Wakefield 2006 show reportBy Chris Williams. Published: 15th May 2006, 07:31:37 | Permalink | Printable
All the thrills and spills from the weekend [Updated]After 11 years of shows in Wakefield, you may wonder if there is any appeal left in turning up. Typically, the same exhibitors show up, pitch their stalls, put on a brave face, and offer more or less what they sold last year at a slightly revised price. Yet there is always a catch; a few diamonds in the rough that spark some degree of excitement and draw in eager punters. In 2003, the XScale powered Iyonix was still wet behind its ears and eager to please the crowds. In 2005, AdvantageSix produced from a make-up bag their little blue box of ARM9 powered tricks. This year's Wakefield show was hungry for a few gems to make the journey worthwhile, and luckily for everyone, we were able to uncover a modest treasure trove.
The show attendance looked a little lighter than usual, with people milling around in the afternoon as if the show hall was a fine art museum - although there were always long queues to get into the hourly theatre presentations. Some exhibitors were of the opinion that they had more sales this year than last year, and that the number of punters coming in through the doors was up from 2005. The Castle team were pleased at the amount they'd flogged, and CJE Micros reportedly sold out of A9homes.
The big news, of course, was the launch of the A9home as a product on general sale - although in the first presentation by AdvantageSix, Matt Edgar, clad in the black polo necked Ad6 uniform, felt obliged to admit that the A9home wasn't perfect and people needed to be aware of this before they handed over their cheques. In his usual down-to-earth manner complete with an apologetic smile, Matt spent more time explaining that the serial port was a little iffy and USB printing had problems, amongst other more minor bugs, rather than running through what the machine can do - which is a lot. The microphone input socket works, for example, although the software to access is on the to-do list. While end user dealer CJE Micros were said to be happy with the product, the system is still going through the last few rounds of testing to iron out any remaining problems. The peppermint stripped Ad6 tent was crowded for the rest of the day.
Ad6 and retail partner CJE Micros in top level talks with John 'Murdoch' Cartmell
In the afternoon theatre talk, Matt brought in an A9home painted grey with a little ariel pointing out the back - word quickly spread it had a GSM chipset and SIMM card inside that made the A9home capable of connecting to the mobile phone network. From outside the presentation area, Ad6's Stuart Tyrrell called the A9home from his mobile phone, which popped up a little message box to tell Matt he had an incoming call. Matt clicked on an icon, and Stuart's voice was more or less heard from the A9home, which was wired up to the PA system. Matt then called Stuart back from the computer, and said the next obvious step was sending and receiving text messages with it.
The demonstration was Ad6's way of showing off what they're doing with their kit for larger anonymous clients: the possibilities are mostly endless - A9 units could be hooked up to projectors at public events and people can send messages to be displayed by text message, and so on. Next, was the demonstration of wireless Bluetooth keyboard support, this time on a red A9home with what appeared to be a coke-a-cola bottle lid on the back for the ariel. Matt used a gadget that involves a laser projecting the image of a keyboard onto a flat surface, and then typing away where the virtual buttons are is detected by the laser and relayed back to the computer via the Bluetooth radio link. Again, like the GSM module, the Bluetooth support is not in the desktop-aimed A9home, and Ad6 were not about to say what else they'd got working with Bluetooth - although it's known that they have mobile phone support working.
A benchmark run earlier in the week showed that the A9home was accessing its internal hard disc at about PIO speeds - 11MB/s read and 7.5MB/s write. Ad6 are unwilling at the moment to alter the specification of the product, such as using larger memory or a bigger hard disc. The USB-based DVD/CD combo drive available with the A9home includes a CD writer, and the team are hoping it will 'just work' with the likes of CDVDBurn. The version of 32bit RISC OS 4 shipped in the A9home is also essentially a 32bit build of RISC OS Adjust with a few extra features; owners will have to subscribe to the Select scheme in order to get all the Select 4 features.
