South East show reportBy John-Mark Bell. Published: 24th Oct 2004, 00:05:03 | Permalink | Printable
VA Linux, graphics acceleration, CTL and ROL and moreJohn-Mark Bell recalls his day out with RISC OS in Guildford, and the various goodies, news and views he ran into.
Another year, another trek to Guildford for the South East show. This is traditionally the time of year that the fruits of the labours of the months since Wakefield are announced, or at least wheeled out to briefly tease us with. So, what was new at Guildford?
Firstly, there was the new Geminus product from the Aemulor team. This is a rather clever module that provides multiple monitor support for the Iyonix. The demonstration machine had two LCD monitors side by side, demonstrating the ability to have the desktop span two screens, which is extremely useful if you're always running out of space on a single monitor - I certainly do, especially when editing source code.
Additionally, Geminus has the ability to rotate the screen display such that you can work in portrait mode. There appears to be a slight issue with this in that the mouse pointer remains as if the screen was in landscape mode (although this is probably a simple thing to fix).
Geminus itself is written mainly in C, with speed-critical parts written in assembler. The resultant module is about 40KB in size, though programmer Adrian Lees seemed upset by how large it was. It makes use of DMA transfer of data to-and-from the graphics card(s), thus speeding up screen scrolling, for example. This was especially noticeable in portrait mode, as listing the machine's configuration status from the command prompt was noticeably slow without DMA transfers enabled. Adrian thinks there's probably some more speed increases to be made in this area.
Also, there didn't appear to be any form of screen caching, such as that demonstrated in Adrian's RedrawCache module. Having used the RedrawCache module on my Iyonix, it's obvious that this would be a desirable additional feature, and one which the Geminus team seemed keen to add.
Faster drawfile graphics
Secondly, and also graphics-related, was the fast drawfile rendering by "SIMON". This was supposed to be demonstrated on the RISCOS Ltd stand, although the machine that the code was running on only had 32MB of RAM and the test drawfile was about 47MB. Therefore, I didn't have the chance to see the rendering in action at first-hand.
ROL chief Paul Middleton did, however, give a demonstration of the technology in his theatre presentation, using a drawfile he created containing a number of copies of the Artworks apple. I've no idea of the resultant drawfile's size, but that's fairly irrelevant. The first render was demonstrated in Draw, and this was quite obviously slow. The second render was done in the demonstration software and this was appreciably faster, if not near-instantaneous.
One thing I did notice, however, was that the graduation on the Draw-rendered page was rather smoother - although this may well have been the result of viewing it on a projection screen rather than a monitor.
Paul was rather coy about the whole thing, although I did manage to extract a few small pieces of information out of him. Firstly, this isn't an entirely software approach: it uses some custom hardware, but what this hardware actually is and does is unknown. From what I could see (and while Paul wasn't looking, I took a look at the result of
*podules on the demonstration machine), there was nothing obviously different about the demonstration RiscPC. It simply had a Viewfinder podule (though with what graphics card, I don't know) and a NIC in it.
As for the identity of "SIMON", Paul was equally evasive, suggesting that if SIMON's real employers found out, they wouldn't be best pleased. When asked if a similar solution could be made available for Iyonix machines, Paul didn't see any reason why not, although he wasn't sure how or where the hardware would fit in.
Linux Virtual Acorn
Thirdly, VirtualAcorn were demonstrating a Linux version of their product, although it isn't yet for sale. This is probably good news for those who have been uncertain about the merits of running a RISC OS emulator on the Windows platform.
In other areas, R-Comp were demonstrating their new Netfetch and Dialup software, Icon Technology were demonstrating and selling Easi and TechWriter 8.30, complete with page-break bug (there's apparently a downloadable upgrade on its way soon) and MW-Software was demonstrating the latest version of Artworks2. Peter Naulls (a drobe.co.uk editor) was promoting his Unix Porting Project and Iyonix Linux port, including news of a port of the Firefox browser to RISC OS (although this has a number of issues and is some way off being releasable). Martin Hansen was demonstrating his Maths software, which I confess to neglecting to look at (apologies Martin) and CJE appeared to have brought a small black hole with them, given the amount of items available on their stand.
