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A call to ARMs

By Andrew Weston. Published: 28th Jan 2008, 22:37:43 | Permalink | Printable

Andrew Weston wonders how many brave developers RISC OS has left

Opinion - One of the first novelties of owning a new computer is the speed increase over your previous model and so is the case with this writer's new Aria Cube Iyonix. So far I'm nicely impressed by this computer, including its speed. In fact, one of the reasons that finally convinced me that the RiscPC had given it's full service was that, even with the accumulated upgrades and patching over the years with room for yet more, the performance of the computer was proving frustrating.

It's worth asking what lies behind this frustration. In a PC and Mac dominated world many, if not most, RISC OS users will regularly use faster machines doing routine things with less drag and seeing a more impressive side of computing with multimedia internet capabilities, games and so on.

Leaving aside the subjective matter of ever-rising expectations, the world doesn't stand still and many of these developments are not only useful and productive but becoming more and more an essential part of life.

So when no more performance increases can be seemingly eked out of your web browser of choice on a RiscPC then it's probably worth your while replacing the system. I see in the Iyonix a computer whose noise footprint relative to a RiscPC alone makes it a delight to own and use. There's also the speed increase, especially in NetSurf and Messenger Pro, and the reassuring greater abundance of memory, storage space and modern expandability.

On top of that, the advent of RISC OS Open means the operating system, RISC OS 5, now has a fighting chance to exploit new hardware and to be improved in itself. Thus there's a substantial argument for investing in this way in the future of this independent and distinctive UK-based computer platform. From a personal angle, I can look forward to updating or purchasing as required from the range of capable (and some would say unbeatable in terms of productivity) software, much of which is undergoing active development. This might include EasiWriter, Artworks, Photodesk, Ovation Pro as well as less creative but highly-functional software.

It is probably impossible to over-state the gratitude that RISC OS computer owners have for a piece of software like NetSurf.

However, unlike some users, I'm far from convinced of the wisdom of channeling all our resources into this application at the expense of wider innovation, experimentation and competition.

This is definitely not the kind of risk-taking and adventurous precedent setting that allowed RISC OS and its inextricable historical forefather, Acorn, to achieve spectacular things in the past from epochal games to operating system assets that were for years, arguably eons ahead of other competitors.

Firefox logoA few years ago a RISC OS software author by the name of Peter Naulls showed this kind of verve and man-sized insight in establishing the Unix Porting Project, which paved the way for a conversion of the Firefox web browser.

According to the RISC OS Firefox website, Peter received £1,000 of the £4,000 he wanted for ongoing development. Looking at the impressive spectacle of this globally popular and important piece of software on a platform whose scale is microscopic compared to those who mainly use the browser, it makes me wonder if this is what Peter can achieve on a quarter tank of petrol, what can he do on three-quarters, let alone, full?

And therein is the argument for competition: Firefox raised the bar enormously for RISC OS web browsing which NetSurf would do exceptionally well to surpass in two years, at best. So is this going to be the high-water mark for browsers while NetSurf, for all its value, has an effective monopoly on progress. For a start, RISC OS Open released the Phoenix browser which could constitute a superb test-bed for new developments - risky or not.

The abandonment of Oregano 3 would have been a head-in-hands moment for a community of users not already accustomed to such disappointments. The biggest disgrace of this story however might yet be the failure of the same community to adapt like the Oregano developers did, presumably to survive and find a way to make money. Our user and commercial base, much of which has been around since the early BBC Micro-era, doesn't have a lot to say for itself in the here and now if it has lost the will to survive. Part of that instinct that has looked under threat of late is to take the same kind of initiative that Peter Naulls did, or say, Adrian Lees had in trying to bring DVD movies to bona-fide RISC OS platforms. Back in the old days, this have-a-go-hero mentality was called innovation.

If RISC OS developers have become happy to passively accept the hand-me-downs of the creative fruits of more, as it were, hardy, vigorous breeds of developers and resign RISC OS to a novelty side show on a mass-produced piece of generic kit, then one could wryly think we've sure come a long way.

