South West 2006 theatre talksBy Martin Hansen. Published: 22nd Feb 2006, 01:38:20 | Permalink | Printable
ArtWorks future, ROL development process, Castle hints and moreAs an exhibitor and a RISC OS user, Martin Hansen reflects on his experiences at last weekend's South West 2006 show. In this report, he gives his opinion on the current state of affairs, describes the presentations given at the event, and offers an inside track on what goes on behind-the-scenes at a RISC OS show.
I've gained something of a soft spot for the annual RISC OS show that takes place at the Webbington Hotel, located a few miles south of Bristol, each February. For me, it is a three and a half hour drive, but I justify it by managing to both taking along my Mathemagical Software stand and by attending all of the lecture theatre talks. At the start of each new year these presentations from the major RISC OS players seem to set a tone that resonates throughout the rest of the year, and 2006 was no exception.
As a small software developer, one of the good aspects of attending the various RISC OS shows throughout the year is that I'm forced to periodically get my act together by polishing up, debugging and adding new features to my software products. This was certainly the case this year and I spent the two weeks running up to the show frantically writting the key routines to demonstrate a new product, The Math Box, that I'll be releasing at this May's Wakefield show. I mention this purely so that you will understand that I went through the day of the show having had one hour's worth of sleep in the car at the Michael Woods service station on the way down the M5 from Shrewsbury. Mind you, at least my vehicle did not break down: Chris Evans and his CJE Micros team mates arrived just fifty minutes before the show opened with an epic tale of automotive mechanical failure occurring at the worst possible moment. Of all the exhibitors, he brings the most kit. Yet, he and his team were surprisingly cheerful. They were clearly very relieved at having made it to the show at all.
At 10am, the event opened to the public. The first folks through the door had a good selection of stands to look over. The Midlands show may have been cancelled last December due to a lack of exhibitors, but there were definitely more stalls at this year's South West show than I've seen here in the past. Most obviously this included Advantage Six, there to promote awareness of their forthcoming A9home computer. R-Comp too had a noticably bountiful stand. I was quite impressed when they pounced upon me and tried to sell me various products as I took an early ramble around the hall. I'm much more laid back and had no qualms about abondoning my stand for half an hour at 11am, as the first talk of the day commenced in the lecture theatre.
I had heard a few uncomplementary mutterings concerning the uninspiring nature of Castle Technologies' recent presentations but this was the first time I would sit through Jack Lillingston's current talk. If you haven't witnessed this presentation, it usually runs something like this: Jack begins by going through the range of boxes into which Castle will place an Iyonix computer for you. First up, the X100; designed to be a close size-match of the RiscPC, which is handy as the legacy RiscPC is no longer manufactured. It can take PCI cards but they have to be half height. Next, the X200; a smart black tower that can, surprisingly, also be operated lying on its side. Then the X300; the original, classic, Iyonix in the familiar generic beige box and the only Iyonix into which Acorn legacy podules can be fitted. Lastly, the cube-like X400 that, apparently, is the current best seller. The Panther has been discontinued and Castle had only one left. The Canon printer that Castle sell was discussed, it's special selling point being that it features, alongside the ubiquitous USB interface, a parallel port for RiscPC users.
I was, by this stage, feeling that this was a talk aimed primarily at a newcomer to RISC OS, or someone returning to RISC OS, who needed a little encouragement to take the plunge and make a purchase. This is fair enough; Castle is in the business of shifting Iyonix computers and if those boxes aren't going out the front door then either Castle will go bust or they must move off, if they can, in more profitable directions. Many of the people in the room, including myself, had already bought an Iyonix, and it's a product I'm happy with. If there was an Iyonix mark II or a native ARM laptop on offer, I'd be interested in buying another machine. Sadly there isn't. So, the sales pitch was a little irrelevant for me and what I was looking forward to was the talk moving on to cater for those of us who have already bought into the Iyonix dream.
