'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 grantedOne 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.
Within 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.
"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."
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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.
Once 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.
When 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.
These 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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