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'Why we love drag and drop on RISC OS'

Published: 6th Aug 2006, 13:31:00 | Permalink | Printable

Users not taking the ROS desktop for granted

One of the strengths of RISC OS is the ability for people to drag'n'drop objects around the desktop. It's usually hard to describe how well this works, but other operating systems are rapidly catching up. While RISC OS still arguably has the edge, we spoke to a number of professionals who rely on the drag'n'drop in RISC OS.

Blank canvas approach
A good designer loves sitting before a fresh drawing board and filling the white expanse of paper with ideas and details. She may have some drawing tools within her grasp as well as scraps of paper and clippings to enthusiastically paste onto the paper. An artist will also happily empty her mind onto a blank canvas, employing nearby paints, washes and reference images. Both know they can bring materials to the paper and build up a perfect composition. Similarly, creative RISC OS users can gaze upon an empty document on a screen and intuitively fill it with content.

Graphics on RISC OSWithin the RISC OS desktop, you are given the ability to pick up images and text and other forms of information from your work environment and drop them into your document where you want them. A text file stored in the Filer or a graphic drawn in an art package can be grabbed with the mouse pointer and dropped over the document window to place it where you want it. The object can be dragged from a hard disc or the 'save as' window from an application to another open window or to an icon on the iconbar.

All the software packages involved in the transfer communicate with each other behind the scenes to ensure a smooth hand over of the information takes place, leaving the user to only worry about the important creative decisions. If a file dragged to an application happens to be of an alien format to the receiver, then the application over which the file was dropped can politely decline to receive the file. This drag and drop model of interaction with the user saves time and removes unwanted hassle from the process of creating something, argue designers who use RISC OS.

GAG News logo"The main benefit of drag and drop is that you work with the data and not the applications to handle your files," commented Herbert zur Nedden, who has spent the past 13 years publishing GAG News - a magazine for German RISC OS readers. He uses the Impression DTP package with Aemulor on his Iyonix, and regularly employs drag and drop to transfer illustrations from ArtWorks 2 into placement frames drawn out on pages in Impression. Once an image is dropped into the document window, it can be cropped, rotated, and arranged until the design is perfect. If an illustration needs to be changed, it can dragged back to ArtWorks to be edited and then returned to Impression.

He added: "The fact that drag and drop works between any two applications, provided the receiving end is prepared to accept the data type, is really nice and it means I don't have to worry about how my data gets from one place to the other."

Click on a thumbnail to view the larger image.

Dragging files to the iconbarAnimated
It's not just expert users who can use drag and drop to their advantage. School children at the Manurewa Intermediate School, located near Manukai City in the north of New Zealand, turn to RISC OS to create animations of their names.

The youngsters, aged between 10 and 13, use !Draw to type in their names and select interesting fonts to spruce up the text. Extra drawings can be added to decorate the typeface using the flexible nature !Draw: Each element in a drawing will have a number of 'handles' associated with it which can be pulled and moved to alter the shape of an object.

The children can then manipulate the shape, position and colour of their designs, recording each slight change to a hard disc for safe keeping. The aim is to generate a typical cartoon by eventually playing back successive changes to create the impression of a moving image.

Dragging files to AnimatorOnce a fledgeling electronic artist has finished playing with font styles and experimenting with other graphics, the resulting series of about 50 drawfiles are then dragged from the Filer onto a blank document window owned by !Animator, Iota's animation package. The software then populates a sequence of frames using the individual image files and automatically builds up an animation of the child's name.

The application uses the filenames of each drawing to make sure they are grouped together in the correct order. The project can then be saved and played back as a digital film on the computer screen, much to the amusement of the young designers.

Dragging files saved in AnimatorWhen the group of !Draw files are brought onto the !Animator window, the receiving software is told what type of data it is being presented with. The software can then consult the operating system for assistance in decoding the image file format and displaying it on the screen. The modular nature of RISC OS means application software can refer to helper programs which run in the background and provide support when called upon.