What is the Iyonix particularly good at doing? Where is Castle thinking of taking RISC OS next? What is their vision of the future? Maybe, it's simply that what they are working on is of no relevance to Iyonix desktop users, and so not of general interest, but the lack of any mention of what Castle are busying themselves with these days had my ears pricked for the slightest hint. In passing, Jack mentioned that, up until now, upgrades to RISC OS 5 had been provided free. The implication of saying this is, I believe, that this may not be so in the future. Inevitably, this focussed minds onto something that Jack didn't seem to want to discuss: Are Castle still actively developing RISC OS 5? You could see the thoughts flying around the room as Jack talked us through the updated C/C++ compiler package, the USB 2 upgrade and the DVD upgrade. There was twitching as people thought how best to question the failed cooperation between Castle and RISCOS Ltd without opening up the old, bitter dispute between the two companies. "The RISC OS Merlin developement project is on ice," said Jack in response to one member of the audience. In replying to a follow up query from the crowd, a short sharp answer from the Castle boss made it clear that there is still an impasse between Castle and RISC OS Ltd. No one seemed to want to take this uncomfortable line of questioning any further and Jack wasn't offering to do so voluntarily. The talk concluded. No one clapped. By this time, I was absolutely determined to attend the RISC OS Ltd talk scheduled at the end of the afternoon.
The second talk of the day, from Martin Wuerthner, on ArtWorks 2 was a happier affair. Here we had a friendly and good natured presentation from an extraordinarily talented programmer. His vector graphics art package continues to break new ground for RISC OS. Martin wanted to show us ArtWorks in use with an emphasis on some of the more recent features. As a project, he announced he was going to spend the next thirty minutes designing an advertisement for the graphic design software. Starting with the older classic ArtWorks logo, he reenacted his decision to add a butterfly resting on it. This, he pointed out, would signal that his product, like the butterfly in his logo, was moving forward and being actively developed. "Oh," he observed, "The butterfly is obscuring part of the lettering." The solution: make the butterfly transparent. This let the "W" of "ArtWorks" show through, but the butterfly now looked washed out due to its new found translucency. Only the part of the butterfly around the otherwise covered up letter needed to be noticably transparent. Again the solution: graduated transparency.
A chile graphic was clipped out from a JPEG, the words "Hot Stuff" added, and a textured backdrop created. Each step showed off more features of the software. It was a wonderfully hearty presentation, and a great advertisement for a premier third party RISC OS product. Impressively, some probing questions from the audience at its conclusion were answered enthusiastically, honestly and with intelligence. Martin is full of ideas on how ArtWorks can be developed further. He is considering adding to ArtWorks multi-page functionality, and the possibility of adding PDF import support; the latter being a highly complex development. Of the Windows packages that offer PDF import, only Adobe's own Acrobat reader truly imports PDFs properly. It would be a real coup d'état if ArtWorks could match that, although it's perhaps debatable if the financial return can fund the effort involved. It will be interesting to see what Martin decides to do next with ArtWorks. His talk left his audience thrilled by what the software package, originally produced by Computer Concepts aka Xara, can do, and what it might be able to do in the near future. A round of applause concluded the ArtWorks 2 presentation.
Out and about
The main hall was probably fairly empty during the talk but as we all trouped out of the lecture theatre, the hall sprang back into life. I spotted an original Acorn mug on sale for £5 which I bought immediately. Earlier, over at the charity stall, I had spotted a couple of sets of RiscPC feet that allow a RiscPC to be used in a tower position - but they had been sold long since. Back at my stand I had a hectic time as two people simultaneously bought my TurtleChalk, ArtGraph and Sudoku software suite, while two others queued to chat with me. Next door, ProCAD+ and WebWonder author David Snell had a steady flow of interested viewers, whilst, across the way, Paul Beverley's Archive booklets (as recently reviewed) seemed to be selling well.