Stuart Tyrrell sneaks in 40 winks during a busy show
Matt also mentioned that the reason why new versions of RISC OS 4 will check for a so-called 'AIF header' in software is because it's needed to formally verify that the application is 32bit compatible, that it hasn't been corrupted or is missing parts, that it can have the right amount of memory allocated to it, and to ensure that the executable sections are marked read-only - preventing buggy software from accidentally ruining programs running in memory. Ad6's clients have said RISC OS is close to a "toy operating system" without this level of protection and checking - hence the decision taken by RISCOS Ltd and Ad6 to enforce this requirement to build up system stability and tackle frustrating crashes. In 1996, Acorn mandated that all software should include an AIF header, and there is the option is disable this feature in RISC OS 4 through a command line operation for the foolish.
An unofficial A9home compatibility database with fledgeling forum is online here.
How to promote Select 4 without showing Select 4
Nearly two years on since Select 3 landed, there was no Select 4 release to take away, and there wasn't much of it installed on ROL's Paul Middleton's RiscPC. He went into his company's presentation with an A9home build of the operating system on his computer, which was therefore missing the new Select 4 features everyone had piled in to see. Instead, Paul demonstrated a few things such as being able to configure the network settings without having to reboot afterwards; being able to rearrange the position of tool icons on windows; and one or two other enhancements already seen before. One interesting development was the new virtual ethernet device support, as featured on other operating systems: a network card could be configured to have two or more IP addresses, allowing it to straddle and communicate with multiple subnets. Paul also enthused that network-based storage devices are likely to be supported in the near future, in that plugging one into your network will cause it to pop up on your desktop.
Another technical feature is the addition of two new and capable debugging tools. These provide a means for programmers to be given a snapshot of an application after a crash, as well as the execution path in the form of an enhanced backtrace, to assist in tracking down hard to reach bugs; the privacy concerns with this are noted in the pink Select 4 features leaflet handed out by ROL. These tools can also be used to hunt down bugs lodged inside the operating system with the help of a disassembler. Dynamic areas can also be marked as 'abortable' by the memory management system to pave the way for a virtual memory-like system, and dynamic areas can be mapped to physical memory for the benefit of device drivers that expect memory-mapped IO. Well known and frustrating bugs involving the Filer and other OS components, triggered when more than 128M of memory is installed, are believed to have been fixed.
A new Viewfinder driver module is being prepared by the duo of programmers who call themselves the SIMON team. The pair work for both ROL and Ad6 to produce graphics related software and drivers, and are said to be hoping to support newer off the self graphics cards for VF users. This is likely to include plug in and play support of monitors, allowing the operating system to prepare the correct display settings automatically using information passed from the monitor. Applications could eventually use this data to display documents in actual real size on the screen.
Flame haired Dave Bradforth, he of several RISC OS books and magazines, can't keep his eyes off VirtualAcorn's iMac
The OS, and HForm in particular, will also include initial support for SATA disc logging, which is where modern hard discs produce a self-health check for the computer to act upon - no front-end tool has been written for this yet, though. Paul also warned that old hard discs in RiscPCs are likely to be reaching their end-of-life now, and RISC OS 4 won't be supporting discs made before around 1996 in future. Also, future ROMs of the operating system won't support non-RiscPC and A7000 computers, such as Riscstations, because ROL will need to use reportedly unavailable custom software provided by the hardware manufacturers in the ROMs. Soft-loading versions of RISC OS 4, such as Select, will continue to work because the old OS in ROM will have presumably set up the hardware correctly prior to the soft-load process.
Select 4 and 32bit Adjust will also include RISCOS Ltd's new 32bit Shared C Library with C99 support, and they hope to release a new version of their StubsG library shortly. It's understood ROL and Advantage Six were offered to purchase the Castle 32bit SCL, but they turned it down in favour of their own product for various undisclosed reasons.
Paul also talked of a Postscript level 3 driver for the future, but said the current quality of PDF output by RISC OS software is excellent and there weren't enough people with the time to otherwise overhaul the Printers suite. The firewall in Select will also stay as-is as Paul resisted calls to provide a user interface. He added the main limiting factor for ROL at the moment is the amount of resources and programmer time they can throw at problems and new features - Select on Iyonix was not totally forgotten, but given the need to get the A9home's 32bit Adjust and Select 4 out the door, it's clearly not a huge priority for them at the moment.
The updated list of Select 4 features can be found here. Paul mentioned to curious punters that he expects the product to ship within the next 5 to 6 weeks.