Understanding and manipulating graphics files are just an example of the services these operating system extension modules provide. All this work happens instantaneously and 'transparently', that is, the user is unaware of the exact nature of the negotiations that are going on inside the computer - the designer is just aware of the overall effect, which is that a graphic is transferred across the desktop to be used in another form.

The school's Music and graphic design teacher Steve Harrington said: "Drag and drop does mean work done on our RISC OS computers is considerably faster. The whole class can be logged in and up and running very quickly because of the simple user friendly RISC OS desktop system and the drag and drop features that allow fast copying of classroom resources. PC using teachers from many of the local schools see RISC OS in action and are impressed at the speed of the desktop and the drag and drop concept."

The music department in Manurewa School has 11 A7000s and template files needed for each lesson are stored on the desktop pinboard of each machine. The students then drop the musical documents into Sibelius to begin working on them.

He added: "A programmer friend living in Auckland just a few years ago once said to me how important it is for a person in a beginner or intermediate level user to learn how to do graphics on a computer.

"For he said that it is graphics that teaches the computer learner to learn how to use menus in software, import and export features, convert files and so on. Generally, computer learners who start with graphics gain a better understanding of using a computer.

"Children at our school love using !Draw to create their own style of font. Most of the children have never experienced this, or even thought it was possible."

Another activity involves animating the school's logo, which is supplied as a !Draw file, by fiddling with its line styles and colours to produce a fun animation.

Another interesting example of creative design on RISC OS is the case of Werkoderko, a German clothing outlet that produces its fashion label using an Iyonix and RiscPC. The two year old company produce clothes with cartoons and illustrations on them that relate to Bavarian history. Werkoderko's Maximilian Lückenhaus begins his work as black and white ink drawings on paper.

Werkoderko's designsThese are then scanned into his RiscPC and artefacts in the scanning process are removed or touched up using !Paint. The image is then transferred to an Iyonix where the bitmap image is converted into a vector graphic file using R-Comp's ImageOutliner. This allows the black and white image to be easily scaled and edited in packages like !Draw and !ArtWorks. Colours are filled in and detail is added with the aid of !ArtWorks 2. The final image to be printed is then exported as a PostScript file and given to a printer to produce the finished t-shirts.

Maximilian, who works in the city of Munich, feels the RISC OS model of saving images from applications is more liberal, in that work can be dragged from the 'save as' box to an open Filer window or a hard disc's iconbar icon. He noted that other operating systems tend to use large, clunky dialogue boxes that cannot match the persistent nature of the RISC OS Filer: When you save a document to a Filer window, that directory viewer will stay open until the user decides to close it.

Multiple Filer windows can be easily opened on a desktop, giving a strong visual idea of where the user's files are located and where they can be found. The save windows used on other platforms, including Microsoft Windows and Apple Mac OS X, says Maximilian, aren't persistent and often need to be re-opened and a new file path selected when work has to be saved to a hard disc.

He said: "With RISC OS, the situation is completely different. Here, I first open my commonly used directories in which I work. From these, I can load and save different images simply by dragging and dropping objects - fast and easy, and no need to select any file path over and over again.

"What I found most efficient is using RISC OS drag and drop to exchange graphics data between different software. I often use the 'save selection' feature, for example of !Draw or !Vantage, to drag a part of an image into Photodesk, which automatically renders it so that I can work with it as a bitmap image. I can even 'save' it, for example as a GIF or JPEG, directly into a web browser to get an impression of how it will be rendered on the web.

"Of course, other operating systems, such as Windows have their global clipboard, but I think this is by far not as intuitive and consistently used for exchanging data between completely different programs as the load and save drag and drop model under RISC OS."

Maximilian added that he would like to see more RISC OS applications providing an 'export document as draw' feature.

Hot on our heels
Richard Hallas is an Iyonix using all round designer, from the RISC OS 5 icon set to music editing to special projects including a calendar. The editor of Foundation Risc User magazine is of the opinion that while RISC OS pulled off drag and drop first and well, other platforms, notably Mac OS X, are rapidly catching up. Apple's operating system has desktop concepts that are very close to the RISC OS iconbar and Filer windows, allowing users to transfer files between the hard disc and applications.

