South East 2005 show reportBy Chris Williams. Published: 23rd Oct 2005, 21:20:34 | Permalink | Printable
Geminus, ArtWorks, A9home, Select, Castle, and loads moreThis year's show, hosted by the friendly SASAUG, in Guildford was quieter and more laid back than the full house Wakefield 2005 event. More importantly, however, it proved to be an excellent opportunity for users to meet face to face with developers and dealers to discuss the events and issues that have arisen since May. On the surface, there were very little surprises at the show and unless you're an ArtWorks or RiscCAD fan, there was very little news. However, the event was teeming with little bits and pieces of information that should tie up some loose ends.
There's not much to say about this other than the PDF export works and it works extremely well by all accounts. No more fiddling with printer drivers or wasting time tweaking settings and putting up with unacceptable output quality. The export supports all ArtWorks features, from the three transparency types to graduated transparency to high quality sprite export. It can do CMYK for professional printing, and any used fonts are embedded into the document for maximum portability. This feature is up there with Crystal - an ArtWorks feature a serious user cannot live without. Read all about it here.
Mark Stephens told us he knows PDF files inside out, having spent the past seven years studying the format for his company that develops a PDF renderer in Java. Approving of the quality of ArtWorks 2.5's PDF export, he added: "The ability to build complex art and then export it perfectly, and to a standard which can be used by professional printers, cannot be understated for the RISC OS platform."
Geminus graphics acceleration
The Geminus team have been working on graphics acceleration for the Iyonix using the machine's Nvidia PCI card. The biggest boost is cacheing redraw operations as bitmaps and then quickly plotting them in hardware when needed. When a window owned by a particular application is moved or has another window dragged across it, the operating system tells the software to 'redraw' the contents of the window. For applications such as ArtWorks and other programs that display complex images, it can be time consuming plotting these graphics all the time. Once a redraw operation completes, Geminus caches on the Nvidia card a copy of the image drawn and intercepts future redraw messages to applications so that it can plot the cached copy immediately. With this acceleration enabled, the ArtWorks Apple demonstration file renders instantaneously, once it's been cached. Drawfiles and sprite plotting are also enhanced by shifting the processing power required to display these on to the Nvidia graphics card: Horizontal and vertical line drawing, rectangle inversions (as seen when selecting areas in !Paint), window textures and other images are handled in hardware by the PCI card. This acceleration is unfinished and will cost 40 quid plus VAT when it's released, which is expected soon. Neil Spellings said it could be possible for the Iyonix to accelerate vector graphics based icons in Select for Iyonix, provided Select appears for the Castle machine and the drawfile icons feature is present.
Advantage Six confirmed that their own graphics driver programmers, the duo that make up the SIMON team, have been working on similar cacheing and acceleration techniques for the A9 range of computers. Although they said an overlap of effort is undesirable, this is a consequence of two teams working separately in private. It was noted that Adrian Lees has also been working on Aemulor for the A9, which includes graphics support for low colour modes and related features.
RISCOS Ltd. and Select
RISCOS Ltd. say they have 80 Iyonix users willing to subscribe to Select to pay for an Iyonix port, which includes those listed on the Iyonix Pledgebank entry. It's claimed a further 5 to 10 people have come forward to say they will buy an Iyonix if Select is made available for it. According to ROL MD Paul Middleton, this isn't enough and they're still waiting for 100 people to sign up before proceeding with the port. Paul added that this will generate around £8000 to pay for a programmer's time, and that 80% of the Iyonix port has been done thanks to work to 32bit the OS for the A9. He stressed during his company's theatre presentation that Advantage Six paid for their own A9 specific OS components, and that the past year has been spent on Select 4 and making RISC OS 4 a 32bit OS. To the Select subscribers who paid for a year's worth of updates and yet have received nothing since June 2004, Paul said they had funded the work to make the operating system compatible with modern 32bit only processors, and should resubscribe in order to receive Select 4.
On hearing this, Select subscriber Doug Webb said, "It was good that Paul cleared this up, but I still think that they should have made this statement before embarking on the 32bit stuff so we knew 12 months ago what was happening."
Subscriber Mark Stephens also added, "I had not planned to renew my subscription as I only use my Iyonix and have been very critical of ROL previously, but a cheque is now in the post. I don't expect to see anything for up to 12 months, but it seems worthwhile investment to encourage the future I would like to see."
The reaction to Paul's presentation was mixed, with some users happily resubscribing and others voicing their concern, particularly that development continues to be propped up by the generosity of people. Paul later explained that this is to be expected in a market the size of RISC OS; whilst you have some people being very vocal about the state of Select, there will be others who will hand over up to 500 quid just to help push forward development. We were reminded that over the past 15 year history of RISC OS, which started with the launch of version 2 in 1989, RISCOS Ltd. have been looking after the operating system for seven years. While Acorn had the benefit of 30 to 40 internal developers during the height of the company's history, ROL have far fewer programmers, albeit ones that "know RISC OS inside out".
