four hours time I needed to be 133 miles away in Wakefield and setting up my MathMagical stall as my contribution to the premier RISC OS show of the year. After two years of spare time coding I'd finally got my TurtleChalk software up to a commercial standard and was planning to head north to sell, sell, sell. If I sold all that I had prepared at the full price, I'd walk away with over a grand. Ah yes, as I say, I was in a dream.
"At 4.32am", the neighbours told me later, "you left Shrewsbury". As my journey began I tried to calm myself as I knew I had to last non-stop now until six in the evening when the show closed at the end of the first day of its two day run. Alas, I'd never been anywhere near Wakefield before, yet there was now no time for any wrong turns, and no time for any sleep. Somewhat tense, I arrived at the Thornes Park Athletics Stadium only one hour behind schedule, set up stall, and managed to smile. Here I was: 'a small developer' in RISC OS land, finally rubbing shoulders with some of the big boys. At 10am sharp, show organiser, Chris Hughes, let the large queue of waiting people filter into the hall, which immediately became buzzing and busy.
Rumours, gossip and good news
I smiled some more: happy days are here again. The RISC OS scene has come through its long wilderness years, and since the Iyonix arrived 18 months ago, the market has stopped retracting and become positive and forward looking again. Wakefield 2004 was a celebration and consolidation of this 'turning the corner', with incremental edgings forward mushrooming on most stands around the hall. No 'big' news was expected, but this didn't seem to matter. There were the usual pre-show rumours flying around, though. One muttered that a non-emulation laptop from an unexpected source was 'on the brew'. Another insisted that Castle had just doubled the technical staff working on 'something' in Cambridge. I asked Castle boss Jack Lillingston if he'd tell me more, but he laughed, said he really wanted to, but then declined. "You'll know by the end of the year," was all he'd say.
As a new developer, there is nothing quite like placing your ideas in person in front of those to whom you'd like to sell. There is so much to get right; the price, the audience you direct your product at, what you have on the monitors as folks walk by, and what you say as an opening line to someone who as paused to look. I tried hard not to be like one of those over anxious Curry's floor sales chaps whose income is the commission on sales. I didn't really get it right on the Saturday, but by Sunday, I was getting it sussed. Even to the point where I could go to a theatre presentation or wander around the hall, with an interested customer appearing pretty much as soon as I returned each time. It helps that I'm not doing this for the money, and for me it didn't matter if I left with nothing. This care-free attitude allowed me to catch four of the talks, visit several of the less obvious stands, and spend time chatting to the punters without the ulterior motive of clinching a sale. And come to chat is clearly what draws a lot of folks to the show. Wakefield 2004 was a relaxed, friendly and good humoured affair.
Naturally, any well staged show begins with a pre-event explosion of news. I was pleased that the third issue of Qercus arrived two days before 'W'-day thus reminding readers that it was "this weekend". Interestingly, MicroDigital had placed two full page adverts in this issue, one for their Alpha emulation laptop and one for their native desktop Omega. I thought it was strange marketing to do this, seeing as they wouldn't be at the show to catch the follow up sales. Scottish dealer Liquid Silicon, had a stand featuring an Omega and the MicroDigital advert made more sense once one realised that Liquid Silicon was willing to take orders for the machine. The Omega was encased in a neat and slim rack-mountable box and had a working ethernet card. A glass top showed that the motherboard did not require a redesign despite rumours alleging that such a redesign, whilst expensive, was the only way that MicroDigital could eliminate the Omega's timing problems. This Liquid Silicon machine worked beautifully for the duration of the show and aroused a lot of curiosity. Two of the chips on the motherboard now have big heat sinks attached, but the cooling fans of the PC adapted case were disconnected and not needed. Archive editor Paul Beverley could not resist wandered over from the Archive and Living with Technology stand to give this Omega the careful once over with his eagle eye. He did some careful experimentation with moving windows slightly, waiting, and then moving them again. Whatever the glitch that this had revealed in the past, it now seemed to have been fixed. But enough of this; MicroDigital were not at the show and we were talking about Qercus magazine.