Richard however prefers the distinction in RISC OS between dragging an object to an open document window to place the file there, and bringing an object to a piece of software's iconbar icon to create a fresh new document containing the file dropped over the iconbar. He noted that Mac OS X can allow users to drag and drop text highlighted in documents to other parts of the desktop. Although some RISC OS software such as !MessengerPro and !StrongED can do this, Richard said the desktop would be enhanced if every application could do this.

He said: "Where RISC OS truly shines is in its method of saving files. Drag and drop saving, as an extension of the drag and drop loading process, is the stroke of genius, as is the concept that you can save directly into other applications rather than to the hard disc."

Much like Maximilian, Richard also is not a fan of the save dialogue windows in Windows and Mac OS X software and enjoys saving illustrations and other files directly into DTP package !OvationPro without cluttering up his hard disc with intermediate copies of files.

While teacher Steve Harrington believes that context menus in applications, which are opened by the middle mouse button on RISC OS, can be unintuitive to new users - as there is no visual clue that they can be opened - Richard says that these menus go hand in hand with drag and drop. Others have argued that although the RISC OS desktop may have a more intuitive desktop user interface, the software running on it is out of date and cannot boast all the features that rival packages on other platforms are offering.

He commented: "Does your DTP software, vector drawing package or whatever, allow you to do what you want to do already? Do you really need to spend several hundred pounds on upgrades every year?

"I'm not advocating sticking with software that's stagnating; I'm just making the point that, if the core of your software does what you want it to do, then new bells and whistles that you don't actually need may well add complexity without actually providing anything useful."

This article was written in November 2005 for the now comatose Qercus magazine, and was never published as no issue has been printed since October. Rather than let it go to waste, it's reproduced here for everyone to enjoy and comment on.


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The comment about new software often adding a layer of complexity that you may not need is so true. The vast options available in so many items of software are seldom if ever used.

Like the article particularly the example of children producing. Producers have a chance of selling their produce. Children who are trained to be users geberally become consumers - and consumers always pay!

 is a RISC OS Userrmac on 6/8/06 3:19PM
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A really good article, which is written with the non-ROS user in mind. Although indeed many software titles on ROS are somewhat dated in terms of features and capability, they still shine in terms of their user interface which more often than not works hand in hand with the ROS desktop interface.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it. As some have put it; the ROS GUI has changed very little over the years, because it was done right in the first place! Only now, more than a decade later are other operating systems catching up to what ROS users have enjoyed for years.

By the way, NetSurf can both export webpages as a DrawFile and drag-save selected text :)

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 6/8/06 4:40PM
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I don't think that Windows' usability has gotten that much better since '95. All the basic GUI things have changed very little. But the applications available for it have improved dramatically, as have all the wizards.

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 7/8/06 12:28AM
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IMO, the only user functionality where the GUI needs work in the short term is eye candy and, as Richard said, extention of the drag and drop concept between applications. The annoying thing about an intuitive GUI is that people need to use it for a reasonable amount of time to realize its advantage; visual effects give an instant impresssion.

 is a RISC OS Usertimephoenix on 7/8/06 2:50AM
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People who've seen me use drag and drop in RISC OS applications on VRPC often comment they wish they could do that too, most don't know that many Windows applications support dragging from the file manager to the application. But the problem with Windows applications is there is very little consistancy between how applications handle this - does the drag add the object to the document as under RISC OS, create a new document window, or replace the current document entirely? There is no equivelent of specifying the creation of a new document by dragging to an iconbar icon - indeed if you do drag there you get an error, and are told to use a ridiculous procedure of having to hover over for 2 seconds before a window pops up, which has to be one of the worse GUI features ever. But finally when they see a RISC OS application's ability to save a document by dragging the save icon back to the filer, you can happily point out there is no equivelent of elsewhere, and for that you need a decent OS.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 7/8/06 9:40AM
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druck: All too true. Dragging in RISC OS does what you expect, in Windows you never know what you're going to get. Having to use Windows, and Word, at work (I suffer!) I've been frustrated a few times by trying to do what is, to me, the obvious of dragging a text file into the document, only to get a pointless little icon sitting there that needs double-clicking on to see the contents.