Open source SCL impresses
Graham Shaw's open source Shared C Library module was seen running TechWriter. The application appeared to work fine, and upon quitting the software, a little message box appeared to inform the punter that they were using Graham's free replacement SCL. The final release shouldn't do that, but the progress Graham has made is impressive. After the open source SCL is done, he says he's willing to resume work on RiscPkg following a number of developers apparently stepping forward to say they want to use the package-based distribution system.
RISC OS 5 and Oregano 3 future
Castle's presentation, once again, covered Iyonix cases and DIY kits. CTL's Jack Lillingston also talked about the recent updates to their C/C++ compiler package, and said the rumours of Intel axing the lesser used XScale families as nothing to worry about - his company is said to be evaluating potential future ARM chips to use in their products, although it's now reasonably clear that the IOP XScale range isn't going to expand any time soon, if ever. CTL were also handing out free USB memory sticks to anyone who ordered anything over 50 quid.
Away from the presentation, CTL's John Ballance explained that soon-to-be-released versions of RISC OS 5 are likely to focus on newer video card development work - DVI output support could be in, as well as some form of multi-head support without stepping on the toes of Geminus. John said he preferred Nvidia cards because their chipsets are always backwards compatible; drivers that are known to work on a 5500 model will work on a lowly GeForce 2, for example. Such an upgrade could come with a price tag, and may well include the USB 2 support which is available separately at the moment. Currently, the Iyonix starts up with a USB 1.1 sub-system running, and then replaces this during boot up with the USB 2 software if present. Putting this into ROM will shave a few seconds off the boot time, although John said the Flash ROM image is getting rather full these days.
Also on the Castle stand was a PC laptop running VirtualRiscPC and Oregano 3. There is still no release date on Oregano 3, which Genesys's Richard Brown admitted was frustrating to tell punters looking forward to buying a copy. The group of six beta testers are sending feedback to developers Oregan as usual, and although the software mostly works, Richard wants it to be perfect for everyone before it can go on sale. He says it will take a five figure sum up front to complete the RISC OS port of Oregan's web browser and to make sure this investment does not back fire, it must be up to end users' standards. The price is likely to be around 99 quid for Oregano 1 and new users, and around 60 quid to upgrade from Oregano 2.
The main problem at the moment is that Oregan's browser software is aimed at STBs and other embedded systems where the display size is fixed and there only needs to be one open view window at a time; which is pretty much the opposite of what you would expect from a desktop web browser. Redrawing and resizing the Oregano 3 window reveals a massive speed hit, and it will be this sort of problem that needs addressing before Genesys commit to a final release.
Touching me, touching you
The Liquid Silicon MIDI drivers in action
Liquid Silicon were showing off the new 32 bit MIDI and touch screen drivers, running on a little A9home setup. The touchscreen software is being used for special needs children, we learn. The touchscreen drivers also work with the MIDI software, including composition package MelIDI, allowing musicians to work with their music at the touch of the screen - which looked very impressive. Playing with RISC OS on a touchscreen was so much fun, the desktop comes alive at the finger tip. LS will sell you a flat screen touchscreen monitor and supply the drivers with it.
The MIDI hardware is driven via the serial port, as are the touchscreens, and Alan Gibson of LS said there no major issues despite AdvantageSix warning the A9home serial port was 'iffy'. He has ported the ESP MIDI drivers to modern hardware running 32bit RISC OS and is working out a distribution deal with ESP.
ArtWorks is best thing since everyone's sliced bread
Martin Wuerthner knows no other facial expression
Much praise was poured on MW Software's bow tie sporting Martin Wuerthner for his professional theatre presentation of ArtWorks. He's said to be keen to add multi-page support to the vector graphics application, and is seriously pondering developing a Postscript 3 driver with John Tygat - separate to ROL's aforementioned Postscript work. At the moment, according to Martin, using ArtWorks is the only way on RISC OS to export a PDF with CMYK colours preserved.
Magazine opts for quality over quantity
Qercus editor John Cartmell revealed that he had been ill recently and along with two sad deaths in his family, his magazine had been held up with technical delays and other problems. There was no sign of an issue, although 277 and 278 are 'mostly' done - John would have done well to have brought along some A3 proofs of his best articles to show off, or even a copy of the front covers for them, to defuse tensions between himself and his readers. He's now considering dropping down to officially producing 6 to 12 issues a year, as he cannot sustain a monthly magazine. Subscriptions will run in terms of issues received, rather than months passed. There's no firm date for when current subscribers will receive their long awaited next issue.
