Wakefield 2007 show reportPublished: 28th May 2007, 10:40:56 | Permalink | Printable
Didn't go to the show? Stay in the know.As the saying goes, this Wakefield 2007 show report is better late than never. The event was this time last week, and here is our round-up of what happened. You can skip straight to the photos, of course. Held at a new location next to a pretty canal-side, Wakefield was busy; punters and exhibitors left in reasonably good spirits. Next year's show, if there is one, will again have a new venue as this year's will be turned into an 'adult fun house'.
RISC OS opened
Late on Friday night, while socialising with a bottle of German coffee-wine, we were tipped off that RISC OS Open were going to upload their source code on the day of the show. Sure enough, the blueprints to the first batch of RISC OS 5 components were published on riscosopen.co.uk along with copies of Castle's new shared source licence. ROOL and Castle's plan is to get people downloading the source, fiddle with it, and share it for others to use and improve.
Despite some reservations from third party coders (whose opinions ranged from 'this is great, I love it' to 'this is dire, this is the final nail'), Castle's Jack Lillingston said he was happy with the wording of the new licence. He admitted there will be grey areas in the document but hoped the language used in the licence will resolve any problems - particularly words like "reasonable", which Jack thinks will help leverage Castle's position if an alleged breach of the licence ever lands in court before a judge. The main aim of the shared source initiative seems to be to get the source code into people's hands, get it redistributed freely, and if organisations want to keep the software to themselves and make money from it, they have to pay for the privilege.
Speaking of royalties for commercial use, Jack still insists it will be as low as 'pennies per copy'. No set figure can be given at this stage because Castle are hoping to construct some kind of web-based sliding scale system, where developers can pay their royalties up front in bulk - that is, say a company wants to put RISC OS 5 components into 100,000 PDAs, the organisation can log onto the Castle website, pay the royalty costs for these straight away, and automatically receive the necessary paperwork granting permission to redistribute OS 5 on a commercial basis. Discounts will be offered for larger bulk payments and if the company promises to share publicly any changes to RISC OS 5, according to Jack. It cuts down on administrative overheads if the whole process is done automatically via a website.
While some people see the shared source scheme as a way for Castle to get others to do the work of developing RISC OS 5 for them for free, Jack's opinion is that CTL invested cash in getting hold of ROS 5 from Pace and now it's everyone else's turn to help out. He said: "Buying RISC OS from Pace was our contribution, that's what we've put into the pot. Now others have the chance to contribute in a way that hasn't been possible in the past."
Chatting to Jack, it seemed apparent that he is perhaps a little envious of the lively community-based websites in the Linux, BSD, BeOS and Apple Mac platforms. Websites such as Fresh Meat, kernel.org and haiku-os.org allow fellow developers to download source code, collaborate on projects, discuss bugs and features, and generally form a feeling of cohesion within a platform. It also encourages outside coders and organisations to join in because they'll be more willing to try out an operating system that has an active, intelligent and positive community surrounding it - it's easier to find answers, get problems solved, and so on, with the backing of other online users.
RISC OS is sorely lacking in this, as it suffers from groups of people split over dozens of half-dead mailing lists, political battle lines, and chaotic Usenet groups with no common forward focus on development. Hence the RISC OS Open website and its forums, bug tracker, wiki and other collaborative tools. This is perhaps the first serious attempt at getting RISC OS looking like a modern professional platform that has features to offer.
Show us the source
The first components released by Castle via RISC OS Open include familiar applications Paint, Edit and Draw, as well as the Filer, CDFS, Pinboard and some Browse fetcher modules. Each program and component is non-trivial, there can be no overnight success, it will take time for people to get used to Acorn's source code and ease themselves into improving these applications - especially the ones entangled in the web of pain that is RISCOSlib. One sage quipped: "Maybe now people will appreciate how much effort it took to update Paint for RISC OS Select. Acorn source code isn't the nicest in the world." ROOL have also considered releasing binary only copies of software if they cannot release the source code just yet.
RISC OS Open's Steve Revill said they didn't want to 'flood the zone' with source code to begin with - an initial batch release, and then further components released gradually in piecemeal fashion over time. Dumping all the source code in one go on the website could end up stalling development and take-up by coders as there would be too many components to choose from and far too much source code to wade through.
Also, the first batch allows CTL and ROOL to do a bit of toe-dipping and test out the strength of the shared source licence - any problems in the wording and any loopholes discovered will only affect these initial components, and the agreement can be tidied up and revised for further releases. The initial plan was to release 'less valuable' software with an early revision of the licence, although it's understood the Castle shareholders and lawyers wanted the licence broadly correct by the first batch.
Another interesting point, according to Steve, is that the majority of the ROOL work is non-technical, as the team are spending all their time double-checking NDAs, build scripts, and whether or not they have the rights to release the source code to various bits and pieces of RISC OS 5. During the Acorn-era, companies and Acorn would often informally swap source code and integrate the code into RISC OS and other products on the condition that the source is not redistributed further. Steve said there is little or no 'paper trail' that keeps a record of who owns what, forcing the ROOL team to chase up Acorn contacts and rummage through Pace archives and boxes of stuff received by Castle for clues.