Of the theatre presentations going on, I attended the Castle and RISCOS Ltd. ones, along with the Lillingston and Middleton show at the end. My apologies to Peter Naulls and John Cartmell for not attending their presentations, but the lure of the show hall was too much.
Castle's presentation was mainly based around their new DIY Iyonix product. Jack Lillingston and Will Ling spent much of the presentation demonstrating the process needed to build your own Iyonix, based upon the kit available from Castle. There was a short question and answer session at the end, but there was little new information to come out of this.
More interesting was the presentation by Paul Middleton of RISCOS Ltd. He spent some time demonstrating the drawfile acceleration technology, as I described earlier. After that, he detailed some of the possible future enhancements to Select. The first of these was the intention to make the Artworks file format the default vector graphics format on RISC OS.
It appears that they wish to extend the fast drawfile rendering idea to other parts of the desktop experience, such as enabling transparent windows and optimised redraws. I asked him beforehand whether the idea behind these improvements was to be able to have a compositing system similar to that in Mac OS X. He seemed to suggest in reply that such a thing would be desirable.
In response to a question about future uses for RISC OS, Paul mentioned the BBC and high-definition TV. I'm not entirely sure how RISC OS fits into this, but he seemed to think it was a possible area for consideration. A question was also asked about the new filing system that RISCOS Ltd. had proposed to develop before. Paul stated that searching for files and information contained within them was something that they wanted to do. He seemed to indicate that approximately half the required work had been done on the new filing system.
In the light of the recent agreement of cooperation between Castle and RISCOS Ltd. over the development of RISC OS, the RISCOS Ltd. presentation was reduced in length, in order to allow a question and answer session with both Jack Lillingston and Paul Middleton.
A variety of questions were asked, but the main focus of the session was on the future plans of both companies, along with "who does what". Essentially, it seems that Castle will focus on the embedded market, along with the low-level OS components, whilst RISCOS Ltd. will be charged with developing RISC OS for the desktop market. As an indication of this, Castle's Merlin project research and list of things suggested by users has been passed on to RISCOS Ltd. for them to consider and implement things as and when they see fit.
As for the merging of the two source trees, this is likely to happen over a period of time, with things being merged in as and when appropriate. The general idea is to cherry pick the best bits from each tree, though the actual feasibility of doing this for everything is unknown.
Paul Middleton envisages a series of step releases during the convergence, beginning with Select32 in around about May next year. Paul also seems to think there is now little point in continuing to actively develop for 26bit systems, including the Risc PC. He believes that within 18 months to 2 years, sufficient new hardware will become available (and at the right prices) to persuade users to upgrade to more modern systems from their now aging RiscPCs.
It transpires that the 32bit OS developed for Advantage Six's A9 product range is not based upon a HAL (ie it is tied to that hardware). Both Paul and Jack seem to be committed to the prospect of any future OS versions being based upon a HAL similar to that used in RISC OS 5. Jack seemed very happy with the 32bit OS developed for the A9 range, even though Castle had nothing to do with it.
I enquired about the likelihood of some updated documentation for programmers once the convergence was reasonably complete. Paul corrected my interpretation of the RISCOS Ltd. policy with regards to documentation, saying that the rationale behind API documentation only being available to Select subscribers is due to the constantly moving target that is the Select API. Jack stressed the importance of programmer's reference material and suggested that up-to-date documentation was something that he wants to see made available.
Stefaan Claes asked a question about Unicode support within the OS, which seemed to have both Paul and Jack stumped. Paul seeming to suggest that Unicode support is something that should be in applications and not the OS.
Finally, and unrelated to the presentations, I asked Jack about the prospect of updates to the C/C++ development tools and he suggested that they'd been working on improving instruction scheduling and that a major update is timetabled for around about December.
My thanks, as ever (and I sincerely hope I speak for everyone) to the show organisers and the army of volunteers who helped out to make the show run so smoothly.
Show photos from Peter Howkins
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