The company appears to have abandoned plans to maintain two versions of RISC OS 4, namely a 26bit version for RiscPC class machines and a 32bit version for future platforms, and instead focused on a 32bit only stream. A list of new features expected in Select can be found here, as transcribed from a ROL published pamphlet and given the technical nature of the document, it most likely came from the programmers' notes. The main highlights include a 'search as you type' feature in the Filer. This means, once a user alt-clicks in a filer window, she can begin typing the start of a filename. The file that matches the letters entered is then highlighted, enabling documents and other objects to be located quickly in a large filer window. The Filer also supports operations such as copy and delete using keyboard short cuts. A set of toolbars have been planned that attach themselves to filer windows and provide buttons to manage files, create directories and change the display mode, and show larger thumbnails of files. For the 'set type' menu in the Filer, users can also submit a list of regularly used file types that can be selected from a list attached to the sub-menu. Although Paul said RISC OS 4 doesn't have a HAL, the operating system does abstract video, sound and other hardware specific features using the modular nature of the OS. For example, eventually, the kernel will not be tied to any specific hardware platform and instead communicates with a couple of modules that provide platform specific drivers in order to perform graphics works. By default, ROL have developed VideoHWVIDC and VideoSW for driving the RiscPC class VIDC chipset and software implemented graphics respectively. On the A9home and Iyonix, these components will be replaced with the relevant driver modules.
Speaking of the Iyonix, Paul attempted to explain that a Select port to the XScale powered computer will use a small piece of software that boots into the Select ROM image and then pulls in Iyonix specific modules from the RISC OS 5 ROM, in order to provide features such as USB. Following a question from the floor, Paul also said that he hoped that software compatibility will be maintained with RISC OS 5 by ensuring that 32bit RISC OS 4 matches the Castle APIs. He also urged application developers to make their own third party software more robust, so that programs can cope and not crash if an API changes or is updated.
Paul said the company was unwilling to distribute an "interim" release to subscribers because the new version of the OS and the Select port to the Iyonix is unfinished and "can't be used on a day to day basis". Once they've completed their 32bit work for the A9 range and Select 4, they can work on a Select port to the Iyonix. Paul also commented that Advantage Six contributed financially to the project to produce a RISC OS version for the A9home, and suggested that Castle could do the same for a Select port to the Iyonix. For the company's AGM, which is to be held in a couple of month's time, RISCOS Ltd. are hoping to launch a share based fundraising campaign to invest into future development. It was interesting to hear Paul describe the future of RISC OS, saying it could play a part in the growth of pervaisve computing; where small footprint, low power electronics provide functions from bed side diaries to dashboard navigators, without obviously appearing to be a powerful computer underneath. Paul also hinted that another future goal would be using modern graphics cards to enhance the OS.
The ROL stand included an Iyonix running RISC OS 5.10 and a number of 32bit Select modules, including the filer and Image File Rendering system. These were individually loaded using
RMLoad during boot up, and were cheekily stored in a directory path labeled
NiceOS$dir. A file on the Iyonix also listed the priorities for Select, and these included increased support for networking and sharing files with other operating systems, and providing a desktop search system akin to Google's desktop search and Apple's Spotlight technology.
Incidentally, there was an Apple iMac on the RISCOS Ltd. stand, and it did have a couple of beta copies of VirtualRiscPC on it. However, the licence files for the private, super-secret internal version were preventing the software from starting up. There's no release date for the Mac version of VRPC, as sound support and a few other details aren't working. The configuration user interface is up to speed, and we were told it'll be ready when it's ready.
Castle and Tematic
Castle's show presentation by Jack Lillingston was eyebrow raising, in that it involved him unpacking several PC cases sold with Iyonix motherboards and then saying a brief piece about USB 2 support. Some of the audience sitting towards the back shared perplexed whispers as to the point of the presentation, as seen at user group meetings earlier in the year: A case is a case, after all. One member of the crowd was spotted thoughtfully leafing through an A9home brochure, pausing with a furrowed brow on the price of a standard ARM9 powered machine, just as Jack revealed the cost of an entry-level Iyonix, which is shipped sans bundled software. The Castle boss said that for the moment, his company prefers Maxtor branded hard discs although every manufacturer goes through periods of unreliability. Jack also refered to on going work to support modern, powerful Nvidia graphics cards in RISC OS 5.10, adding that they are continually working on the operating system.
