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Manchester RISC OS Jaunt

By Martin Hansen. Published: 21st Dec 2003, 14:58:11 | Permalink | Printable

Martin Hansen does Northern dealers

Manchester RISC OS motifOpinion It was with some surprise, as we live in Shrewsbury, that I listened to my wife, Andrea, announce that she wanted to go Christmas shopping in Manchester. It typically takes just under two hours to make this trip but, with five days left until the Lord's birthday; traffic and the city would most likely be chaotic and frenzied. I was enthusiastic about the idea. She was immediately suspicious. I decided to confess: several of the RISC OS "big names" live in Manchester and two, in particular, are based there that I'd been wanting to check out for a while.

Firstly, in Oldham, (to Manchester's east) there is Stuart Tyrrell who has recently been running full page advertisements in Acorn User for his A6 computer. Inside the guts of this controversial machine is not the hardware which RISC OS is designed and optimised to efficiently run. Instead, are the microchips, used to promote rival Microsoft's Windows Operating System. In the A6, RISC OS runs under emulation using a very clever software product called Virtual RiscPC. So, in the A6, RISC OS is an extension, built on top of Windows XP. Stuart claims that users of the A6, "can expect day-to-day RISC OS performance which meets or exceeds the fastest traditional StrongARM machines".

Although sometimes difficult, I try to embrace new ideas, and wanted to judge this machine for myself. More than that, I wanted to try it out to see if one could seriously use it to develop RISC OS software. At home, a year or two ago, I installed the free first version of Virtual RiscPC, "Red Squirrel" onto a Microsoft laptop running Windows 2000, and provided by my work. I managed to get a large RISC OS application running but only at around one third of the speed of an A5000. This was hardly surprising as the laptop crawls along at what, for Windows, is a pitiful speed of 333MHz. However, when I tried to alter the BBC BASIC code from within Red Squirrel all sorts of strange things started to happen with the cursor and the mouse. I persisted, with the laptop crashing every half hour or so as I explored what was possible and what to avoid. Re-booting Windows is painfully slow and each crash sent me to the kitchen for a cup of tea. Four hours later, awash with tea, I deciding that actually writing code within this environment was not a practical proposition.

However, Red Squirrel had hinted at what was possible, which now, after two years of intense development and running on the 2.5GHz A6, has allegedly been realised. As we sped towards Manchester I, (not driving !) gave Stuart a call. Answer Phone. "Hi, I'm in Manchester for the day and would like to come and see the A6, hopefully to buy one and take it away today. Please call me."

Chameleon logoAlso in Manchester, but this time on the Western outskirts, was what I imagined to be a real RISC OS enthusiast's shop, run by Roy Heslop of RiscStation and CTA fame. To my shame, I've never been in any RISC OS shop, buying all my kit instead either by phone and mail order, or from one of the annual shows. Today, while Andrea visited the City Centre, I'd check out Tyldesley, where Roy's shop was situated. Roy has been advertising a range of similar products to the A6 desktop cube, but in laptop form. Called the Chameleon, the top specification machine runs Virtual RiscPC on a PC at a little over 3GHz. I was also curious to see how the Iyonix was being promoted by a high street outlet, and was interested in seeing a selection of LCD monitors running with RISC OS machines.

As we drew close to Oldham, Stuart Tyrrell called. I was delighted at his prompt response to an answer phone message, but he had bad news. Christmas had been a time of controlled panic from the business point of view, he explained, with only three top spec machines left and none of the complementary black LCD monitors. More than this, Virtual Acorn are being extraordinarily careful with the digital keys that had to be turned each time a copy of Virtual RiscPC was issued with the owner's name embedded within. So, buying an A6 off the shelf on a Saturday when Virtual Acorn are shut, was not possible. I was pleased that sales were going so well for him. Alas, he was also already fully committed for the day and even just a visit to play around with an A6 was not possible. I must have sounded very disappointed because he eventually agreed that, such was his confidence in the machine, he'd send me one on a sale or return basis. I left him my email address, but not a firm commitment to buy.

Roy's shop with large "RiscStation" signs was easy to spot as I drove down Elliott Street. I asked myself, "What was I expecting ?" Up until a year ago, CTA reliably posted a two page advertisement in Acorn User magazine featuring the latest RISC OS kit as well as intricate Aladdin's cave type lists of the surrounding paraphernalia. CTA felt like a major player, and was on a mission to give us what Acorn with its Stork project had failed to do: the first RISC OS laptop since the A4 in 1992. Regrettably it all fell apart. First, RiscStation's desktop sales slowed drying up profits. Then, the project ran into technical problems in the design stage. Time passed, technology moved on, and the project become obsolete before completion. The CTA adverts vanished until recently, when an isolated half page affair announcement the Chameleon.

I walked in, but there was no RISC OS kit on display other than a Phoebe case in a corner; a reminder of the unfinished project that broke Acorn in 1998. In fact, there was little of anything. For Roy, this was good. Christmas had cleared the shop out. All in-stock Chameleons had been bought, set-up, and shipped out to their new owners the day before. So, once again, my desire to try out, and probably buy, a Virtual RiscPC machine had been thwarted. And again, I wasn't going to commit without having tried out the product first hand.

