South West 2005 show reportBy Martin Hansen. Published: 28th Feb 2005, 03:12:07 | Permalink | Printable
Coverage of Castle, Qercus, UPP and ROL theatresMartin Hansen returns from the West Country, having learnt of future RISC OS projects in the talks given during the South West 2005 show. How have times changed since last year's show?
This year has been a fairly quiet one, so far, for RISC OS. This is not, necessarily, a bad thing. My feeling is that there are currently several exciting projects in prospect but that developers need more time and a continuing calm background environment against which to perfect their next offerings. So, it was with no great expectations of any big breaking news story that I zipped along to The Webbington Hotel in rural Somerset to, once again, report for drobe.co.uk on the opening show of the RISC OS year; the South West show 2005.
I took along my Mathmagical Software Company stall but, without apology, largely left it to run itself in order to attend the four talks of the day, from Castle Technology, Qercus magazine, the Unix Porting Project, and RISCOS Developments Ltd. Before detailing these talks, however, I must comment upon how good it was to see that the show had attracted a full compliment of exhibitors, and pulled in a comfortable number of visitors. Although I do not feel able to describe the show at any point as being busy, from what I saw, and asking around, the show never felt dead or empty; a calm show but nicely so, was my impression of the event.
Castle Technology's managing director, Jack Lillingston, kicked off the theatre presentations with a gentle and good natured demonstration of the products his company are currently pushing. They include, of course, the Iyonix, along with a USB 2 card reader, a high quality Canon digital camera, a Canon photographic quality printer and an Epson scanner. The talk was similar to his presentation from the previous year. Jack showed us the camera outputting to the printer directly (once he'd remembered to turn the printer on) and also how one can simply take the memory card out of the camera and feed the images into an Iyonix via the card reader. The quality of output onto photographic paper was passed around - it was stunningly good. Using David Pilling's scanning software we saw how fast and smoothly the scanner works through USB 2; about two and a half times faster than with USB 1. Again the quality of the image was very crisp.
It was interesting to see Jack using not Thump as in the past, but instead Rob Davison's Variations. I've heard several people enthusing about this recently, usually along with a comment that they cannot believe Variations is free to download over the Internet.
Judging by the way the audience hung on to Jack's final brief about Castle's immediate future, we're all very curious to know where Castle are taking RISC OS 5. Due to apparent non-disclosure agreements, the clues are all fairly cryptic, but let's work our way through them: Tematic, a trading division of Castle Technology, have been hiring software engineers since just before Christmas, and are likely to be doing so at certain 'key points' throughout 2005. They are said to be moving to premises with five times the floor area of the existing set up. The number of big projects being placed with Tematic for development, and the variety of companies interacting with Tematic, is growing steadily, the audience was told. All of these are, inevitably, of an embedded nature and, so far, most of the resulting products are not sold in this country. In fact, the end user is unlikely to be aware that RISC OS is involved at all although Jack did say that the main giveaway clue to look for is the high quality anti-aliased fonts in a product for the home. You now have 30 seconds to crack the 'Castle conundrum'.
It was interesting to hear Jack run through the RISC OS unique selling points; a software stack that is arguably stable, reliable and robust, and one that has evolved and been debugged over a long period of time. It's here that competitor companies, formed more recently, struggle. Castle are very clear about not wanting to compete with Microsoft in the desktop market. We'll get spin-offs from the embedded work - USB 2 being a perfect example - but Microsoft has too much money and resources to make taking him on in a direct way anything but folly. This may not be 100% what we want to hear in our fantasies but it does make good, realistic sense. A warm round of applause concluded Jack's talk; with everyone wanting Castle to succeed even if the desktop market is not, and can not be, the main focus for the time being.
The next speaker was John Cartmell, editor in chief of Qercus magazine. I think he'd have been given a hard time had the sixth issue of Qercus not popped through letter boxes a few days before the show, albeit a few months late. The main problem John and perhaps the rest of us are having to grapple with is a forked OS, and two companies that, foolishly, managed to fall out big-time and in public half way through 2004. Qercus, inevitably, is for desktop RISC OS users but we are in this curious situation where the manufacturer of our best machine is having to focus upon embedded work in order to expand and, furthermore, does not, and can not, currently ship that machine with the most feature rich, enhanced version of the OS. Without doubt, Iyonix owners are a band of dedicated RISC OS followers, but (it's believed) RiscPC users still vastly outnumber them and, one presumes, purchasers of VirtualRiscPC currently form the biggest area of growth in the number of new and returning users to our platform. The enthusiastic amongst these virtual and real RiscPC users must be working with the Select and Adjust versions of RISC OS on a daily basis.
From his talk I concluded that John must have mulled over these issues as much as anybody. While not wishing to snub Iyonix owners in any way, he has concluded that it is time for Qercus to run some articles on the features contained within the latest versions of RISC OS 4, and so we can look forward to tutorials on what the new Paint and Draw can do. He is clearly optimistic that the A9home, whatever that turns out to be, is going to be a major hardware advance within the market as will be the 32 bit version of RISC OS that will have to be shipped with it - Qercus will be following and supporting developments here.
John then detailed mostly what one would expect; a mixture of articles for the beginner and then for the more advanced user, plus a return of focus to the programming side of computing, and a continuing flirtation with computer art. Personally, what I do like about Qercus is that it is a magazine you want to keep in order to refer back to it's features and article at a later date. Acorn User of old had very much become a read and then throw away magazine. So, we are supporting you John: A little more quantity at the same quality, please.