I hope that possibly somewhere out there, there are still a few in the enthusiast and, of course, in the developer corners who prefer not to die on their knees, who can look back in old age and in the finest spirit of Acorn and say that one of their life-achievements was doing what people said could never be done.


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I know there are many people out there inthe RISC OS world who would develop if they had the time and expertise, I am one of these people. Im currently doing a degree in computing and learning how to program in Java(dont ask me why, personaly I think it is silly), This will give me a start on picking up more relevent languages such as C and C++, as well as this we are learning Assembly Language.

To bring new developers to the comunity we need to exploit what we currently have and advertise RISC OS to computing students that have an open mind, and see beyond the popular Linux, Windows and OS X, these sort of people i am talking about are those who would go on to produce inotive products just like Acorn did all those years ago.

How, you wonder? VRPC is a good starting point as most of these people will already have OS X, or Windows based machines. And will be the fastest most "modern" Cheapest way of running our beloved OS. Once we start getting more and more applications and advances we can then at the same time improve on the over all look of the operating system(I beleive that is already being done with Chris Wraight). Somewhere in during that time RISC OS may have been fully released under the Castle SSI and compiled on cheap hardware or even a new comercial project like and Iyonix 2.


P.S. Why is the comment box so small in Netsurf?

 is a RISC OS UserMikeCarter on 29/1/08 1:30AM
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Welcome to the top table of RISC OS performance, but where have you been for the last 5 years?

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 29/1/08 8:47AM
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I found this article a little hard to follow. I think the author is making the general point that we need more active developers (agreed) and the more specific one that we should resurrect browser projects like Phoenix and Oregano (not agreed).

Put simply, NetSurf is working and is producing results - let's get behind that. There are many other areas that RISC OS programmers could get involved in: ROOL work (especially the essential filesystem project, the PostScript printer driver work, or a new CDFS), a media or Flash player (there is already a Gnash port needing finishing off), or development of core apps like PhotoDesk. What we don't need is a browser war.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 29/1/08 10:14AM
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"It is probably impossible to over-state the gratitude that RISC OS computer owners have for a piece of software like NetSurf. However, unlike some users, I'm far from convinced of the wisdom of channeling all our resources into this application at the expense of wider innovation, experimentation and competition."

What nonsense. If you think that all of RISC OS's resources are being spent on NetSurf, then your platform of choice is even more doomed. You can count on the fingers of one hand regular RISC OS contributors to NetSurf. And Peter Naulls isn't one of them. Firefox is completely unsuitable for many of the machines people run NetSurf on, so unless people get their fingers out and buy A9s or Iyonixes, Firefox is a no go: and it's still painfully slow even on an Iyonix. I think NetSurf's much more usable than Firefox on RISC OS: even including the sites it cannot access. And we havn't asked for a penny off users: certainly not said "I've got this, you can have it if you give me a grand."

Other than that, I'm not entirely sure what this piece is meant to say: it has a few (mostly faulty) opinions thrown in, some vague history lesson, and no conclusions. Of one must go by the sub headline "Andrew Weston wonders how many brave developers RISC OS has left" then the answers are: There's more money elsewhere, the development tools are better elsewhere, the hardware and software is cheaper and commonly better elsewhere, they've grown up out of what these days is essentially a hobbyist system.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 29/1/08 10:44AM
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MikeCarter: Thing is, how are you going to attract students and hobbyists when RISC OS is so expensive to get into? Virtual RiscPC on its own is more expensive than either the Windows or Mac OS X you need to run it on. The only way you're going to attract people to play with it is to make it either /much/ cheaper to run, or free to run - and I doubt ROL, CTL or VA would be interested in losing what little revenue they get.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 29/1/08 1:09PM
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"Other than that, I'm not entirely sure what this piece is meant to say"

I got as far as "By Andrew Weston", and decided to skip down to the comments. I reckoned I was likely to get more sense out of them than the article.