RISC OS media
In his talk, editor John Cartmell seemed more happy, relaxed and on top of things than he had at the South West Show in February. There have been long pauses between John buying up Acorn User and the first few issues of Qercus, with three "monthly" issues appearing over five months. However, I think we can confidently expect the pace to stiffen now that the inherited subscriber database has been sorted out. Attention can now focus on the magazine without the distraction of troublesome background administration. He smiled with good nature when I commented quietly to him later concerning the number of double words, typos and other quality control matters that some readers have found a little irritating in the Qercus copy to date. As a drobe.co.uk contributor, I have every sympathy with him: It is very hard to get a piece exactly right and as soon as you publish the mistakes are suddenly obvious. [I beg to difffer - Ed] However, Qercus is evolving still, and John's large stand at the show was far more visual and interesting than the old Acorn User effort had become. The new Qercus binders were also on display and looked good.
Spares supplies running low?
Call me odd if you like, but I've really got into using an A4 laptop recently with an AKF50 colour multiscan monitor attached. Running software on a slow, old machine is an effortless way to spot unnecessary screen refresh, and for sensing where code could most profitably be speeded up. So I was delighted to spot a brand new replacement A4 power pack on the ITC stand for a modest 20UKP. In a long conversation with ITC top man, Dave, I got the full story of how he came to buy all of Acorn's spares stock. Although running a spares and repair service did initially provide full time employment for himself and Jason, the ITC technical guru, it is now part time work as, little by little, the stock is running out. The last few StrongARM cards are going fast, and only one brand new Mark III RiscPC motherboard remained. I missed a chance to, for 5UKP, get the last A4 Econet card which sold while I tried to find out on another stand about the clock boxes needed to get it running. "We'll not be coming to these shows in two or three years time," commented Dave. "Not once most of the main stock lines have dried up. We don't buy new stock, just sell what we've got, all those years ago, from Acorn."
Adjusting to the climate
Paul Middleton, of RISCOS Ltd, was another speaker who seemed less stressed at this show than when I spoke to him in February. Selling the first batch of 150 Adjust ROMs in just ten days and sourcing a fresh supply of OTP ROMs for the second has, no doubt, helped. RISCOS Ltd have no intention of relaxing, and the soft-loading version of Adjust is scheduled to be out by the end of June. Castle may be starting to pump much more effort into RISC OS 5 but RISCOS Ltd are the company seemingly with the initiative and head start in desktop development, for the time being. Although supposedly rivals, I can't help thinking that each will soon be, if not already are, feeding off of the other's ideas and that each stream of RISC OS will, actually, be all the better for it. I suspect that each will bend in a similar direction, although the actual inner code on each side of the OS fork will continue to diverge.
Denbridge Marine Ltd had a refreshingly different set up on their stand for punters to look at. They are in the coastal surveillance business and had some cutting edge technology on display, the guts of which is RISC OS based. I was interested to hear that most radar systems send only a filtered portion of the raw data from a radar to a computer for processing, this then analyses the reduced signal and then draws a predetermined pictorial representation of, say a boat. Here, from a video tape playing back genuine radar data, was a system which can handle, display and swiftly refresh the full data flow, including areas of noise that are typically the result of the radar's microwaves bouncing back from wave tops. As we looked at one area of noise in a small portion of a large LCD display one could just make out a pattern; two approximate lines in a V shape. It was the wake of a small high speed boat packed full of explosives, piloted by terrorists and, quite reasonably, expecting not to be picked up by radar as it sped towards its target, a large aircraft carrier anchored near Plymouth. Denbridge Marine Ltd had passed the audition.