Interestingly, he also asked for volunteers to act as technical proofreaders to check articles covering certain areas.
A highly animated John also drew the Acorn Computers issue to everyone's attention, adding he was was very angry and upset at the way in which the brand was being used to flog laptops. Proving that he does still have at least some loyal readers, one of his subscribers snuck into the NEC-hosted CTS 2006 event to pick up some Acorn fliers, and promptly passed them onto John. They revealed that the new Acorn Computers is very much trading on the old familiar brand despite having little real connection, and is actively looking for resellers. The salesmen behind it were reportedly popular with the crowds at the CTS 2006 show.
One of the new Acorn Computers laptops
An important point that John made was that this new company was able to grab the mainstream IT headlines and publicity, with more to follow in the monthly trade magazines, that our platform has long desperately dreamed of. With a clever PR exercise that caught the attention of various IT news writers attempting to fill columns, the new Acorn Computers managed to hit all the right 'news value' buttons with just a simple trademark buy-out and laptop box shifting operation. John was more upset by the fact that no one in the RISC OS platform had tried such a move to grab some of the limelight previously, and now it was mostly too late.
R-Comp's mystery top-secret 'no one must know or the puppy gets it' application for scanner and digital camera users turned out to be UniPrint for imaging devices - aptly named UniScan. Developed by Alan Wrigley, it allows a Microsoft Windows PC to be connected to a scanner or camera, and then share imported images with a networked RISC OS computer.
Rogues gallery of the NetSurf developers at the show: James Bursa, Daniel Silverstone, and Richard Wilson
And the rest
Cino running on an Iyonix
The NetSurf crew spent the day pottering around various computers to fix bugs in front of punters and take feedback from them. The team are working towards version 1.0, which will be seen as an official stable release... Spotted: A prototype Phoebe in a yellow case, see Binary Dinosaur links below... Wicked whisper: Which developer was ready to pack in working on RISC OS software because of fierce criticism of his product, until he was very recently talked back into coding again by his publisher?... It's not just users locked out of VirtualRiscPC. The Apple Mac port of VirtualRiscPC on an iMac on the shared ROL and APDL stand, but its copy protection had thwarted it - the licence file for it had timed out. The software is still in the works, fingers crossed for a release...
Drobe's Ian Chamberlain spent the afternoon showing punters how to use ArtWorks and Photodesk on his new 'RISC OS in action' stand... Neil Spellings to wed in Romania - his missus to be did the event's catering. Cino developer Adrian Lees says he's working on the DVD player's decoding to speed it up... Version 8.6 of the TechWriter family, featuring PDF export, was released at the event... APDL were offering part-exchange of Blitz IDE interfaces for Unipods, and Excel import and export for spreadsheet Schema2... CJE Micros were flogging a new version of database Impact.
A punter on the RISC OS in action stand
Update at 19:16 17/5/2006
MW Software's Martin Wuerthner has stressed that a planned feature for ArtWorks will be multi-page support, rather than the multi-document support as originally stated. He also added that his pipe-dream of a Postscript 3 driver may or may not have anything to do with RISCOS Ltd. John Tygat, who has previously contributed software to ROL's Select scheme, was named as a co-conspirator in the PS3 driver news.
Martin said cryptically: "For the time being the only statement that can be safely made is to state that it is unknown whether or not this is connected with ROL's announced PostScript work or whether it is a separate project."
Also, the plastic bottle lid at the back of the Bluetooth-enabled A9 is so that the radio signals can escape the otherwise hardened metal case.
Ad6's Matt Edgar said: "The problem with a sealed metal box is that it is very difficult for signals to get in and out - a small plastic section is the answer, and it just so happened that I had one exactly the right size in the fridge."
Meanwhile, Grapevine 2.11 is now in the electronic post to users.
Back to the front page
Some show photos at Binary Dinosaur
Many thanks to our news moles for digging up all their information and gossip, and to the NetSurf developers for the post-show knees up. Photos taken by Rob Kendrick.
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