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 29/1/08 1:47PM
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VRPC is expensive, but not prohibitively so. If it was able to run a future shared-source version of RISC OS, then the price might fall further.

In fact, though it may be unpopular with some, this is my preference for RISC OS's future: a company (perhaps ROL, perhaps Castle, perhaps VirtualAcorn) earning their money by providing a commercial emulation layer for fast modern hardware. The OS itself being developed on a shared or open-source basis, hopefully in consultation with the emulator people. And application development as it is.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 29/1/08 2:01PM
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lym: I can only speak from personal experience, but it's certainly prohibitively expensive for me. Speaking to Aaron at the Christmas Show, he said they were unable to sell VRPC without a RISC OS licence, one assumes from ROL (although he refused to suggest why or confirm the ROL hypothesis) - so unless that changes, using the shared-source RISC OS with it's going to be just as expensive.

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 29/1/08 2:08PM
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Of course it's quite subjective: I agree that spending £100+ to effectively turn a PC into a RISC OS box is a lot of money. But, given the amount of time I use it, and the enjoyment I still get from things like ArtWorks, it compares well to new ARM hardware (well, relatively new).

Interesting comments from Aaron. He's obviously much more up on the licensing issue, and the economics, of VirtualAcorn than I am. But if ROOL ever do get a full OS version out as shared-source, I hope that VA at least consider the option of using it. It may not be possible for legal reasons, but it's surely an avenue worth exploring.

If they fail to take it, then perhaps RPCEmu + legally downloadable ROOL RO5 could be explored? Now that *would* get the costs down, if it could be done.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 29/1/08 2:36PM
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IMHO VRPC is prohibitively expensive for me.

I want to use the same system on my home machine, my laptop and my work machine. This requires 3 licenses. That was the reason I said goodbye to RiscOS.

PS if anyone in glasgow want a bundle of software you can have it for free.

cheers bob

 is a RISC OS Usernijinsky on 29/1/08 2:54PM
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Druck - working and saving for an Iyonix.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 29/1/08 7:36PM
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AW: I know Iyonixes are expensive, but does it really take five years to save up for one?

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 29/1/08 8:14PM
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If you put £4 a week away, even you could aford one in 5 years Rob.

 is a RISC OS Userdruck on 29/1/08 8:49PM
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druck: Would I still be able to buy one in 5 years' time? :)

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 29/1/08 10:11PM
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It's a lot of money to spend for something which doesn't have any up to date software. Chicken and the egg here (rjek) unless you firnmly believe that increased sales of hardware will stimulate the production of up to date software. Personally I don't see that happening. If you do then it's not a fact nor a certainity, just a belief (or hope?). Also, in the outside world things are changing, much much cheaper laptops, and the adoption by some companies of Linux as the distributed OS. You even have the potential of hundreds of millions of EEPC's running Linux. Big bad M$ may at last be getting nervous.

Time is rapidly running out for RiscOS and everybody in RiscOS world is still talking about the potential of updated software, the need to buy hardware etc etc. This conversation has been going on for several years during which time we've had an A9 and Firefox with no multimedia plug-ins. Not encouraging. Everything else has been a tweak or a fix to existing functionality but the fundamental shortcomings have still not been addressed.

 is a RISC OS Usermripley on 30/1/08 8:37AM
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mripley: I must come clean. I have no intention of ever spending more than, say, 50 quid, on an Iyonix. And I most likely wouldn't run RISC OS on it. (Other than to act as a boot loader)

 is a RISC OS Userrjek on 30/1/08 11:00AM
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If I thought that producing commercial software would get me more sales and be easier to write on RISC OS than on another platform I'd write commercial software for RISC OS. Unfortunately reality doesn't seem bear that out.

Many of RISC OS's most talented developers, producers, software houses and even some the dealers branched out into other platforms, not because they disliked RISC OS, but because of the opportunity those other platforms provided them.

I think the days of seeing large commercial applications, something the size of Ovation or Artworks, being written from scratch for RISC OS is far far behind us.