While scrolling through the code to a component thought to be 100 percent safe to release, they might spot a lone copyright declaration with no way of knowing how the source was first licensed or who ultimately owns it. ROOL's work, apart from censoring swearing and other comments in the code, appears mainly to have been tracing the ancestry of Acorn's software to double-check it is safe to re-release.
This has prompted fears that ROOL were set up to take the fall, as opposed to Castle, in case a component is released with its source code and the original owners take a costly litigious approach to stopping this. We gather ROOL saw the finalised licence on the Monday before the show, and then spent all week getting the initial batch release together.
A contact close to Castle told us before the show: "ROOL appear to have input into the licensing process and are in constant communication with Castle, but their role is really more in the getting sources out and managing them once they are there.
"It's a case of publishing something which gives everyone as much freedom as possible but doesn't just give the intellectual property away like candy, because the Castle shareholders paid large wads of cash to buy RISC OS from Pace.
"And Pace would be as happy as the next person to see a vibrant RISC OS developer community, rather than watch it stagnate into obscurity."
Naturally, some of the ROL camp are quietly spitting tacks, or so we're informed. As far as they are concerned, they believe they have exclusive rights to releasing RISC OS for the desktop, having also shelled out a five-figure sum to element-14 (the remains of Acorn) by 1999 for this privilege. It is therefore infuriating for them to see the release of the OS source code, especially components like the RISC OS 5 Paint which shares some of the recent features in Select's Paint but is now available effectively for free. There's also astonishment too as Castle initially objected to ROL publishing the source code to the Printers+ software - this was back when ROL pondered opening up some, but not all, components that needed updating and lacked developer time to do so. At least one ROL-aligned editor has admitted he was reluctant to publicise the fact that ROOL have wikified instructions on how to build RISC OS 5 software for RiscPC machines - the hardware territory fiercely guarded by ROL.
Coders sympathetic to ROL at the show questioned the rationale behind ROOL and CTL releasing components such as BASIC, which could be fractured into new variants as a result of the source code release. A nightmare scenario would be users having to choose between loading three or four cousins of BASIC, each having their own extensions and exclusive features. On the other hand, it's quite possible everyone will show a little restraint and not fracture core system components. It's hoped development of CTL source code can be steered via discussion and project management tools on the ROOL website.
ROOL were also selling mouse mats and coasters at the show with various logos on them from companies and groups in the RISC OS market who donated cash to the ROOL project, all laid out like a 'map' of the RISC OS community. Drobe does appear on the design after bunging the team some beer tokens, mainly because we wanted our website URL on every RISC OS user's desk. It's interesting to note that at least one of ROOL's developers and directors also apparently works for another ROOL director's broadband and digital TV consultancy company, which has close links with Castle director Pete Wild, who first openly lobbied for an 'open source' RISC OS on drobe.co.uk.
Set top boxes
Also on the ROOL stand were a couple of Pace branded set top boxes, pictured above, capable of playing streams of digitally encoded TV. The boxes featured a Conexant-badged ARM9 processor and, we're told, included a variant of RISC OS 5. According to Ben Avison, one of the machines featured a processor with multiple ARM9 cores, and although single-threaded RISC OS ran on one core, the rest were left to handling incoming and outgoing data. These units appeared to be the devices Castle have alluded to in the past when Jack has said RISC OS 5 has been deployed in STBs in North America and elsewhere in the world.
Inside, the kit uses a PCI bus to interface the processor with the on-board peripherals, such as the MPEG video decoders, the smartcard reader, ethernet networking and potentially USB. Ben admitted that the drivers for this hardware are mostly proprietary, so releasing them via the shared source scheme will be tricky. The STB's job is to, ideally, receive multicast TV shows transmitted in IP packets and turn it into video signals suitable for your telly - or in other words, the TV show is converted in lots of little chunks and broadcasted liberally across a network (maybe by a broadband provider); the STBs reconstruct the video as it is streamed in. According to the ROOL team, who previously worked for Pace, hundreds of thousands of these units were produced by Pace and deployed by clients; one STB was manufactured 18 months ago.
Conexant specialise in packing sub-400Mhz ARM920T and ARM940T cores and IPTV technology into its processors, essentially stuffing all the main components of a STB onto the CPU silicon. How any of this will turn out to be useful for the desktop RISC OS arena is unclear at the moment.
A clear advantage
Moving on, AdvantageSix were showing off a couple of A9wail devices, which were A9homes hacked literally into widescreen LCD monitors. Ad6's Matt Edgar had spent the past couple of months planning the stunt and a couple of weeks cutting out enough space with dremel tools. This was rather obvious from the rough holes and cutouts on the underside of the monitors' backs. However, it was possible to squeeze a working RISC OS ARM9-powered computer behind the TFT displays - Ad6 already have experience with this as their A9loc devices are essentially A9homes screwed onto the back of a flat touchscreen that can be fitted to bulkheads and other walls for exhibitions and similar situations. Ad6 have drivers for the touchscreens, as well as GPS and mobile phone hardware, and often use the A9home as a reference unit in production when wooing clients.
