Taking OS features for grantedBy Chris Williams. Published: 1st Nov 2005, 12:00:41 | Permalink | Printable
Are we under-selling RISC OS?A while ago, we covered a comparison between RISC OS and AmigaOS from a 'political' angle, in terms of OS ownership and the battle of native hardware versus emulation. AmigaOS, like RISC OS, is a minority OS that has seen better days but after being handed from company to company, it's starting to look up. The closed source OS recently celebrated its 20th birthday, so its age is comparable to RISC OS. Its developers have created a new website, including a page with 20 key features. Of all the operating systems on the planet, comparing RISC OS to AmigaOS is probably the fairest. Despite Apple's image as the 'little guy' in the computer industry, Mac OS X benefits from billions of dollars in the bank, which afforded them a totally new platform and kernel. The Mac OS dock and filer are comparable to their RISC OS counterparts, but that's about as far as it goes. Microsoft's Windows couldn't be any more different, and the development model of Linux and its Unix roots set it apart from RISC OS.
This isn't an attempt to bash AmigaOS - far from it. The OS, which aims to make computing fun again, deserves kudos for setting up an informative and friendly online presence, and for its advances in modern hardware support. While we have a few things in common with them, it's also a source of ideas for the future.
AmigaOS 4.0 claims to boot up in seconds and shutdown just as rapidly, very much like RISC OS starting up from ROM. The OS also has an interesting system for allowing third-party software to interpret different file formats: An individual application does not have to understand how a particular file is structured, as it instead consults a separate program called a 'datatype' that operates on the file on the application's behalf. This is similar to RISC OS Select's Image File Renderer sub-system, except it applies to all file formats rather than to just images. AmigaOS provides a library to developers so that applications can also access compressed archives, such as zip and tar files, transparently. A piece of software doesn't need to know how the files are compressed, as it can just ask the library to take care of it. The OS also allows individual files to have their own custom icons, which is achievable on RISC OS using a patch. The desktop GUI is configurable, allowing users to replace window buttons and other furniture, which is possible with RISC OS and notably, RISC OS Select.
The PowerPC compatible OS provides a context-sensitive menu system, which is a fancy way of describing the menu 'middle' mouse button on RISC OS. It also preserves the stacking order of windows when you use them, which is something that drives me, personally, insane on other operating systems: It's so annoying when a window jumps to the front and obscures other windows I'm currently looking at. The OS also provides virtual desktops, which are available under RISC OS using third-party software, and allows the user to use multiple virtual desktops at once. A virtual desktop is a way of sharing the space taken up by many desktops on one monitor. The AmigaOS developers are also working on OpenGL compatibility for 3D graphics, which Iyonix users recently gained, thanks to Simon Wilson's efforts.
The OS includes a scripting language which sounds powerful, and the team is bringing Python on board at some point too. RISC OS users usually resort to writing a simple Obey script or BASIC program to perform a repetitive or complex task, or Perl if they're feeling confident. Script-based automation of tasks is certainly useful, especially for image processing. AmigaOS uses pre-emptive multitasking (PMT), as opposed to the cooperative multitasking (CMT) used by RISC OS. PMT means a single application can't easily hog the processor, unlike under CMT where every RISC OS user knows what it's like to have ChangeFSI or Oregano steal away desktop responsiveness. A third party patch, Wimp2, exists for RISC OS to implement PMT, but it's not entirely compatible with all applications. AmigaOS uses PMT to boost processor time for interactive tasks, leaving the desktop feeling slick and responsive. AmigaOS 4 also has full memory protection, virtual memory and resource tracking - currently thorns in the side of RISC OS.
The OS also has a RAM disc, just like RISC OS, and it can preserve files stored in memory to disc on shutdown, which can be done on RISC OS too. Another attractive feature of AmigaOS is its crash debugging application, called the Grim Reaper. This ensnares troubled applications and displays their current state in memory and other low level details. Debugging tools similar to this exist on RISC OS. AmigaOS has a polished configuration program for the user to select which country and time zone she lives in, and which languages and character sets she prefers. Applications also use a system very similar to the RISC OS 'messages' mechanism, which allows software developers to provide multiple translations of their programs. AmigaOS also supports a means for creating virtual labels for hard discs and other media. For example, all your fonts could be referenced using 'Fonts:'. At first, this seems rather attractive, but then you realise that RISC OS has an equivalent feature through the use of its path variable system. For example,
Font$Path is set to point to all my fonts and I can access the Homerton typeface using
Font:Homerton. Under RISC OS Select, I could also point
MP3s$path to my directory of music and do
filer_opendir MP3s:$.DepecheMode to view that particular directory. AmigaOS also provides a command line and an iconbar, to which animated icons can be attached.
Comparing AmigaOS and RISC OS is an interesting exercise, especially when it provides inspiration for things like scripting languages, friendly internationalisation configuration, and transparent file format handling. However it also shows areas where RISC OS is grossly under-selling features we take for granted every day, but are seen as almost revolutionary elsewhere: For instance, being efficient on a sub-1GHz RISC CPU, anti-aliased fonts, supporting virtual disc labels, using a RAM-based temporary disc, and providing an iconbar.
20 years of AmigaOS
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