I quizzed a talkative Roy on the Iyonix. This too is on my wants list although I don't quite feel it's a big enough jump on from my Kinetic RiscPC to justify the cost. I'm also hoping against hope that Castle launch a laptop Iyonix although, least I start a rumour, I must emphasise that I have got no reason to think that they will.

Roy did have one Iyonix in the stock room. "Why was it not on display ?" I asked. "Jack hasn't yet agreed to a mark-up that would justify the window space", was his honest, if cheeky, reply. I bought my Kinetic from CTA and Roy could tell I was thinking that maybe now was the time to take the plunge with an Iyonix and buy the Virtual RISC OS machine another day, once I'd read the forthcoming Qercus magazine review. "Like everything else I had in for Christmas, it's sold", he ruefully told me, sensing that a sale had been lost.

When I met up with Andrea later she had filled the car with shopping. She could not believe that I'd spent been out so long and returned with nothing. However, I was not a frustrated man. I'd concluded my visit to Manchester by ordered a rather smart LCD monitor, with Roy's help, from Iiyama, for my Kinetic RiscPC, and transferable to an Iyonix later on. For me, the main joy of the day had been in sensing at first hand the current surge of interest in RISC OS products, where suppliers are rushed off their feet and selling stock fast. We're rather used to the good times not lasting, so all the more reason to enjoy them while they are here.

And so, how to conclude my Manchester RISC OS ramble? - By wishing all drobe readers, "A Merry RISC OS Christmas", of course. The new year is going to be an interesting one. There is much to be positive about and I'm looking forward to reading about, trying out, and buying some of the prolification of the emerging new kit, both hard and soft.


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VirtualAcorn shut on a Saturday? That's odd, someone calling themselves "VirtualAcorn" was *very* busy somewhere quite near here ;-)

Interesting to see how Roy advertises the Iyonix to people who *ask* to see it. Martin, you might be well served to talk about the Iyonix with someone who actually *wants* to sell you one!


 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 22/12/03 3:32AM
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VA are "closed" over Christmas, as of last Friday, with unlock requests serviced only by email over the period (I think their answerphone message says this). Although A6 machines are stored in their reference hardware state, they are kept software-less until order, so it's a bit tight to turn a machine around in an hour unless we're guaranteed to receive codes in time. Also we'd be retiscent to send out a machine without its usual 24-hour soak test, and we've helped clear our disti out of 17" LCD's.

Besides.... there was only me here, and I was already committed to spend the day hand-delivering kit out to some customers across the region. Thankfully no snow, but the crosswind on the motorway was "interesting" :-o

 is a RISC OS Userstdevel on 22/12/03 8:38AM
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I glad to hear that sales of machines are going so well for both Stuart Tyrell and RiscStation.

In particular, I'm glad RiscStation haven't given up on the RISC OS market after the various setbacks they've had. Their Chameleon may be 'only' a Windows Laptop machine but it still shows their commitment to the RISC OS desktop/laptop market and thus gives hope that they will develop something else in the future.


 is a RISC OS UserThe Doctor on 22/12/03 10:22AM
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In reply to DGS:

What makes you think Roy didn't want to sell an Iyonix ? From the way I read the article he did want to sell one but wasn't in a position to do so.

 is a RISC OS UserCol1 on 22/12/03 11:49AM
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Martin: I'm curious as to why you feel the Iyonix isn't a big enough step from a Kinetic (not having seen one myself). From the figures, it should make the kinetic look like an A7000.

Also is your interest in VRPC due to the environment within an environment, as opposed to wanting a faster machine?

 is a RISC OS Userjess on 22/12/03 11:56AM
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In reply to jess

My Kinetic RiscPC is a great machine that I've use for an average of, I guess, five hours a day for the four years since I bought it new. It's fast, responsive, and a joy to use and has never exhibted a hardware fault of any kind. So, I'm really, really happy with it. My previous was an A5000 so it was a big step up for me that rekindled my passion for RISC OS.

Iyonix - yes, I want. I'm told Iyonix is, on average, between two and four times faster than Kinetic.

VRPC - I'm writing RISC OS software that I want to know is 100% going to work properly with VRPC. It's in BBC BASIC so it'll also be fun to see what actually writing code under VRPC is like. My 12 year old daughter will end up with the VRPC machine as her school is 95% MicroSoft. Incidentally, why oh why is the British government so completely pushing MicroSoft products ? I've never seen so many new computers (60 ?)as have just been installed in her state comprehensive school and they are all American.

 is a RISC OS Usermartin on 22/12/03 12:52PM
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In reply to Martin:

The British Government is pushing Amercian computers because their IT 'advisors' are, in general, either incompetent or corrupt or a combination of both.

 is a RISC OS UserCol1 on 22/12/03 1:15PM
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The IT syllabus could be actually be done on A3020s, or Linux machines with free software. I don't understand the obession with plowing millions of my tax pounds into filling schools to the brim with brand new Microsoft PCs every five minutes. Build some cheap housing, a hospital wing, teach kids to read properly.