Unix Porting Project
The third talk of the day was from Peter Naulls. This drew a large audience, a little different from those who attended the other talks of the day due to a good number of the younger enthusiasts dotted around. The ideas being batted about by his Unix Porting Project are exciting although it has taken a little while for them to be properly grasped by the average RISC OS user, myself included. Briefly, the plan is to set up a pipeline through which a hoard of Unix or Linux applications can be fed such that they emerge as software that will run, stand alone and natively, under RISC OS. The idea is ambitious but the reality is that Peter can now demonstrate various pieces of software that have passed successfully through this process.
Some fascinating issues emerge; it is certainly amazing to see these packages working on an Iyonix but they don't look like RISC OS applications. Some come with pull down menus or non-standard window furniture. Some games work, but assume that more processor power is available than the XScale can deliver. One member of the audience voiced the opinion that he thought it was quite reasonable that a Unix application should continue to work, respond and feel like a Unix application when running on RISC OS. Peter explained that, in some instances, part of the conversion process could replace, for example, the Unix menu system with the RISC OS pop-up one.
The real excitement currently comes, however, from the possibility that a state of the art web-browser could be ported into RISC OS. Peter listed twelve RISC OS browsers, all of which are brave but unsatisfactory efforts to give us this competent and killer piece of essential software that we still (embarrassingly) badly need. FireFox is the object of desire, and porting this across has been the principle focus of the Unix Porting Project for the last couple of months. With a wry smile Peter offered to show us how well the latest port runs and then crashes: If you blinked, you missed the bit where it ran. However, it truly will be a great day if this can be successfully moved across to our platform and tweaked to work at a good pace under RISC OS. Peter got a very positive round of applause at the end of his talk; I hope it spurs him on.
RISCOS Developments Ltd
For the final talk of the day, Paul Middleton, of RISCOS Developments Ltd aka RISCOS Ltd, took to the floor. The rate at which Select advancements have been released has slowed of late but this is not, Paul assured us, due to any diminishing of effort on the part of RISC OS 4 programmers. Rather, Paul said they have been grappling with the efforts of, one-by-one, making each of the 171 component RISC OS modules 32 bit neutral. With good humour, Paul talked of the Acorn rushed patches and bodges and quick-fixes that had been uncovered as his company finally grappled with certain modules that they had left untouched for as long as possible, mainly because no-one was left around who fully remembered or understood the original code.
The goal is to complete Select 4, due out this summer according to Paul, which will be the first 26 bit version of RISC OS to be derived from the newly constructed 32 bit neutral source. It's easy to become confused by this issue and so Paul carefully explained that although RiscPCs could, in principal, run the 32 bit neutral source there would be no point as a lot of 26 bit software would then need to run under 26 bit emulation. The same 32 bit primary source would ultimately provide the 26 bit version for RiscPCs, a 32 bit version for hardware such as the A9home, and a 32 bit version for hardware such as the Iyonix. Alas, the Iyonix is at the end of the chain and the part of the plan that is likely to be the hardest to justify from a financial point of view.
As a user with the Adjust ROMs I paid close attention to the standard part of Paul's talk concerning how to boot from alternative sources such as a CD ROM or a network. The key step is to fire up the computer with the Shift key held down. I've just tried it, and sure enough, up comes a green BootMenu screen offering such options. Hard disc problems and issues formed a good sized chunk of Paul's talk, and he has clearly had some bad experiences with hard disc failures taking out valuable data as they die. Like most people in the room I began to feel a little uncomfortable. Yes, I would lose quite a lot of photographs and documents if my Kinetic hard drive failed right now; one of the reasons I've stopped bouncing it around in the car by taking it to shows quite aside from not wanting an "old" machine on my stand.
A related concern is that the latest hard discs capacities exceed the capabilities of accessible permanent back up storage. Unless networked to a file server, Paul argued that a user could quickly fill up a hard disc with information and media beyond what can be conveniently backed up. The proposed solution is to introduce partitions that prevent the user storing in one place more than can comfortably be backed up by, currently, a CD-ROM disc. Another issue concerns being able to rescue a hard drive from a failed RiscPC by plugging it into a Windows PC. Presently, you are unlikely to be able to easily pull any off any individual files under Windows. The solution here could be to format hard disc in a standard Windows recognised format, with RISC OS being designed to work with this format rather than with it's own specialist hard disc format, as in the past.
For me, Paul's talk really took off when he began talking about how mind-bogglingly powerful PC graphics chips now are. Typically, they are capable of drawing millions of polygons per second. In part, I presumed these observations to be tied in with Project Simon although he did not refer to it as that. Reading between the lines, this seems to involve some sort of graphics card, possibly on a podule like a Viewfinder, with one of these chips on board, maybe for a RiscPC, in which the modified OS uses the ARM CPU to manage the graphics chip rather than the current approach in which our slow ARM processor generates the graphics itself and shunts the resulting images around slow internal buses. This enhancement at the operating system level with a hardware add-on seems to go, hand in glove, with the possibility of replacing all bit-mapped parts of the desktop with vector graphics equivalents. Can our ten year old RiscPCs really be on the edge of having an option that revolutionises the nature and speed of their graphics capabilities?
With the four talks still buzzing around my head, I packed up my stall into the car and headed for Pizza Hut to talk some of the ideas of the day over with my eighteen year old son, James. It was his first RISC OS show and he had enjoyed the talks and walking around. It is good that the RISC OS world is still alive with ideas, and people who are responding to the challenges facing the quirky British operating system that refuses to die. I conclude by thanking organiser John Stonier for, once again providing a forum that yielded an interesting and thought provoking day. Already, I am looking forward to the Wakefield show. So much is now simmering that surely that is when we'll be able to actually buy the products containing some of these ideas.
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Peter Naulls and Martin Hansen are both drobe.co.uk writers and show exhibitors
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