The third theatre presentation of the day was from Advantage Six and, of course, the burning question asked right away was how much longer must we wait before the A9home gets its proper launch as a fully operational desktop machine. Equally predictable was the reply which boiled down to "when it's ready". Matt Edgar has an endearing way of enthusiastically and informally engaging his potential customers about the thrills and spills of bringing the A9 up to a standard suitable for home users. Even if the A9home is not for you, it's interesting to be invited in to learn of the big problems faced by the Ad6 gang. Sound support, or rather the lack of it, has certainly kept the Advantage Six chaps burning the midnight oil. I was previously under the impression that RISC OS was modular and that each part of it functioned pretty much in isolation from the other components around it. This is turning out to be not the case. Those stressed Acorn engineers of long ago tinkered with the circuitry of the microchips handling the audio output to make the sound programming more straight forward, while exploiting hardware quirks along the way. Try to use off the shelf PC sound hardware with RISC OS and all sorts of things go unpredictably wrong, we were told.
The ARM9 powered A9home is, undoubtedly, an intriguing product and its size is a motivating factor in the move from CRT to LCD monitors. I work in a classroom in which sit twenty RiscPCs all with fans whirring away. It would be so satisfying to replace the lot with these small blue and silent A9home bricks. I really do hope they get the whole thing released soon. Time is passing.
Time is passing too for RISC OS Ltd. Managing director Paul Middleton had the fourth and closing slot in the lecture theatre and he used it very well, I thought, to explain the predicament in which his company has found itself. In a nutshell, there is a lack of funding to push forward the development of their version of RISC OS at a brisk pace. It has been a long time since they issued a Select release, and subscriptions to the scheme, a main source of income, are either falling or are about to lapse. With Select, Paul explained, you could develop various internal branches of the OS software and periodically have an "all up" session in which it was decided which of the various new features under development were sufficiently stable and tested to be bundled into a Select release for subscribers. Anything not yet finished could simply be left out, worked on further, and then issued in the next release.
The 32 bit conversion of RISC OS 4 did not lend itself to this process. The whole conversion will have to be completed before a release can take place, as during the phase of making the operating system 32 bit compatible, development of new features is halted.
As Paul talked us through all of this, I was reflecting upon the path that has led RISC OS Ltd to where they are now. The conversion could, of course, not have been attempted at all. RISC OS Ltd could have developed the OS pretty much exclusively for RiscPC and Virtual RiscPC users. Maybe that is the route they should have gone down, but the A9 gave them a reason and the cash to commit to the 32 bit conversion process. With Castle's cooperation, another potential pay off lies a little further down the time line; the new 32 bit OS, with its wealth of enhanced features, could be sold to users of the Iyonix. And the same primary source code for the 32 bit machines could be used to generate 26 bit friendly code for further Select releases for users of RiscPCs. As Paul made clear, RISC OS Ltd did not have the funding for this ambitious project during its moment of conception back in the late 1990s. They took what was described as a brave decision, known as a gamble in other cirlces, to go down this route, hoping that Select subscription income, royalties from Virtual RiscPC, and cash from Advantage Six would see them through. It almost has. The A9home is close to becoming a reality, Select version 4 for RiscPCs is on the way, and they are tinkering with what can be easily done for the Iyonix. Paul's talk was pretty good and I did feel moved by his openness and frankness.
As I drifted back into the main hall I reflected upon why I, personally, have trouble with subscription schemes. Present me with a tangible product that is ready to be used, tell me how much you want for it, tell me that I can have my money back if it dosen't perform as it should, and I'll most likely buy it. Maybe, I mused, I have a too simplistic a view of the world. I would be horrified if RISC OS Ltd, Castle or Advantage Six went under as a result of lack of investment from the RISC OS community. Perhaps the RISC OS Ltd share issue is an honourable way of lending a bit of support to the company at a crucial time - but if only one could feel more confident of Castle Technology and RISC OS Ltd cooperating for the good of the platform as a whole. We have so little overall resources it is painful to see any of them being squabbled over or squandered.
At the Castle stand I had a friendly chat with Jack, and I asked him about the RISC OS Christmas road show. He was very positive; he reportedly sold a good number of machines, especially at the London show in Harrow, and praised Paul Middleton's efforts in organising the three day tour. Perhaps there is some hope, after all, that our two key players will find a way to get along and grow the platform.
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