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Qercus reviewed but renewed?

By Martin Hansen. Published: 27th Jul 2007, 00:12:40 | Permalink | Printable

Forty months after taking out an annual subscription, Martin Hansen ponders whether or not to continue his Qercus sub

Heeeere's J-Media Watch Opinion - Issue number 283 of John Cartmell's RISC OS magazine Qercus landed on my doormat last week. Included was a reminder that my subscription was seriously overdue for renewal. I last subscribed at the end of 2003, which was when John launched his "fusion" of Acorn Publisher and Acorn User.

My one year's subscription for twelve issues has actually lasted three and a half years, and in that time I have received 15 issues - an average of one magazine every three months. Perhaps that's why the current issue is labelled "Summer 2007".

The large time lapses between issues have not bothered me. The RISC OS market is more of a relaxed enthusiasts corner than was previously the case and a magazine that turns up every once in a while, usually in the run up to a show, has suited me fine.

It has also meant that Drobe has been able to have good natured humour at John's expense. "Qercus back from the dead" was one mischievous headline following a long pause between consecutive issues. One no-show that lasted eight months prompted the gem, "Twenty things to get instead of a Qercus sub", and a suggestion that frustrated authors send their Qercus articles to Drobe for publication. Some authors, with copy that was starting to date, obliged.

The request that I renew my subscription prompted me to gather together the fifteen issues so that I could properly evaluate if I wanted to continue receiving the magazine. It occurred to me that many readers who initially subscribed at the same time as me will also be reflecting upon what they have received and be pondering if the magazine had proved itself worthy of further support and investment.

The magazine has been surprisingly consistent in its content over the years, which has revolved around the four main themes of art, programming, using various software packages plus software and hardware reviews. I decided to evaluate my collection under each of these headings in turn.

The art based features have included many unusual and interesting ideas on thinking creatively, and how to make posters, websites and artistic endeavours have a bit of individuality. Examples abound and I shall give only two examples for which I can quickly provide illustrations. In the summer 2006 issue, there is an amusing piece on manipulating text so that the way the words are written capture in some way what the words say - a simple example being "Drop Out", pictured below.

A couple of issues earlier there is a fascinating piece on designing so-called ambigrams. These are graphical figures that spell out a word both in the form presented and in another direction or orientation, an example being "Beatles", which when written as shown, has half turn rotational symmetry about its centre, pictured below.

Often, Draw or some other freely available application, such as InterGif in a recent piece on animation, is all you need to give the ideas presented a go. This idea of encouraging people to think more creatively with freely available software was the inspiration behind my Drobe article on making quick'n'easy banners. So, a gold star from me for the Qercus contribution to art under RISC OS.

The early issues feature series on BBC BASIC by Ray Favre, and WIMP programming using AppBasic by Joe Taylor. Both were competently written and well presented. I enjoyed reading about David Llewelyn-Jones' development of Compose: a programming language which allows a conceptual picture of a program to be turned into RISC OS executable code.

Locating all of my fifteen issues of Qercus proved to be harder than I had anticipated. I ended up ferreting around my poorly lit loft seeking the early issues. They are a dangerous thing: old magazines. As a young lad I struggled for years to bin my old Beezer and Beanos.

Many a time I tried, only to succumb to the temptation to have one last read through them. Moving to university finally saw me give the whole lot away to a thrilled eight year old boy, at the embarrassing age of 17.

So, when I told Helen, my partner, that I was just popping up into the attic for five minutes I knew that, time-wise, this was unlikely to be the case. Eventually I found the older issues in a box, unopened since I'd moved house a couple of years ago. A happy morning followed as, sitting amongst the cobwebs and with the rain pounding on the roof above, I looking over the inaugural offerings.
Writing interactive fiction using RISC OS is a topic that pops up now and again in the magazine but which I had written off as old hat. Last week, my nine year old daughter asked me to read her a Dr Who book at bedtime. At the end of each page she was given a choice of what the Doctor should do next. Flicking back and forth through a book, dependant upon her decisions, was good fun and convinced me that such fiction still has a market amongst a certain age-group with whom it is thriving. Qercus has, most recently, presented an excellent series of articles by Gavin Wraith on the programming language Lua. So, another gold star from me here. If John wants ideas for the future, I'd be most interested in some taster articles on Python, which people keep telling me to try, and PHP, which I believe the RISC OS server application WebJames can handle.