Stay inside even more
I managed to catch all of Neil Spellings's enthusiastic talk on Sunday on Aemulor and Cino. The Pro version of the former is an extraordinarily clever product that provides a compatibility layer to enable the back catalogue of 26bit RISC OS software to run on the Iyonix. If you have an old software product that you care about and that fails under Aemulor Pro, then there is a good chance that Neil's team will sort it out for you. With a wide selection of old machines at my disposal, I am personally more interested in the forthcoming DVD player. I observed some kids watching a DVD on a Windows laptop recently and when the sound was quiet, as it will be at times in a film no matter what the volume you set the speakers, the fan noise was most irritating. On the Iyonix, of course, fan noise is simply not there and so watching a DVD on an Iyonix should be an enhanced experience. Neil is fast becoming one of the RISC OS personalities. His talk was delivered at an unbelievably fast pace, but his team is writing ground breaking code and is understandably passionate about what has proved to be possible on an Iyonix. This has now resulted in the requirement to rewrite the ADFS to free up the CPU for decoding whilst more data is being fetched, virtually unsupervised, by the filing system.
Out with the old
When the show closed on Sunday, I was a little disappointed in that I hadn't managed to see more of the stands. But no one wanted to talk now and the speed at which the hall was dismantled was stunning. I too ripped my two day shop down and bundled it back into the car and the attached trusty caravan, now even more loaded than when I arrived as I had acquired a monitor, some books and a load of mice from the Charity Stall. I was a little shocked to see all of the unsold Charity stall kit going into a large skip and half regretted not buying up the eight or so A4000s now being binned along with a ton of magazines. But not so much so that I was willing to fish them back out, even for free. Like yesterday's papers, who wants yesterday's machine?
With my drobe.co.uk hat on, I conferred with fellow writer Ian Chamberlain, and we had both sensed, in particular, that Martin Wuerthner had had a good show. His spectacular additions to ArtWorks, which were released in time for the show, were much admired, much talked about, and attracted many cash sales. The message is clear: developers need to keep pushing their product development aggressively forward, constantly improving and enhancing if they want to make it in RISC OS land. The one shot effort that will then sell for years thereafter - those days are gone.
Not being in a hurry to leave, I helped Stuart Tyrrell (pictured left) and the Advantage Six team load up their van. They sure had brought a lot of stuff in order to put on a good show, and freely acknowledged that IKEA had done rather well out of their decision to step up and present themselves for the first time as one of the RISC OS major players. They understand the psychology of selling, as evidenced by the shelves bulging with stock. People like to buy from a winner. They are a lively, mostly young, humorous bunch and although exhausted, had enjoyed a very good show. They looked great in their black outfits with the A6 logo on.
I'd featured an A6 on my stall as well as an Iyonix as my software works equally well on either machine. One customer had really put me on the spot: "Which was the future for RISC OS computing?" It was a genuine question from a RISC OS enthusiast who could not decide which machine to spend the money on that he had brought to the show. It rather brought home to me, just what a power struggle is currently being fought out within our marketplace. If a few good new RISC OS educational software products can start to enthuse a few schools, then VirtualRiscPC could really take off, and expand the potential market for further RISC OS based software. But if it's just going to result in a small market not expanding and simply becoming more fragmented then I feel emulation is a negative thing. I don't know what that particular customer ended up buying to run my software on, and I don't want to know.
And the lights fade
Finally, at the end, and in an empty hall, I spoke to show organiser Chris Hughes and his team. In deciding to make Wakefield 2004 a two day event, rather than stick with the one, he had gambled. The people had come, paid to get in, and from what I saw, gone home happy. Right from the moment it opened on the Saturday morning, it drew a good sized crowd and buzzed along nicely, right through to Sunday afternoon by which time, fair enough, things were quiet and lazy.
WROCC committee (left to right): Ruth Gunstone, Philip Marsden, Peter Richmond, and Chris Hughes
Outside, it was a glorious English summer afternoon, and I think anyone who opted for a walk over the Yorkshire moors, rather than wandering through the athletics hall in Wakefield, shouldn't feel bad about that decision. So, the two day aspect of the show was a gamble, but on this occasion Chris Hughes and his team had won.
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