If you won the lottery tomorrow, would you plow all of it into developing RISC OS, or would you realise that the chances of seeing that money again would be incredibly slim?

What's left? porting application from other platforms, updates to existing software, small commercial software and utilities, and continuing to rely on the generous time donated by open source and freeware developers.

 is a RISC OS Userflibble on 30/1/08 2:24PM
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I think you're basically right, but I don't think things are necessarily completely shot for RISC OS. Although we may never get another ArtWorks written from scratch, that's partly because in some areas key RISC OS software is mature and does a good job. And there are still applications being written which provide useful functionality: think of Parmesan in the last few months.

Don't get me wrong, RISC OS has a lot of challenges and may not be able to meet them. But there is work being done or planned on the OS's major deficiencies. If the ROOL team can get the full OS into shared-source, and then ported on to modern, portable hardware, who knows? We may just be able to maintain a viable, hobbyist platform and re-kindle some enthusiasm for new application development.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 30/1/08 2:41PM
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Lym -

I don't know if you genuinely found the article hard to follow but I thought the title was clear enough. The article is essentially about having RISC OS hardware and the creativity and innovativeness that this stimulates to this day as it always has done in the Acorn world.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 30/1/08 7:15PM
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I agreed with much of the article, and certainly the general thrust, which is that we need more developers and a bit more initiative (if I've understood you right). Where I found the reasoning a little difficult was where you talked about competition, and specifically mentioned the browser situation. It seemed to me that you were advocating resuming work on Oregano and Phoenix, as well as Firefox and NetSurf. This would seem to me a strange duplication of scarce resources. If NetSurf (and possibly Firefox) are getting developed, then why not be happy with that? If developers want to do something for the platform, then they could profitably work on the ROOL sources, or help with a major application such as PhotoDesk or a port such as Gnash.

Although competition is doubtless a good thing in healthy markets, I think RISC OS is in such a dire state that it is more likely to benefit from greater cooperation between developers. After all, where has 'competition' between Castle and ROL got us?

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 30/1/08 7:51PM
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The point was I don't see it as duplication any more than Peter Naulls might have seen Firefox as duplication. Hedging all bets and compressing all things in to a small, convenient package is crazy to my mind and over-cautious. I think we should know much better than that as long time Acorn/RISC OS users.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 30/1/08 8:06PM
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Well, we'll agree to disagree, then :)

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 30/1/08 8:16PM
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lym: "there is already a Gnash port needing finishing off" - I have been trying for months, on and off, to build Gnash via the GCCSDK Autobuilder, but it just doesn't work for me. I have tried on both an Ubuntu Linux box and an Intel Mac. I am not certain if it is possible to build it on a RISC OS machine. Regardless, I have had some help from the GCCSDK mailing list folks, but we just can't determine what is wrong. Without a working build environment, I cannot put my graphics expertise to use on the platform, much as I'd like to. Perhaps there are many people like myself who would like to help, but are unable to make the leap towards actually getting stuff to compile.

 is a RISC OS Userksattic on 31/1/08 5:54AM
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How frustrating! That's a real shame, as there can't be many people who know more about graphics and RISC OS. If your experience is widespread, then that would indeed be a major blow.

Would the emergence of GCC 4 make any difference to you? This seems to be the current focus of the GCCSDK team's attentions.

 is a RISC OS Userlym on 31/1/08 9:21AM
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Very few countries in the world still sell RISC OS in a shop. :-(

It is a small world.

 is a RISC OS UserSawadee on 3/2/08 5:51AM
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Personally I think people should stop reliving RISC OS' innovative past and re-evaluate it on its current merits against current colleagues. I know people have very fond memories of Acorn and RISC OS and enjoyed many hours of productive use. I'm one of them.

However it's time more people really try to take a look at it objectively. In its current state, there's nowhere RISC OS can go that will make it re-live some of its former glory. In the current situation, it's simply bleeding to death, because the key-companies made some bad decisions in years gone by. Meanwhile the market surrounding it is clinging onto the loyalty of its dwindling customers. The few people I've spoken with who've looked into the situation are positively amazed it's come this far. They attribute this not to some wise decisions or skill of the relevant companies, but to the loyalty and perhaps naivety of the platform's users and developers. I guess that's also why the Amiga platform 'lives' on.