Using various software packages
Most of the the RISC OS classics have been featured, often one particular aspect of an application being focussed upon in depth with a specific objective being the goal of a tutorial-style presentation. ArtWorks, WebWonder, MusicScribe, EasiWriter, Composition, Photodesk, NetSurf and GrapeVine have all been given the once over. Crumbs, I'm giving away too many gold stars but I can't fault Qercus here, either.

Software and hardware reviews
Aah. At last. A section were the magazine, in my opinion, has not got things quite right. For a start, there seems to me, in John's editorials, a favourable bias towards the various projects from Stuart Tyrrell and the initiatives from RISC OS Ltd when compared with those, admittedly few and far between, from Castle.

As an Iyonix user, I find this irritating and silly, not least because there is so great a difference between what the two camps are offering that trying to simply say or imply that one is better than the other is not meaningful or useful. For example, a fair bit of ink states that the A9 is roughly comparable in speed to the Iyonix. To be honest, I don't really find Iyonix that much faster than the RiscPC for most tasks. If the machine is looking to see what key I've pressed 100 times a second or 1000 times a second as I word process, what does it matter?

RISC OS could certainly benefit from faster native hardware on which to run, and preferably in laptop form, but it needs to be very much faster. Dwelling upon small speed differences between the A9 and the Iyonix is daft. A review of the new features in the RISC OS 6 desktop applications, on the other hand, would be a much more interesting and positive way of promoting an area in which RISC OS 6 and the A9 have a lead. But then, perhaps, a review of how the two systems compare in terms of hardware support might balance what is being put forward. Bronze star here because of missed opportunities and a lack of a fair point of view.

The adverts in the magazine, over time are of some interest. Early on Castle feature strongly with whole page spreads on the Iyonix and Oregano 2. MicroDigital go for their final fling in an early issue (the third Qercus, May 2004) with a couple of full page spreads, one on the Alpha 5 notebook running VirtualRiscPC and the other on the "simply awesome" Omega. In recent issues Castle are absent whereas RISCOS Ltd have a full page promoting RISC OS 6 CJE has a double page selling the A9, and R-Comp have two full one-page ads.

With three gold stars and one bronze, I have just stopped prevaricating and phoned John to renew my subscription. I went for one of the current special offers which for £49.50 signed me in for twelve issues (including the three I've had while deciding to renew), and a free copy of Mike Williams' BASIC V programming book.

Now, I really must subscribe to that lovely Louie Smith's RISC OS Now for the odd month when Qercus has a pause.


Qercus website

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... but have the production values (quality of layout, spelling mistakes, grammar mistakes, factual inaccuracies that could have been avoided if they'd passed articles passed somebody in authority on the subject to check etc) increased at all?

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 27/7/07 8:18AM
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Well you have to hand it to JC, despite spending every waking hour making thousands of posts to csa.* and other groups on entirely off topic issues and arguments about semantics and grammar, he has still managed to find time to get out 15 issues in three and a half years.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 27/7/07 9:22AM
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Had a quick read of the latest issue at the Christchurch (NZ) city library and I was pleasantly surprised. Some of the articles were interesting and they covered a good range of topics.

One thing that I did find a little disappointing is some of the advertising. The layout and colour selections in some advertising looks pretty bad. I found one ad that didn't include any detail on how to contact the advertiser...a small oversite but an important on! Perhaps Qercus could run a series on producing attractive and effective advertisements :-)

Nice to see the issues appearing more frequently.

 is a RISC OS Userstevek on 27/7/07 11:30AM
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In reply to stevek:

Yes, I'm glad you made the point that the issues are appearing more frequently - "an average of one magazine every three months" implies that all is not well, but in reality things have improved a lot over the last year. If my subscription had come up for renewal a year ago I would have let it lapse. If it comes up next month I will renew.

 is a RISC OS Usercables on 27/7/07 12:10PM
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druck: I actually am unable to tell if you are being sarcastic or not. I'm guessing yes?

