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The return of the 8bit-era: creating a 'neo-micro'

By Michael Reed. Published: 22nd Apr 2007, 00:40:46 | Permalink | Printable

Reviving the 1980s, which brought us Thatcher, Depeche Mode and 32K OS ROMs

RISC OS is best known for 'doing more with less', and we've had plenty experience of the less. Could our platform's plus-points benefit the current world of bloated software and computing? In an article on what the 8bit-era taught us all in terms of working efficiently with limited resources, Mike Reed dreams of creating a new 8bit-inspired computer platform running RISC OS as its core. Here, we present an edited extract from his essay, while the full piece is online at OSNews.com.

Is this an opportunity for RISC OS?

A leftfield suggestion would be to use RISC OS as the underlying OS for the project. For those who are unfamiliar with RISC OS, I wrote an appraisal of the OS last year.

A bonsai treeRISC OS has a number of factors in its favour. One is the proposed shared source initiative which will grant access to the OS's source code. It also thrives in a low memory, slow CPU environment.

It is the operating system equivalent of a bonsai tree. Current versions of RISC OS can theoretically boot into a desktop with less than 512KB of RAM. Even this could be improved upon with customisation.

It's designed to be loaded from ROM with only a few disc based resources. RISC OS doesn't need to be tied to a hard disc as it doesn't need a swap file or masses of disc-based configuration. If the OS is installed it ROM, it can even boot without a hard disc.

Then there's fast start-up and shutdown. On most RISC OS workstations, there is a 'shutdown procedure', but this is mainly to flush any disc buffers. It's not a protracted sequence.

It's also modular: it's designed to have features added to its core and to be tailored to a specific task.

Read Mike's article in full from the link below.


The return of the 8bits? from OSNews

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I think you mean "the operating system equivalent of a bonsai tree", rather than the other way around.... Mind you, I'd be very interested to see RISC OS (or indeed any other OS) running on a tree!

 is a RISC OS Userchrisj on 22/4/07 11:22AM
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All of these things are strengths which manufacturers should remember and aim for in any new RISC OS machine and each are reasons why I think it's completely wrong to meekly accept that RISC OS's future lies in emulation.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 22/4/07 1:37PM
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One of the things that interests me about RISC OS machines is that they are probably the last remaining evolution of a microcomputer system, unlike other systems which are basically server-class systems scaled down to fit on your desk. For slightly perverse reasons, I like the fact the kernel doesn't support any form of multitasking. It's very easy to take full control of the machine, and make it single task (usually, entirely by accident).

That makes it of limited use for an internet capable box though, to be honest. As a user, I'd rather my downloads continued regardless of the fact the OS wants to see a disc that I've removed from the drive.

Regarding this 8-bit inspired micro, isn't that exactly what an Iyonix or A9Home is? The sad fact is that it's very hard to compete on price these days against the option of bootstrapping mass-produced parts together, even if you are able to make a simpler system that needs less parts.

 is a RISC OS Userninja on 23/4/07 12:32PM
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This proposal has a lot in common with the $100 laptop project: Simple-to-use, robust, cheap hardware that is not cutting-edge but serves basic user needs. The main differences is that the neo-micro doesn't have a built-in screen and battery and that no crank handle for power.

But, like the $100 laptop, it requires true mass-production to work: You should measure production runs in tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands to bring the cost down enough to make it worthwhile. So you need a wealthy backer and probably tie it to some government or international initiative to get it "pushed" sufficiently.

A few minor suggestions to the proposed design:

- No need for memory card slots if you have USB: You can use USB flash keys for external storage.

- Rather than having a lap-top style joystick in the middle of the keyboard, have it under the space bar for thumbs use. And make it a bit bigger, so old rheumatized hands can use it. Make space below the space bar to rest the hands (for real "laptop" use).

- Make text-processing HTML based. HTML has more than enough features for non-advanced documents, and it allows you to design simple web content. And it allows export of documents to almost any other platform (Windows, Linux, etc.).

 is a RISC OS Usertorbenm on 23/4/07 3:16PM
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And RISC OS just missed and opportunity for a bit of recognition in the retro market.

The Specy on the front page of the BBC bbc.co.uk

cheers bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 23/4/07 5:33PM
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The Beeb's Microsoft volume licence has got a clause it in stipulating they never mention the BBC Micro or Acorn ever again, or it will cost them 10's of millions. Or at least you'd think that was the case the way they go to every length to avoid taking any credit, or merely giving the history of the role they played introducing microcomputers in to education and the general public.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 24/4/07 8:54AM
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Time's have moved on, the 'sub 100 quid computer' of the 80's is now the sub 300 quid computer of today. For that you can get a brand new, very capable machine and monitor.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 24/4/07 2:54PM
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Sub 100? BBC Bs were 400 quid in 1984!

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 25/4/07 11:05PM
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Even the speccy with a wobbly RAM pack was over a ton, and with the same level of sophistication and reliability as todays sub 300 quid box stuttering along with Vista. Acorn systems were bloody expensive, but worth every penny.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 26/4/07 8:55AM
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Sub 100 is definitely possible. Just consider the $100 laptop project. They estimate the current price at $150, but expect to bring it down to $100 once mass production starts. And that includes screen and battery, which is not required for a neo-micro. It may be production cost rather than retail price, though.

I read a bit about the $100 laptop specifications today and was a bit disappointed that it uses an x86 CPU from AMD. An ARM would seem more appropriate (lower cost, lower power, integrated LCD controller), but I guess the designers took the path of least resistance with x86 Linux.

 is a RISC OS Usertorbenm on 27/4/07 8:05AM
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torbenm, the OLPC doesn't have a crank handle - I bet they really regret doing that particular mock-up - and I'd imagine that the choice of x86 came down to a number of fairly relevant factors, particularly related to being able to acquire control of the hardware platform and having a big company offer concrete support: yes, AMD actually plays along with various open source communities from time to time.

As for the Linux aspect, and in the context of the 512K remark in the article, perhaps Linux is the path of least resistance because it does run in fairly low memory environments (albeit not likely as low as 512K) and is widely deployed and open (again, extremely important in a project like this). And stuff like LinuxBIOS can provide booting to a lightweight desktop using 2MB of ROM and no hard disk, apparently. That's your neo-micro right there!

 is a RISC OS Userguestx on 27/4/07 8:32PM
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