Maudlin over RISC OSBy Martin Hansen. Published: 3rd Jan 2008, 21:11:38 | Permalink | Printable
Martin Hansen brings one of his old apps up-to-date while reflecting on the past 27 years of using Acorn and RISC OS kitOpinion - New Year is traditionally a time in which the achievements, surprises and disappointments of the previous year are reflected upon. Often, in spite of the fireworks and wild parties, time is set aside in which to dwell upon one's private thoughts. As 2008 is now underway I've found myself mulling over my involvement with RISC OS. Whether I like it or not, my involvement in the Acorn and RISC OS scene has been a significant part of my life over the past 27 years.
I've spent several moments during 2007 tinkering with an old desktop application, WordChain, which I wrote during the Christmas season in 1989. This was published, in October 1990, in the long defunct Micro User magazine. I've since spent the first few days of 2008 finishing my software upgrade, uploading it to my website as a free download, and penning a related article. This is the result: a collection of the thoughts that have been in my head as I've reworked an 18 year old program.
How it all began
My first point of contact with what, in retrospect, became RISC OS, occurred in 1981. I was in my final year at university. A mate turned up with one of the very first BBC microcomputers. I didn't understand the point of the machine, nor why my friend had spent almost £400. However, it made an impact. TV in those days fed you information. To be able to place your own material and ideas on a television screen was mind-blowing.
Originally thought to be worthy of a production run of 12,000 units, well over a million of the 8-bit BBC micros were manufactured before being discontinued in 1986. By then I was hooked. I had ended up in one of the 60 percent of schools that opted to invest in the BBC micro. With first one, and later several, sitting in my classroom, my curiosity got the better of me. I drifted into writing software, motivated by wanting to create for myself the (then new) fractals associated with the geometry of the mandelbrot set.
The launch of RISC OS 2 for the Archimedes range in 1989 coincided with, for me, my financial compensation from being a passenger in a car crash. This seemed like a great opportunity to be a part of the most exciting thing around and I paid around £1,400 for an Archimedes A410/1. With built in floppy drive, hard drive and one whole megabyte of RAM, this was my dream machine. I was determined to get to grips with programming the desktop, and so spent a further £75 on a set of Acorn's Programmer's Reference Manuals.
Writing my own software
The target I set myself was to have a piece of software published in one of the many RISC OS magazines that were, at that time, widely available in newsagents such as WH Smith. WordChain was written over a two week period during which I programmed for 12 hours a day. It was total immersion and, even if I do say so myself, a great piece of early RISC OS 2 software was the result. The idea was to have a program that allowed its user to design and print Lewis Carroll's famous doublets word puzzles for others to solve.
The screenshot, left, shows the original program working perfectly on a modern day RISC OS machine, an Iyonix, and being used not to design but to solve a doublet. Connecting the start word 'head' to the finish word 'tail' is a sequence of four linking words, each differing by one letter from the word before: head - heal - teal - tell - tall - tail. A proper doublet puzzle, such as this one, has start and finish words that have an association of some kind. Turning 'love' into 'hate' or 'ape' into 'man' are two other classic doublet puzzles.
A surprising number of puzzles on the Internet and in magazines have lost this aspect of the doublet. Such blunders makes one despair at the overall level of intelligence of the human race. WordChain was remarkable because of the natural way it dynamically used the built-in RISC OS menuing system to effortlessly present all possible words that might come next in the chain.
I still have a copy of the edition of the Micro User in which my program was published as a two page feature. The New Year has seen me flicking through its pages. In August 1990, programming was still a big part of what mainstream computing was all about: books, manuals, and languages such as LOGO, C and FORTRAN are promoted heavily within.
There is a five page program listing for enthusiastic readers to type in. I marvel that I used to have the patience to type in such things. As a pastime, entering program listings by hand was well past its peak in popularity, even in 1990. In fact, my WordChain application was used to help sell the separately available monthly disc rather than being presented as a listing.
Amongst the 132 pages, advertisements for ancient looking dot matrix printers at £636 plus VAT are particularly amusing. Watford Electronics (remember them ?) have a 14-page advertisement featuring a bewildering variety of paraphernalia to upgrade, enhance or otherwise enliven the early 1990s computing experience. I'm confident that all that is advertised will have long since been placed into skips.
From programming to using
The move towards presenting a computer as a machine on which to run programs, rather than a thing to be programmed, is surprisingly advanced given that the Archimedes had so recently been launched and that its predecessor, the BBC micro, just didn't have the speed or memory to allow sensible applications to be run. The WordWise wordprocessor was a comendable pre-desktop attempt, admittedly.
Looking at the magazine, it would appear the Acorn world is holding its own. Adverts and features present a lively and fast changing environment into which new software and hardware is being enthusiastically channelled. Desktop publishing (Ovation for £99), word processing (PenDown for £39), graph drawing (Graphbox for £80) and a video digitizer for around £300 all feature prominently. This particular issue of Micro User is targetted at those wishing to use their machine to make music. If games are your thing, there are plenty available on both tape cassette or floppy disc.