Martin Hansen: I'm not sure if the Interactive Fiction scene could really be said to be "thriving", and even if so, it's certainly not the pre-teenagers who are involved in it the most.

See the newsgroups: rec.arts.int-fiction and rec.games.int-fiction.

 is a RISC OS Userrichcheng on 27/7/07 2:51PM
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Also, I've found the most recent two issues of Qercus to be noticably better than the previous ones of my current subscription, in terms of containing interesting content that is also not stuff I've already read (about, or in the case of those articles published in frustration by Drobe, literally) online.

Possibly this is just down to the articles being about things I personally am more interested in, though.

 is a RISC OS Userrichcheng on 27/7/07 3:04PM
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In reply to richeng: Yes Druck was attempting to be sarcastic. They do say its the lowest form of wit :)

 is a RISC OS UserCol1 on 27/7/07 3:08PM
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Martin has just received his 7th issue of Qercus since last October.We are now producing 9 issues a year with an approximate 6 week gap between issues. That gap will vary to ensure the magazines are out at the best time to ensure publicity for RISC OS Shows. The special 25th anniversary issue is out next followed by the South East Show special giving the promised 9 issues within 12 months.

An annual subscription costs £44.55 and it was a special offer, available for new and repeat subscribers this month, that Martin took. Perhaps I should have persuaded him to add a binder to his order to keep his magazines tidy!

Advertising? We are limited to what advertisers want. In general we have limited advice to that necessary to have it printed as required - eg to ensure that the A9/CJE advert has its footprint rectangles printed the correct size, and to stop text disappearing off the edge of the page. If anyone wants to write a series on producing good adverts then we would be very interested in publishing such - or we can add the publisher's advice to a series on graphics suitable for advertising copy.

Advertising? RISC OS people are their own worst enemies. We give free advertising space for those offering free RISC OS software/services and a free mailing for user groups - and so far no one has taken us up on those offers. We have offered a free directory listing (name, address details, logo, short description) to anyone supporting RISC OS in any way (commercially or not) and the take-up is poor. We all suffer from the same problem that afflicted Acorn! ;-(

We (plural because Qercus relies on a wide range of contributors - even though the editing, marketing, art editing, subscriptions, advertising sales, bottle washing, &c is just me) produce a magazine that still costs less than Acorn Publisher did 7 years ago and Qercus now has more pages and all of them in colour. But we do have an apology to make: renewal dates do come around more frequently than they did 2 years ago. ;-)

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 27/7/07 3:12PM
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Ok so now the preview button adds comments!

What I was going to add was that:

yes there have been problems in the past with getting issues out, but these problems are behind us and Qercus has been reguraly produced for some time now.

In reply to richcheng:

Glad you enjoyed the last two issues. Getting the balance right is not an easy task - you can't please all of the people all of the time!

Remember anyone can offer, constructive, feedback via the Electronic Quill column!

 is a RISC OS UserCol1 on 27/7/07 3:16PM
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Two bits I missed: Programming - Similar to what happens far too frequently, we did get a promise of a series on PHP from someone who almost immediately found himself on a too-many-hours per day contract. That series may yet surface! In the meantime we are open to suggestions (and offers to author) something to follow the Lua series.

Bias - Castle/Iyonix haven't released a machine since before we started Qercus so we haven't featured them in that light. A recent review of the A9 gave space to the Iyonix as a comparator and the comparisons that we made were fair. Most recent releases have been from ROL and Martin Wuerthner and both have cleverly given newsworthy items on a regular basis. Other developers could copy! We have produced two articles in our Interview series designed to get to the heart of someone working on RISC OS. The style is searching but positive. The two subjects so far have been Andrew Hodgkinson and Stephen Revill - both now working with ROOL. I hope no-one thinks me biased towards Castle/ROOL because of that! ;-)

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 27/7/07 5:09PM
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Have Castle provided you with adverts? If not, it's hard to see why they are not advertising their product better.