Outside of the presentation, Jack added that he felt the idea of two separate streams of the operating system, namely RISC OS 4 and RISC OS 5, is "ridiculous". In response to what Paul Middleton suggested in his presentation, regarding Castle funding Select for Iyonix development, Jack said the two companies had a legal agreement signed months ago that mandated the merging of the two operating systems: Each company would provide a developer, who would then collaborate with others to merge the source code together into one branch. He also denied rumours that efforts to combine the separate streams of RISC OS had collapsed and that both companies had torn up the paperwork, effectively walking away from the agreement. On the subject of the Tematic job cuts and restructuring of Castle, Jack admitted that the situation was "complex", adding that the engineers will be employed again once new project work begins. It's believed a product the company were working on for a client was cancelled, which led to the downsizing.
The Castle stand also included Richard Brown with a laptop running RISC OS in VirtualRiscPC and Oregano 3 to tease the crowds. Richard said he and developer Oregan had formed a good relationship by passing back lots of feedback and bug reports to the programmers. Richard also commented that he felt that the market won't be polarised by the emerging Firefox and NetSurf browsers, because in order to use as many websites as possible, users will likely have to rely on two browsers. Oregano 3 has no release date, and is likely to include Flash 6 support internally.
Together with a more lively than usual Chris Evans of CJE, Advantage Six sought to impress the Guildford crowds with their tiny blue box. The presentation started off well, with Matt producing two small hand luggage style bags, each of which contained an A9home computer, a mouse, a rolled up rubber keyboard, a digital camera and USB accessories, and one bag also included a 7" LCD screen. Matt said people had complained that they hadn't designed a laptop or portable computer, but due to the machine's diminutive size, it could easily be carried from A to B - from home to an office, and then plugged into a keyboard, mouse and monitor at the final destination. A few laughs were drawn when Matt pulled a miniature mouse from a bag and one quick thinking punter shouted from the back, "That's not a mouse, that's a shrew." Chris Evans added that it was proving difficult sourcing suitable 14" and 15" LCD monitors, but the whole package could be powered from a car lighter jack or a small power adapter brick as the computer requires 5 volts and consumes 2 to 3 watts of power. He said that CJE Micros wanted to get the A9home into "unusual, weird and interesting markets", before stating that there is no release date for the machine. Although this may be due to the fact that the A9home is still unavailable for general sale, the team are still under-selling their product. The presentation ended after just 20 minutes, which included a question and answers session and a demonstration of taking a photo with a USB based digital camera and downloading the image to the machine. Hopefully the gang will be ready for the hard sell once the machine is finished.
Editor John Cartmell gave a presentation on his magazine, and covered recent articles and topics, as well as handing out free copies of the latest issue to members of the audience. The design of the dead wood publication is improving, and a few colour page spreads worked well. Overall, the design is let down in places by a lack of a run-around for boxes and pictures - this is the gap between the text and objects on the page. A 10pt gap could probably do wonders for the magazine's layout, as opposed to the current 5pt run-around. John has also offered an opportunity to third party programmers to visit the Qercus office and try out their software on RiscPC, Iyonix and A9home computers. The magazine also wants to start a new page for small developers to advertise their software for free in a bid to tempt more people into producing applications for the platform. One punter at the event was overheard telling John he'd bought a 12 issue subscription and wanted to know over what time period he'd receive these, as despite the magazine being a monthly magazine, it's actually averaging one issue every 2 to 3 months. John said he couldn't say at the moment, although having moved into a new office, he hopes to get back to being a monthly publication.
Peter Naulls is said to be working on Firefox beta 6, which couldn't be released in time for the show. A new version of TechWriter and EasiWriter that is being overseen by Martin Wuerthner was unavailable at the show as it's still in development. It's believed that work on the new scripting language has stalled while Martin concentrates on other features, such as the new structure bars. Similarly, work on Cino is also on hold while programmer Adrian Lees works on other projects. It was hinted that the DVD player could be open sourced in order for other coders to delve into it.
Other new and updated software at the show included RiscCAD 10 by David Buck and UniPrint 2 from R-Comp. RiscCAD was described by punters as been pretty quick at plotting drawings and responding to user interactions. UniPrint continues to appeal to users who have bought a Windows PC to complement their RISC OS machines. Drobe writer Martin Hansen, aka MathMagical Software, has also developed a new Sudoku game. This includes 150 levels of gameplay, an on-screen timer for against-the-clock-pressure, five levels of difficulty, a 'time to beat' competition, penalties for errors and on-screen 'pencil marks' to help solve the numerical riddles. Martin was selling his Sudoku game as part of a 30 quid bundle with ArtGraph and TurtleChalk.
Finally, according to a number of exhibitors, there won't be a Midlands show this year. The next major RISC OS event in the UK is the South West show in February.
Went to the show? Give us your comments or photos
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