Lifting the lid on the A9By Chris Williams. Published: 21st Oct 2004, 15:01:22 | Permalink | Printable
Or at least, trying to lift the lidWithout a doubt, the announcement of Advantage Six's A9 is an exciting one. We've learnt that the A9 was announced a few days ahead of schedule after Advantage Six feared information on its existence was being leaked to the outside world. Although Advantage Six are for now playing their cards closely to their chests, having had a lengthy chat with them yesterday, we'll attempt to lift the lid on the new ARM9 platform for 32bit RISC OS 4.
Advantage Six are moving away from selling to end users and heading towards dealing with OEMs, who in turn have their own clients. This means Advantage Six can pitch their kit to larger OEMs, who then re-sell this onto their own customers which enables greater market penetration. Advantage Six, better known to RISC OS users as STD, don't particularly want to abandon the RISC OS desktop market, as they will still sell hardware through STD and other retailers - more on this in a bit. In essence, the survival of the desktop RISC OS market is essential for them, as new software developed for desktop machines could find their way into smaller devices and also, the market needs to sustain its RISC OS developer population and hopefully grow it.
Advantage Six had successfully gathered a group of interested clients with the launch of the A75 and had tempted many with the specification of the A9. However, the dispute between Castle and RISCOS Ltd. led to many OEMs walking away from the platform because at the time, supply couldn't be guaranteed. With a new agreement signed, and once Advantage Six have verified the agreement between Castle and ROL, it's hoped that there will be no further disruption.
Incidentally, the A5 and A6 ranges were also developed to introduce clients to RISC OS and eventually, the A9. We imagined that the name 'RISC OS' would turn off a lot of interested parties, purely because no one could consider investing in a product with 'risk' in its name any more than one would consider a product with 'insecure' in its name. However, many of the OEMs considering the A9 are either aware of the term RISC and the advantages that entail, or have previously dealt with Acorn and RISC OS in the past and know the status quo.
The OEMs were impressed by the A5, but wanted a more ruggable, wall mounted version and hence the A9 was produced. While the A5 uses emulated RISC OS hardware, the A9 runs RISC OS natively on new electronics. Unlike end users who want everything finished, polished and shipping immediately, OEMs prefer to 'test drive' kit and give back feedback before buying in bulk. Advantage Six have a 3 month turn around with their clients, giving them working sample versions to play with and then using feedback to improve and finalise their product.
Interestingly, profiling software is employed to check on the fly exactly what components of the Adjust32 operating system are being used by a particular customer. This means individual modules can be identified and disabled and removed when they are not required. This is the prime difference between Embedded RISC OS and desktop RISC OS: having modularised the OS since the start of Select, it's now easy to disable and remove components that aren't needed by end customers, thus boiling RISC OS 4 down to its key, essential features. OEMs want reliable operating systems with a low 'footprint' - basically, software that takes up a small amount of storage space. By reducing the number of OS components to the bare minimum required, you also reduce the possibilities of software faults.
Exactly who are Ad6's clients is still a secret for obvious commercial reasons, but Advantage Six hope to eventually reveal some of them as reference customers.
Embedded ARM cores must
be low power whilst
giving high performance
The A9, we're told, is a range of machines and therefore has a range of applications and configurations depending upon what a customer wants. What we do know is that the A9 is powered by the ARM9 processor, ARM's core that's aimed at low power, high performance solutions. We're told that our initial processor speed range for the ARM9 (180-250Mhz) was way below the actual range. Samsung, for example, have 400-533Mhz ARM9 processors in silicon, and Advantage Six have hinted that they have access to new ARM cores that have not yet been made public. ARM9 cores typically deliver 1.1MIPs/MHz and do not experience the bus contention issues that the 600MHz IOP321 suffers - which are later resolved in the 800MHz IOP332 part.
Ad6 were reluctant to reveal the new chipsets that they're using with the A9, as previously RISC OS 4 had been tied down to the Acorn era VIDC20 and IOMD ICs which are no longer in production. Ad6 and ROL have worked together to abstract the hardware dependencies in Adjust32 and write the necessary software, so that the OS can run on the A9 platform. Also, some but not all of the A9 circuit boards were designed by Simtec.
We do know that the initial A9 model, the A9loc features an 8.4 inch or 3 inch LCD screen, which does not require a graphics controller beyond a simple frame buffer. The A9loc will also include GPS for position finding and and GSM/GPRS for communication with the mobile phone network.
Models in the A9 range carry a price tag stretching from 400UKP to 1500UKP.
Where do we start? The possibilities are large, but Ad6 aren't revealing any specific applications just yet.
First there's the A9rm, a rack mountable unit that's ideal for monitoring sensors and equipment and performing industrial control. Its low power nature means it can run off an emergency back up battery if the main power supply were to fail and its swift reboot time means it can recover quickly in the event of disruption or failure. It's also compact and being in a half-wdith 1U means it won't take up too much precious rack space.
The A9loc, equipped with a small LCD touchscreen, can be fixed to a wall, bulkhead or mounted on a stand. We're told that RISC OS works very well with a touchscreen. Ad6 particularly stressed the fact that the A9loc will be moving around a lot, using its GPS to sense where it is in the world. This could lead to moving museum displays, in-car travel information and other such applications. Advantage Six wouldn't rule out a handheld also being developed, as another source told us that it depends on how small the A9 can be shrunk before a portable version is considered.
Finally, we move onto the retail model - a desktop version of the A9 (dubbed the A9home), which is rumored to be hopefully distributed by CJE Micros. Ad6 stressed that they don't want to pre-announce the desktop version in any way and are waiting for the details of the A9home to be finalised. The desktop version is many months away, and it'll be interesting to see exactly what processor the hardware will be using. Ad6 commented that not every user wants the highest processor speed, but we're told that we can't draw any conclusions from this just yet. Some form of the A9 may be on show at this weekend's South East show in Guildford, but don't hold your breath.
We've also learnt that Archive magazine will shortly be publishing an exclusive look at the A9, as editor Paul Beverely will be shown an OEM version of the computer on the express condition that the nature and details of the OEM are not revealed. We avidly await Paul's dissection to uncover more of the mysterious A9.
The A9 website
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