Do they have something in the wings? Have they started work themselves or contracted ROOL to modify the OS to work on new hardware? If not, why not?

Should I buy an Iyonix now because if a new machine comes out within 3 years then it's almost certain I wouldn't buy it.

Is there any news from Castle at all?

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 27/7/07 7:03PM
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Thank you to Qercus (jc) for the chance to renew my subscription and have a good look at what I would be missing if I didn't.

I did things rather differently to Martin Hanson in that I only looked at issue 283. My reasoning being that if someone is sending out a free magazine to tempt me to renew it should be the "best" of the current bunch. My original subsciption was to Acorn Publisher not to Acorn User as I was, and still am, interested in DTP and computer graphics. Issue 283 was very much lacking in the DTP and graphics side of things and to be honest did not do a lot for me. So in fact this issue confirmed to me that my decision not to renew my subcription was the correct one. Sorry John.

Bias - It is not often that I agree with JC (I have kill-filled in the news groups) but in this case you cannot claim a bias between Castle and ROL when one side has produced nothing new, not that other one has done that much! :-)

 is a RISC OS UserMart on 27/7/07 7:17PM
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In reply to your questions: I'll leave it to John to answer that; If I knew, it'd be on drobe; John Ballance may still be working on the OS but the main development route now (it appears) is via third party programmers and the source released through ROOL; See the recent drobe article about ROOL on why ROOL staff are doing admin instead of programming; I have no idea; Not that I'm aware of.

 is a RISC OS Userdiomus on 27/7/07 7:19PM
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Interesting article. I've followed the debates and complaints surrounding Qercus in the newsgroups, and have been very put off (in fact, put off the entire RISC OS scene) by the childish, pedantic and cynical moaning that goes on there. The feeling you get from the grumblings, constant one-up-manship and point scoring in c.s.a.m is that these people are not focused on bettering RISC OS and for those of them involved commercially, presenting a professional face. This lack of professionalism does not make one expect them capable of producing a quality product, and thus does not make one inclined to open their wallet. It's a pleasant suprise to read such a glowing review but I must plead with certain posters to the newsgroup (and i'm talking generally here), there are probably a lot of people (like me) who read the postings but don't post, that are half-involved with RISC OS but don't routinely spend as much as we could. Make it easier for us.

 is a RISC OS UserGinger2 on 27/7/07 8:20PM
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Mart: You received issue 283 because that's the latest issue. It is light on DTP and graphics but that is exceptional - and the next issue should certainly make up for part of that! In the previous six issues there were at least 20 articles on that subject area. We certainly won't be abandoning DTP and graphics - quite the opposite. We gave sample copies of issue 278 to visitors to Wakefield - you would probably have enjoyed that - and that would be included in the offer you were sent.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 27/7/07 8:57PM
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I find it pretty disappointing that people don't take up the free advertising offers. It doesn't surprise me that MW Software do well. Martin is a good communicator providing a great change long on the MW Software website, attending shows and advertising and taking the time to send news worthy material to magazines. Perhaps some others could few tips from Martin on how to make a living out of RISC OS (or atleast some spare change)

I'm sure out in the RISC OS community we have a few good designers who could advise on how to improve advertising layouts etc. I'm not, but for starters...kiddy fonts don't make people think you are professional, think about the colours you use, include your contact details and say something to encourage people to hand over cold hard cash to you (after all you worked hard to develop the product in the first place and deserve a reward). People won't buy something if they don't know it exisits!