Ah yes, in 1990, Acorn Computers Ltd, manufacturer of the fastest microcomputer in the world, were poised to take over the world. A steady flow of innovative and aggressive hardware developments from the company over the next six years and culminating in the StrongARM upgrade for the RiscPC really should have kept the RISC OS flag flying high. But in 1998, Acorn was unceremoniously broken up. Can any New Year's Eve pass without RISC OS enthusiasts glumly reflecting upon what could have been, should have been, but, tragically, never was? We are probably doomed to forever more ask ourselves: "What went wrong?"
"Acorn messed it up"
I guess that all of us who have lived through the Acorn years have our lists from which we can build an "Acorn messed it up" rant. What can I concoct, as I pour myself a drink, and type (ever more maudlin) into my Iyonix's keyboard? And why don't we have speech recognition? It's 2008, for goodness sake.
Small things randomly pop into my head as I stare into my half empty beer glass: games were not converted fast enough or cutting edge enough to make full use of the breathtakingly fast new Archimedes machines - other than, possibly, Zarch. Ah yes, that was ahead of its time in 1990.
I can recall Acorn-loving teachers being irritated and inconvenienced by Acorn's failure to have a system in place to quickly release urgently needed new printer drivers as home printing left dot-matrix behind for the emerging laser and bubble/ink jet technologies. Product specific kit meant a replacement keyboard for my A5000 in 1997 cost an immovable £120 when, in the local shops, similar for a PC was plunging towards £10. I've never minded paying a little more for RISC OS but that hurt.
Recalling bigger problems from those years makes me both angry and sad. Overall, as a RISC OS user, I remember being forced to be increasingly defensive about persisting with a machine that seemed less and less mainstream. Acorn continuously didn't help itself. Always, they were one step behind. CD-ROMs were increasingly non-Acorn compatible, a colour laptop was developed but not deployed, the Internet became another arena in which Acorn machines struggled to keep up, and multimedia support seemed to be a non-starter if you were using RISC OS. Many promising developments just didn't go the full distance. Browse, Replay, and Cineroma are but three potentially platform saving applications whose development was underfunded and allowed to stagnate before they had fully flowered.
The biggest problem of all was that Acorn just didn't have the knack of keeping people believing in them, be they the BBC, the Government, teachers in schools, musicians, digital artists, graphic designers, engineers, games players, or home movie-makers. In education, I can remember the idea taking hold that pupils using RISC OS were being trained to use a quirky system that was trapped and isolated within the educational world. Outside in "the real world" children raised on RISC OS would need retraining in the Microsoft way. The Labour Government began funding Microsoft-compatible kit to the exclusion of all else (and regardless of what taxpayers felt). Shame on them for not only failing to back British, but being actively obstructive.
Despite all of this, I am still a committed RISC OS user. I use Windows when I have to, like the look of the latest Apple machines, but continue most of all to take pleasure from small advances in the RISC OS world. Personally, it's been the continuing development of WebWonder, TechWriter and a convoluted method of producing LaTeX under RISC OS that have most inspired me during 2007. I'm still willing to spend spare time updating an 18-year-old program to relaunch it as a modern release, albeit for free. At £40 an hour, the update is worth £3,200 - a figure that makes me laugh at the the £25 I was paid, even when Acorn was in its prime, for the original WordChain application. Yes, RISC OS can still make me laugh.
A modern look
In some ways, it is the slowness with which RISC OS has moved forward that prompted me to update my WordChain application. The original, written under RISC OS 2, was concocted before a consistent and established way of making RISC OS desktop applications look and feel had been agreed upon.
So, firstly, I wanted my updated application to have proper Style Guide-compliance. Even some of the bundled applications within the operating system have not properly converged upon this. Secondly, in 1990, I had opted to print each puzzle directly to a printer. Clearly, these days, it's better to simply save each as a drawfile. Whilst the drawfile can simply be printed out, it can also be imported into other applications such as TextEase, TechWriter or Ovation. I also took the opportunity to increase the maximum length of words that the program can handle from five letters to six, use outline fonts, and fix a couple of bugs.
For anyone similarly thinking of updating old applications, I recommend the excellent book by Lee Calcraft and Alan Wrigley called Wimp Programming for All. In spite of being published in 1993, it told me pretty much everything I needed to know to get the job done. My program is entirely in BBC BASIC, and contains a lot of code that's instructive. If you are after straight forward ways of doing WIMP programming without using other authoring packages, such as Dr Wimp, the code is worth looking through.
I'm not expecting my program to make one iota of difference to how RISC OS fares over the coming year, but I do think that an essential ingredient that makes being involved with RISC OS worthwhile is the steady trickle of up-to-date, quirky, interesting and amusing free software offerings. I hope Drobe readers enjoy playing around with my program and can come up with a few innovative doublets of their own using it.
And if any readers are inspired to modernise any of the many small programs that have made RISC OS so interesting and lively in years gone by, do tell us here at Drobe about it. Here's to RISC OS in 2008.
Visit Martin's personal website
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