Another often-overlooked aspect of the RISC OS GUI is the tendency to _not_ try to chuck several windows into one big one, an idea that has to rate as one the biggest wastes of screen space ever.

 is a RISC OS UserSimonC on 7/8/06 11:40AM
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Hi druck & everyone

The editor's slight error there in the thumbnail image next to the heading *Animated* .

The (balloon) circle around three of the four music files on the screen backdrop points in error to the Sibelius music software loaded on the Icon Bar. The arrow should point to the student's opened Directory above to demonstrate Drag 'N Drop from ther screen to their Directory.

These 11 computers are networked to my computer where my computer stores all the files they copy, edit and save. So when I make a template of the music files on my computer, I open my Directory (called LESSONS) which has the original file and a back up copy (in case they don't Drag 'N Drop a copy into their own Directory) and on each computer I Drag 'N Drop my original music file copies onto each computer's screen for the children to Drag 'N Drop a copy into their Directory.

The children fetch their Directory on each computer via a simple Log On system created by Educational Software Distributors (ESD) in Manukau City here. The Directory for each child I have named by using a 6 digit code number that corresponds to their classroom number and the number that the child is on their class roll. i.e. Room 11 + roll number 24 To HIDE the code number so that the children do not know the sequence I use so that they do not crack the Directory Log On code to pry into other files I do this.... Of the four digit code, Room 11 numbers are the first and third digits, the roll numbers are the second and the fourth digits. So the code for the 24th child in Room 11 becomes 1214 for the Directory named 1214 in Room11 Parent Directory.

So the three music files networked from my computer showing on computer number 8 (for example), can be copied into a student's Directory named 1214 (for example) on computer number 8 (or any computer in my network) and Directory 1214 seen on computer number 8 is actually on my computer.

The next thumbnail image is correct showing how the students Drag 'N Drop all the !Draw files into the !Animator program.

I may say here though, how I have taken for granted on RISC OS the Drag 'N Drop concept. It is noticable when I teach students and teachers who are PC literate and the RISC OS desktop Drag 'N Drop is not a familiar feature they are used to.

Even the teachers when they have a go find it quite a challenge to open more than two Directories and handle more than one file in the Drag 'N Drop concept.

Drag 'N Drop from one Directory to another to COPY the file(s), or to use the keyboard SHIFT key to move the file(s) is staggering for them to come to grips with. I get comments lately like "Which new program is that?" "Huh?" I say with a laugh, it's a 1994 model Acorn computer you're looking at!

Something good and so different must be brand new, so the students and teachers think!

Once the students get used to opening a few Directories and start to Drag 'N Drop about the screen and other Directories, they usually say how good this way of filing is easy and so quick to manage.

Another RISC OS program that spoils RISC OS users, is that !Draw program. We are spoilt and forget at times what most PC users don't know what they are missing. Very few PC users I know have a vector drawing program of any kind, yet alone one that comes as standard on the computer like !Draw.

Many teachers and principals from local schools come through to see these Acorns in action. Surpisingly, the few visitors who remember Acorn computers often ask, "Do they still make Acorn computers?" I smile and say, "Yes, they certainly do and are known as RISC OS." I explain the difference in names like.... Windows '95 is now called Windows XP, so they still make Windows if you know what I mean!


 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 7/8/06 11:46AM
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How about the drag&drop installation of an application anywhere in the Filer? The only platform where I've seen anything remotely resembling that is Mac OS X and the ROX filer (which incidentally also provides drag&drop saving). ROS even allows for the installation of an application inside another application! I love it, like practically all the other drag&drop functionality of RISC OS. It gives me a sense of freedom and control over my desktop, while also providing scope for a more intuitive handling. While chatting, it's lovely to be able to directly drag a URL out of NetSurf's URL bar using the Ctrl key and dropping it in a chat window. Conversely, the ability to simply drop a Text file containing a URL onto NetSurf's URL bar is just as useful. Among other stuff, I believe especially the drag&drop concept as seen in ROS makes navigating and using the desktop so swift. Essentially, a user may have more of a unified desktop experience, ie. the whole desktop being one interconnected application. I believe Herbert zur Nedden hit it on the head when saying -- "The main benefit of drag and drop is that you work with the data and not the applications to handle your files."

