Business and RISC OSBy Peter Naulls. Published: 22nd May 2003, 12:17:19 | Permalink | Printable
Why RISC OS is the way it isDisclaimer: I am not a business expert. Nor an expert in finance, management or related activities. There are people who may be able to convey what I've said here much better, with more realism than I have. Add a pinch of salt where you feel fit. Additionally, any situations raised here are hypothetical (at least in outcome), and I don't presume to speak for the companies involved except where stated.
The Business of being in Business
Every activity taken by a company must be tempered by business realities. And I don't just mean it should make money - although of course this is an important part. Activities must make financial, technical and political sense. In other words, business must create more business, whether that's to sustain or grow.
I know this sounds kind of dumb, even blatantly obvious. But it doesn't always seem to be at the fore-front of people's minds when they are making suggestions about what "must" or "should" happen. Naturally, this isn't really that surprising - the RISC OS market is dominated by hobbyists, whose first interest is often technical or practical. Fair enough, but that's what this article is about. With this in mind, let's examine some situations with our shiny new business hat on.
The RISC OS Laptop
This old chestnut. Many have tried, and many have failed (and for the purposes of this, I'll ignore the Alpha). And it's fair to say that the reasons have very little to do with technical issues. There's a number of skilled electronics engineers out there who could assemble a (insert ARM chip of your choice) based board with very little effort, and make it small enough to fit inside a suitable case.
The issue here (surprise) is a business one - getting hold of a case of any kind is very difficult. Pop into your local PC World - all the cases are different - production runs may only last a few months for a million cases. Most of these manufacturers wouldn't be in the slightest bit interested in parting with a thousand or so cases for the peanuts (no pun intended) it would bring in relative to their own business interests. And indeed - how many might a RISC OS company sell - not many, I'll bet. Oh, I'm sure there's vocal minority who'd be very keen to buy such a machine, but it needs to make sense to the RISC OS company involved.
Let's consider a generic RISC OS desktop machine (RiscStation, Iyonix, Omega). Most of the parts are standard PC ones, which are produced in massive quantities. Gone are the Acorn days where machines had a large mark up (and a larger market), and Acorn had plenty of money to spend on blue sky research, or developing fantastic cases. Add in the cost of development, an OS license, marketing, etc., and the room for maneuveur of the mark up so that the end price has some semblance of competitiveness gets pretty small.
Basically, the income from a single machine isn't that great. This is why we find that Castle and MicroDigital tell us they are seeking markets outside of RISC OS - the number of units they might potentially sell to RISC OS users just isn't enough to justify a creation of a whole new computer.
This is very much a current topic with the recent Select 3 release. We won't rehash those issues here - at least, not without our business hat on. Castle was quoted at the Wakefield show that "Select would not sell any more Iyonixes". Castle tell me that this is an out of context misquote, and in any case, with a strict interpretation it's obviously not true. But from an objective perspective, an outside observer might be justified in making this statement or a variation.
Why? Well, consider the number of Select subscribers as a proportion of RISC OS users as a whole (or even as a proportion of RISC OS 4 purchasers). Also consider that many Iyonix owners already have a Select license, and might not be obliged to pay for any Iyonix Select. From that, consider the number of people who are putting off an Iyonix purchase for the sole reason it doesn't run Select. Obviously there are some - and many of those are very vocal, and it's certainly not true that Iyonix Select wouldn't be worthwhile. But let's pit it against an alternative:
The market for ARM chips next year is slated to be one billion. That's an awfully big number. There's going to be lots of companies wanting development boards for ARM chips to try out their designs. It's like the search for life on other planets - no matter what numbers you plug into the equation, the resulting value comes up very favourably when starting with such a large number. Now imagine that Castle/Microdigital (and indeed Simtec who are doing precisely this) target their ARM boards at such a market (probably running Linux/BSD), and consider the relative sales compared to Select.
That's not to say that these companies aren't committed to RISC OS - of course they are, otherwise they'd be off doing other things. But the numbers game must apply.
Another example - what if, to meet the requirements of a given vertical market, a RISC OS machine had to meet various video-on-demand requirements. And what if that market was 2000 machines? (As a purely arbitrary number). How might that compare to sales within the RISC OS market with regard to effect put towards VOD vs Select? I hope that puts things a little in perspective.
RISC OS and RISCOS Ltd.
There's an event in business sometimes known as "the butterfly effect". This has little to do with Chaos Theory, and rather more to do Catastrophe Theory (both of which are immensely complex topics, and won't be discussed here).
It goes a bit like this: A company becomes so specialised at what it does, either in terms of its skillset or its target market for its product that a minute shift in market conditions - e.g. the flap of a butterfly's wings - makes the company's services redundant. This has happened in various degrees to many, many companies - Acorn, Marconi, IBM. I'm sure you can name others. We can also name others who done precisely the opposite, and expanded their market massively. Two obvious examples should be ARM and Microsoft.
So why do I mention RISCOS Ltd.? Because an objective observer might come to the conclusion that it also applies to them. Now, obviously I have no idea of RISCOS Ltd's future plans, nor its markets outside the enthusiast base, and I don't claim at all that this applies to them. However, look at their product line: RISC OS 4, RISC OS Select, Select Gold. Each has (arguably) a smaller and smaller audience. I'll let you draw your own conclusions from this.
There's an awful lot more I could say here. I could mention the cost of developing software, even effort for conversion of various "free" software items. I could certainly mention PR activities. Finally I could mention the relative merits (not many) of an Open Source RISC OS from a business perspective, although it doesn't quite fit into this topic.
I won't however, in order to keep this short and digestible. Just remember next time you go out of your way to be vocal or critical of a company's activities some of what I've said here. I certainly don't envy the positions held by Paul Middleton, Jack Lillington and David Atkins, and I expect that the majority of readers don't either.
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