Short list of people who could be interviewed for Qercus if is hasn't happened already - Martin (MW Software), Chris (Drobe - I'm sure he is an interesting guy), Andrew (Rcomp), Peter Naulls (what makes this guy tick) and last but certainly not least Druck.

 is a RISC OS Userstevek on 28/7/07 1:14AM
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Maybe the magazine should never have been a monthly and would have been better off and on time if it was said to be a quarterly ;-)


 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 28/7/07 8:23AM
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Sawadee: Acorn Publisher was 6 issues a year and Acorn User was 13. There were good reasons to try to follow the Acorn User pattern - not least an attempt to ensure that those that had subscribed to Acorn Publisher got the type of magazine they expected. The solution was too complex and far too taxing. The present 9 issues a year is about right and is something I can manage and it gives sufficient flexibility to fit into the RISC OS calendar. Any less wouldn't work as well - any more requires additional staff that we cannot afford.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 28/7/07 1:17PM
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In reply to jc:

"Advertising? RISC OS people are their own worst enemies...." Well the interesting thing is that this is the first time I get to know this offer altogeter. You seem to be your own enemy thus ... I assume you offered that inside Qercus only.

"...still costs less than Acorn Publisher did 7 years ago and Qercus now has more pages and all of them in colour". Unfortunately it is still pretty expensive on the Continent and as for colour: Nice but usually I'm for content and if it is in b/w and thus at a lower price fine with me.

"Bias - Castle/Iyonix haven't released a machine since before we started Qercus so we haven't featured them in that light." Did you ever write about Impression Publisher BTW? Simply put I consider this statement rediculous and I'm not quite sure if you're wrong since CTL did release the odd different IYONIX pc variant in the past and they did release the odd RISC OS 5 version so that you'd have had reason to do a review.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 28/7/07 3:54PM
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hzn: Advertising - announced on csa.announce, on the news groups, and mentioned - I'm sure - on that little read web area known as drobe! ;-) Costs - I could reduce the price - to less than it costs to produce? For a magazine like Qercus colour is necessary - just look at Acorn User when they reduced their colour pages to adverts only to see what I mean. It is expensive in Europe but the difference is in the postage costs. We did try to find a cheaper alternative but those deliveries were subject to very late arrival and frequent loss. The best way of reducing costs would be for everyone to get someone else to also subscribe to Qercus: printing costs for double the print run would be very little more - but that's the price of a niche market. Bias - are you saying that the Iyonix / RO5 variants were as substantial newswise for non-Iyonix users as the release of the first PRMs since RO3 or the release of RO6 - noting that Iyonix users had already been informed of the upgrades? When ROOL made the announcements about the shared access release we gave them an in-depth welcome.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 28/7/07 4:36PM
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jc wrote>"are you saying that the Iyonix / RO5 variants were as substantial newswise for non-Iyonix users as the release of the first PRMs since RO3 or the release of RO6"

And are you saying for Iyonix users that the release of RO6 is significant ?

This is silly "quasi-logic" John. Any release of *anything* RISC OS is significant to *somene* who is a RISC OS user. I'd remind you for years you said you wouldn't review the "Omega" until it was complete (and then on a different tact started a symantic argument with me about the meaning of complete with respect to A9 on the newsgroups and then proceeding to recommend to people to consider it [A9]).

RO6, from a Iyonix user's perspective is (largely) irrelevant. Would I like to see you mention it in Quercus - yes!

RO5 (a 32bit version of RISC OS that better supports modern hardware than RO6) doesn't get a mention - as it is (in your opinion) not significant. Yet by the same consistent logic it *should*.

If I were to judge your impartiality based on your contributions on newsgroups I'd be of the opinion that you're not. I would have considered subscribing to Quercus had it not been from some of your comments there. Perhaps the commentary in Quercus is more balanced - but I don't see why I should put any money down and take the chance and I am sure others thing likewise.