By the way, in the article Richard Hallas stated "that while RISC OS pulled off drag and drop first..." which is inaccurate. The concept of drag&drop is quite old, possibly going back to Engelbart's GUI designs of the 1960's. What can be said, however, is that RISC OS probably was the first that implemented a refined, widespread and consistent use of drag&drop and, surprisingly enough, still is unique in that aspect.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 7/8/06 12:32PM
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hEgelia: I'm not quoted directly as saying that RISC OS pulled off drag and drop first; the article just refers to this as apparently being my opinion. Whilst it's too long since my opinions were sought for me to remember exactly what I said, I am of course well aware that RISC OS didn't do drag and drop first. After all, the Apple Mac had been around for a couple of years before RISC OS was launched, and of course the Mac OS featured drag and drop from the outset.

I *think* the point I was making was that RISC OS pulled off drag and drop long before Windows tried to do it (and made a pig's ear of the attempt). Unfortunately, the article has lost that context and made a global assertion that isn't accurate. But never mind; RISC OS was still the first to do it *well*, and still features the most well-designed and logically consistent implementation.

By the way, ROX-Filer was modelled on RISC OS, so it's hardly surprisingly that it's RISC OS-like in its implementation of drag-saving! However, I'm not aware of any other OS that implements this RISC OS innovation, and yet it's one of the most obvious, logical and helpful of all GUI concepts. It's just part of the flow of data, which goes into applications and out again, and which may theoretically pass through several applications before returning to a saved state on disc (if it ever does; for a quick one-off job, you can go through a whole process from design to print without ever actually saving your file).

Mac OS X is very much like RISC OS in its support for drag-and-drop installation of applications (in fact, its Finder is quite like the RISC OS filer in some ways; though not in others). It too allows applications to be stored inside applications (though in its case this is mainly for nested resources; the user isn't supposed to do it).

 is a RISC OS UserRichardHallas on 7/8/06 3:59PM
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Of course drag and drop only works properly if windows don't jump to the front when you click on them, and apps don't want to be used full screen

 is a RISC OS Userbobloblaw on 7/8/06 7:29PM
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True, D'n'D software installation is great indeed since amongst other things you are the one to decide where the app is put. The odd app now comes with some installer tool, sometimes simply since it needs some stuff to be put into PreDesk since it saves the user the trouble to install the app and the !Boot parts separately (we all remember !SysMerge which did a similar task). Personally I'd prefer the old D'n'D installation and some !Boot update done separately by me but perhaps I'm strange on this account that I want to know what goes where... instead of having it dead simple.

As for D'n'D/Clipboard: What is missing is that the D'n'D doesn't work for everything like writable icons and the like that is drag some text from an editor to some writable icon or vice-versa. Furthermore I'd like the non writable icons/text to be draggable to fetch the text as well. E.g. select and then D'n'D the message of some error box into my email app to drop a line about it to the programmer with no need to manual copying of the screen contents. OK, Windows does this via the system clipboard but it does it whereas in RISC OS this is not OS driven but just offered by the odd app.

Or even try this: D'n'D of whatever object there is on screen to e.g. make a hard copy by dragging a window onto Paint.

One of the best ideas of Acorn was to define the data saving/loading protocol such that it doesn't matter what the receiver is, that is filer or some app, which implied D'n'D via save box to any app. Pity this wasn't extended to other data sources like icons etc - thought I'd say that this can probably even be handled by the OS, that is the modules responsible for displaying the windows so that the app doesn't even need to know about it.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 8/8/06 6:11AM
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RISC OS Select and Adjust have copy and paste in writeable icons.

 is a RISC OS UserJGZimmerle on 8/8/06 3:56PM
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