Should the TCO of RISC OS be higher?By Chris Williams. Published: 17th Feb 2005, 18:10:32 | Permalink | Printable
Show us the moneyEditorial Now here's an opinion that's been brewing on my mind for a while now. The RISC OS platform has long prided itself on having, depending on who you listen to, a low total cost of operation (TCO). However, has this led to the cash flow crisis the market appears to be in?
TCO is a TLA that's often bandied about as a buzzword by IT consultants and specialists, who use it to prove that their solutions are best and that competing platforms are unecomonic in comparison. You probably know that there's a lot more money involved in owning a computer than just its price tag on the shop shelf: Once you've bought the hardware, you've got to think about software upgrades, OS upgrades, hardware upgrades, potential repair costs, telephone calls to support lines, running costs and time spent keeping the machine running and problem free - all of which cost money. The TCO argument is important to companies and institutions with IT departments and computer equipment, because they need to budget not only for the hardware purchase, but also usage and maintenance costs for future years against depreciation issues.
As a general rule of thumb, the lower TCO, the better. This means you can pick up a system and not be hit by hidden costs as the thing dies on you unexpectedly or you find yourself forking out for essential upgrades. For example, Microsoft advocates that organisations upgrade to the latest version of their OS software because maintaining older releases is a waste of money. Newer versions should, in theory, be more secure, so by keeping ahead of security vulnerabilities, you can reduce costs that way too. Linux and Windows are currently locked in a TCO battle, with either side claiming they have facts that prove they offer the cheapest route.
I don't want to get into an advocacy argument: my main point is that, and although I don't fully agree with the sentiment, it's been generally argued that RISC OS is cheap to run. This assertion has been weakened in recent years by the expensive price of first hand hardware, such as the Iyonix and the Omega. The price of a new machine competes against assertions that RISC OS is believed to be cheaper in the long run, that the machines last longer, that there are less security exploits to tackle, that you can spend less time fixing it, that it's more productive and so on. I say 'security exploits' because even though there are a number of vulnerabilities in RISC OS, very few (or arguably none) are ever exploited because, as a minority platform, we're not an attractive target for crackers.
However, second hand kit is cheap as chips at the moment, which offsets the cost of upgrades necessary to bring the hardware up to speed: ideally, RISC OS 4, a StrongARM processor, a fast IDE podule and a half decent network interface - throw in USB if you want to do anything with a modern printer and camera.
But users are happy with their RISC OS 3.7 and 4.02 RiscPCs and A7000s because they see no reason to fork out cash to upgrade: don't fix what isn't broken strikes again. A wiser, fellow RISC OS user once quipped, 'The reason why Acorn failed is because they made RISC OS perfect.' It's chilling to think that if Acorn hadn't made RISC OS so friendly and easy to use in the 1990s, we would have been forced to pay out for upgrades as features were gradually added.
The fact that users can cling onto older hardware, enjoy the lower TCO and get by on six and eight year old operating systems is, in my view, the reason why there's such little cash flying around our userbase. This in turn means less development time can be afforded by developers, which means less products to buy. In the 1990s, we sat and laughed at PC users buying new computers every nine months, perhaps with little idea of the financial time bomb we were setting ourselves up for. What's better: upgrading every nine to eighteen months but enjoying a healthy market, or getting full, economically efficient use out of your 5 year old RiscPC in a declining market? Perhaps if we copied our Apple Mac friends and willingly accepted the need to upgrade and inject cash into the market, RISC OS would be in a better state - albeit with a higher TCO.
I spoke to Matthew Edgar at STD, who manufacture upgrades for RISC OS hardware such as the Unipod, to hear his views.
"We don't actually need everyone upgrading," said Matt, "we just need the people who are behind to be buying new hardware. Once someone's recently paid for a StrongARM processor, RISC OS 4 and a fast IDE card, you can't ask them to upgrade again. But there are probably more people using RISC OS 3 than RISC OS 4, and these are the people we need buying upgrades, even though they're not the most active users."
He added: "RISC OS is in a vicious circle. As less money is spent, developers look to other platforms for income. There are now fewer people being forced to do more work for less money. Development costs need to be met, or there's little point in doing the work."
Although users already with fast IDE and network cards have complained to STD that the latest Unipod special offer rules out them, Matt argued that they want to target the majority who haven't upgraded yet, rather than 'early adopters': "The Unipod got people using their RiscPCs again, as did the ViewFinder."
Of course, there's no use in complaining about the past, other than to accept the lessons to be learnt. Perhaps it simply would have solved nothing in just throwing more money at the problems facing RISC OS in the later Acorn era. Perhaps with a higher TCO, the cost of upgrades will therefore be too much for users to consider. Is there a balance to be found? Flame on.
Are special offers worth it?
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