How on earth can you lure new developers to this platform? What benefits has it to offer them? Sure, some may have fun and feel good by helping us out, but what other 'real' benefit can it offer them? If it was particularly easy to port stuff over to RISC OS, you'd probably find more websites offering a RISC OS download next to all the other versions. As far as I can understand, tools are way better on other platforms with much more interesting possibilities.

While the basic RISC OS GUI was done extremely well, it hasn't seen much strong improvement in recent years, even taking Select into account. The bundled collection of software is too limited to be useful to modern users. To get a feeling of what modern users expect, take a Mac and play with its bundled software. Download the free Ubuntu Linux and see how complete it's become.

Now, I just want to make clear - I'm not advocating anything like giving up on RISC OS, not at all. I still use it regularly. I'm saying that people should let go of the past and figuring out ways to recover former glory. This past is holding it back. The way I see it is either open source the whole OS and advocate its GUI or start anew.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 3/2/08 4:30PM
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What former glory do you refer to that people are trying to re-live? The article talks about creativity, experimentation of the kind that brought us Viewfinder, Kinetic, Cino, Netsurf etc. Let go of that?

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 3/2/08 7:08PM
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AW: Yes and no.

Let me try to put it another way. It seems many active RISC OS users are looking at the past to fuel the future. That, in my opinion, will lead nowhere but further down. The 'former glory' I refer to is a time when there was still enough room for experimentation. This resulted in the stuff you name above. That was years ago. If someone started a project like NetSurf today, I doubt if it would grow to be as successful as it has become now. I think you can forget about new soft- or hardware of TechWriter or ViewFinder's calibre.

Even the 'bigger' companies like Castle and RISCOS Ltd seem to be even more quiet than before, with few announcements and even less new products. It's been 8 months since any news on RISC OS 6 and seemingly even longer regarding the (unfinished) A9home. When was the last new version of RISC OS 5 announced? If the bomb were to be dropped, no-one would be surprised and yet many would grieve. This is a dreadful position for RISC OS to be in.

I hope you now understand what I mean. So, the way I see it, RISC OS needs change and that needs more guts than ROL or Castle can muster and probably justify. I believe this needs to come from ROOL and a community of persistent enthusiasts and willing volunteers. I like the Connect initiative, but why has it not yet been communicated across the web? I'm sure several websites would give it some attention. OSNews.com is a good start, methinks. RISC OS needs promotion through professionally designed websites, which inspire confidence and enthusiasm. Websites that contain guided tours, GUI demo's, tutorials, etc. Take a look at how Apple turned around 10 years ago and why it's becoming so successful today, there's a lot to learn from them.

 is a RISC OS UserhEgelia on 3/2/08 8:39PM
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As far as I'm concerned, RISC OS's last chance for *real* future progress was when Castle/Tematic were talking to other companies about STBs and the like. As I recall, there was one major deal that fell through about three years ago. As soon as that happened, that pretty much spelt the death knell for RISC OS being anything other than a slowly dwindling hobbyist platform. There is *nowhere* the platform can go from here.

Sad, but people need to realise it's true - and, to be fair, most have. The chance has gone. Which depresses me beyond belief, even though I haven't used RISC OS as my main platform for years. And whilst a lot of it is just to do with unfortunate circumstances, it's hard not to feel some bitterness towards how some of the key players in the market have behaved since 1999.

 is a RISC OS Usermoss on 4/2/08 3:37AM
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I'm quite optimistic about RISC OS Open personally.

 is a RISC OS UserAW on 4/2/08 7:48PM
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MikeCarter: "P.S. Why is the comment box so small in NetSurf?" This is fixed in the latest development builds.

 is a RISC OS Usertlsa on 01/03/08 12:17AM
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