The A9wai1 (A9-widescreen-all-in-one although the font used for the logo read unfortunately and confusingly like a9waif or a9wail) reduces the footprint of the A9home by storing the computer in the monitor case, pretty much like the fancy Apple iMacs, and space taken up on the desk is therefore reduced. The mouse, keyboard, networking and power supply connect via sockets at the back, or the mouse, keyboard and ethernet could be handled wirelessly using bluetooth and wifi if required. This needs some extra hardware and an aerial built into the display casing. The A9wai1 is otherwise a regular Samsung 400MHz A9home with the usual 128M of memory, hard disc, USB, ethernet, serial and PS/2 sockets. The tiny red power and reset switch is located on the top of the monitor.
The monitor itself is driven directly using dedicated LCD controller electronics on the A9 motherboard rather than using a clumsy VGA connection routed internally. Matt pointed out he could have used a non-widescreen touchscreen instead of the black-cased TFT monitors - which are between 12" and 15" in size. The A9home motherboard is also onto its second revision from hardware designers Simtec.
The A9wai1 is not available for sale and at the moment exists as a prototype to demonstrate to third party retailers who could be interested in paying for their manufacture and selling them on. CJE Micros, who sell the A9home, said they would be interested in retailing the A9wai1 and are chatting to Ad6 about it. The A9wai1 is also not to be confused with an odd belated April Fools joke that appeared on the Ad6 stand: a little white box with just a monitor plug and dubbed the A9mini, it was supposedly an A9home in a plastic container about the size of two match boxes. While plausible, the device was entirely fake, which put punters off taking the A9wai1 seriously.
Meanwhile, many A9home users have been calling for a new Flash ROM update for their little blue boxes, and it's hoped Flash 3 can address a few outstanding issues - such as CMOS settings and printing. Matt, who has been lending RISCOS Ltd a hand as Select project manager, said he preferred to release a stable Flash ROM rather than rush one out as soon as possible.
He told us: "Now that we have a stable Select 4 out, we are a big step closer but there's still work to do. We need to balance the desire to get something out as soon as possible against making it a polished release."
RISCOS Ltd had a stand although there was no sign of boss Paul Middleton, so WROCC helper Steve Potts stood in demonstrate RISC OS 6 and sell copies - you could buy the OS for 50 quid or subscribe to Select for 100. The NetSurf team unveiled version 1.0 of their open source web browser, and managed to sell about 90 mini-CDs for a fiver each. Each disc contained the program's source code and other libraries and components required to build it. Their impressive banner was also printed by a firm who print wooden doors.
Martin Wuerthner remained tight lipped on future features for ArtWorks, now that AW 2.7 is available, but confirmed he was working on a style editor and MathML support for the Techwriter family - a release in time for the South East show in November is on the cards. Meanwhile, R-Comp developer Alan Wrigley said RSS support in Hermes will be overhauled, mainly to allow it to sensibly report problems and failures when fetching feeds. On the subject of Grapevine, he said that in order for Grapevine to provide recent MSN features (such as winking and nudging), he needed to support the latest protocol version - which is unfortunately completely different from the current protocol it supports. This will require a partial rewrite of the software, but he wouldn't rule it out. And development of web camera support is also being looked at. Meanwhile, R-Comp had released Messenger Pro 5 and had some new PC kit on display.
Soft Rock's Vince Hudd was giving away free copies of his WebChange software on floppy discs while demonstrating his fun little text adventure game 'Quicksand'. The game uses photographs taken from nearby woodland, and is set to be released for free. Vince said the diversion wasn't particularly difficult, which could make it an amusing game to play on a rainy day. VirtualAcorn were demonstrating their Mac OS X VirtualRiscPC beta software, which this time is on sale to a lucky few PowerPC Mac owners.
Future of RISC OS
A group of nearly two dozen punters met up in the bar at 2pm to chat about how to encourage future software development. There were suggestions to offer cash to coders, although it was argued that offering 50 quid for a new application isn't going to sway a programmer with a £30,000-a-year day job. However, a useful side effect of offering cash is that it shows how many people are interested in a program: knowing that 200 people will benefit from the work could be a big encouragement.
The discussion moved onto other ways of contributing to projects besides financial offers. With a proper collaborative website, akin to Sourceforge, it would be possible for people to advertise their various skills and link themselves to new projects - thus graphics designs can help out programmers who can't draw, coders who can't write can search for documentation writers, and so on. This could also encourage people to pick up new skills and add them to their profile pages - people who can't grasp programming could learn how to design template files, create support websites, run mailing lists, translate messages, and so on. At the end of the one hour meeting, a vote was also taken on the name for the project, with RISC OS Connect coming out on top. See Graham "RiscPkg" Shaw's mailing list for more on this.
Set alongside a quaint canal-side, complete with little boats and swans, this year's Wakefield 2007 seemed different from previous events - and it wasn't just the location.
Show photo gallery
News bits and small photos from the day
Wakefield show website
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