 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 29/7/07 10:57AM
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In reply to jc:

Thanks for your clarifications - they do show me that it is a good idea to not subscribe to Qercus!

jc wrote "... were as substantial newswise for non-Iyonix users as the ...". No, I am not sayig that and didn't write that either! But that really is BIAS but by you! I did not make a difference between non-IYONIX users and IYONIX users but you seem to do so. But anyhow for the non-IYONIX users a review might have helped to decide to buy one or not.

jc even wrote: "...noting that Iyonix users had already been informed of the upgrades..." Well this is a very strange way to think for a magazine editor - noting that quite a few companies inform their users of upgrades, announce them on c.s.a.announce, get covered on drobe then I think there is not much left for Qercus to cover :-)

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 29/7/07 12:12PM
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hzn> Indeed if one accepted that John's comment that "...noting that Iyonix users had already been informed of the upgrades...", surely that would also apply to Select updates (isn't there a user forum similar to smartgroups for them). In which case to be utterly consistent John would publish *nothing* about either RO5.xx upgrades *NOR* anything about Select either.

I did very recently have an oppertunity to have a *very brief* look at Quercus (a friend of mine is a subscriber) and I must admit it did look good (can't comment on the content as again I only had a brief look). But again I am faced with jc's commentary on newsgroups and it somewhat puts a damper on my subscribing as I am sure it does for others too.

 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 29/7/07 1:42PM
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AMS: Both hzn and yourself seem to have misread what I said in the same way - so presumably my fault. The release of the Iyonix was covered by us in a four page reveiw by Mike Cook in Acorn User 255. Had I been editing AU at the time we would have made as much (if not more) as Tau Press did. What I've said here is that recent changes in RO5 don't warrant the same space as the release of the first PRMs since RO3. If Martin Wuerthner reports a minor bugfix it probably won't be reported - except as part of a bigger change in ArtWorks. That applies generally. It isn't bias.

If you think that there was a RO5 upgrade that we missed reporting and that was significant to potential purchasers of an Iyonix then let us know. Everyone has access through the Electronic Quill column or the second editorial spot. If you think developers aren't pushing their wares properly then you might suggest that they issue press releases!

As the release of the shared source of RO5 was greeted with a headline news piece and a two-page interview I'm at a loss to understand what AMS and hzn are expecting!

If AMS (or anyone else) wants to check out what Qercus provides then please ask for a sample copy - we are quite happy to provide one free of charge, giving plenty of time to read the copy, and with no commitment.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 29/7/07 6:00PM
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Thanks John for that generous offer it is much appreciated. Rather than put you to any trouble I might be able to "purloin" a copy from my friend for a longer "test drive" as it were. A surface skim showed it to look well produced - a more detailed review might show if the content is up to the same high standard.

I wouldn't call the availability of USB 2 support, or the charge for the upgrade to 5.12 as being unnewsworthy though. It's also the not inconsiderable matter of perception. Drip-drips of upgrades reported give the impression that something is being done - if nothing is reported then potential buyers of Iyonix may believe nothing is happening and that it is somehow less supported than other RISC OS platforms and that would IMHO be unfair.

 is a RISC OS UserAMS on 30/7/07 3:00AM
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In reply to jc: Thanks for the clarification. And I do agree with AMS in that even small newbies should be mentioned in a magazine (and be it on 1-2 pages with very short notifications, even if just one line) just to show the reader what is happening. And since USB2 for IYONIX was not just a small update i assume it was covered in Qercus...

As for your offer for a sample copy: due to lack of any subscriber near by I'd appreciate that. Please be so kind to pick up my smail address at [link] (it's a graphic to make it less easier for robots to read).

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 30/7/07 11:07AM
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hzn: Your sample copy of Qercus should be with you now or soon. The offer of a sample copy is open to anyone, though I'd ask you to note that no single issue will include the full range of articles that Qercus publishes. For ex-Acorn Publisher readers like Martin Wynn we tried to alternate AP-style issues with general topics issues and offer a subscription for just the graphics special issues. It was simply too complex and in trying to entirely satisfy a small group of subscribers we ended up confusing them all. An annual subscription to Qercus will still provide more graphics/DTP articles than an annual subscription to Acorn Publisher did - even though individual issues will be light in that respect.

 is a RISC OS Userjc on 3/8/07 12:22PM
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In reply to jc: Thanks and your comment "no single issue will include the full range of articles that Qercus publishes" will certainly be taken into account.

 is a RISC OS Userhzn on 3/8/07 4:15PM
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