 is a RISC OS UserJessFranco on 22/12/03 3:35PM
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Martin if you want to check out a Deskstar system we are open in coventry tommorow it's not that far from Shrewbury check the website for address at www.micro-bits.co.uk

 is a RISC OS Usermicrobits on 22/12/03 5:09PM
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Col1: Perhaps I was being a bit hard on Roy there. OTOH, I've been to his shop plenty of times before, and there is no great lack of space in the front. (If there's space for a toy train set then there's space for other things...) It did just seem disappointing that the Iyonix is there, but it's hidden in the back.


 is a RISC OS Userdgs on 22/12/03 6:51PM
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They're not American computers, the OS is though.

And I thought it was Tony Blair being bribed by Bill Gates with free computers if he gets rid of all non-MS OSes?

 is a RISC OS Usersimo on 22/12/03 11:49PM
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The Government is not "pushing Microsoft". As a player in the education market, I can point the finger at various people, but none are at government level. First and worst are parents, who (in the form of school governors) used to bleat horribly about non-standard computers. Second come the board and management at Acorn, who successfully screwed the company into the ground rather than actually competing. And, as far as MS profiteering from schools goes, the prices they charge are miniscule in comparison to most other vendors. For a sub of about thirty quid a year, you get all updates and new releases of the OS and Office Pro Enterprise. And, moreover, the government has screwed them down another 20% on that from 1st Jan 2004. Open Source suffers from rabid evangelist syndrome. I'm sure it's marvellous, but it would be nice if someone could talk rationally about it rather than frothing about how much better it is than MS product. And it would also be nice if, when asking basic questions, one didn't get hit with RTFM answers.

 is a RISC OS Usermikeg on 23/12/03 7:41AM
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The IT requirement of the National Curriculum is actually quite basic and could be completed with just about any computer from the last ten years. I'm always amazed how much money there is for new computers in schools, and how many perfectly servicable machines end up at jumble sales or being flogged on ebay. I don't see the point of sending groups of kids around with expensive DV camcorders under the guise of some or other 'project' when they can not write well, or speak another language fluently.

 is a RISC OS UserJessFranco on 23/12/03 9:24AM
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30-40ukp per machine per year, even machines you're not going to use the software on. Which schools have computers up to date enough to run the latest versions of Windows and Office anyway, or want to?

Still, it looks cheap, and it's cheaper than what everyone else pays, they're very worried about the competition and want to make sure the first hit is free(ish)

 is a RISC OS Usermavhc on 23/12/03 9:32AM
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The ICT syllabus tasks are actually a lot easier on RiscOS machines. The tasks are always designed to have a difficult twist in the tail when used with MS Office, as most schools do. It's called 'differentiation' to sort high-performers from others. But with OPro, DataPower, Artworks and Fireworkz such problems simply don't arise and we've often achieved results which MS-users simply cannot believe.

 is a RISC OS UserMartinD on 23/12/03 3:08PM
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mikeg> It is probably best to evaluate open source options yourself without involvement from so called advocates.

Generally, you can obtain everything you need in order to to that evaluation at no cost.

 is a RISC OS Userjonix on 23/12/03 9:50PM
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mavhc: Not sure where the schools you're talking about are, or what they've done with the tens of thousands of pounds of hardware money they've had over the past six years. However, I can happily put the latest versions of Windows and Office on PC systems I supplied four years ago.

OTOH, I do bang on at schools about the need to keep using machines until they die, and I don't sell cheap crap crammed with toys.

jonix: I have tried this. However, my time for playing with stuff is limited, and nobody in the non-subsidised world is going to let me wander off for a few days while I play. Consequently, I need to ask how and why, and the sources of simple answers are limited or hard to find.

I'll supply software customers want and solutions customers want. At the minute, and for a long time past, most have wanted Windows. Wherever possible, I keep RISC OS systems running.

Unfortunately, though, I've only sold 2 RISC OS boxes in the last year. There is still a potential market there, but it needs to be approached differently. Until the manufacturers give me a product I can sell, there is little hope at all of things improving.

 is a RISC OS Usermikeg on 24/12/03 12:17AM
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to mikeg: and what kind of product might that be?

 is a RISC OS Userbucksboy on 24/12/03 12:33PM
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Maybe he means a product that has a definite on-going market? With dozens of once RISC OS educational houses now no longer making new titles, it is hard to sell new Acorns as an ongoing strategy.

The same was true of apple in the mid-nineties - even in their print publishing heartlands Apple were losing thousands of customers who thought Apple was a futureless system. Still, you'd have to be Steve Jobs x 1,000,000 to hatch a similar turnaround with RISC OS in British schools. Besides, British schools are so crap anyway giving them good computers would just be icing a turd.

 is a RISC OS UserJessFranco on 24/12/03 1:32PM
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Er, who told you British schools were crap? Oh, I see, you're just being fashionable. It's just SO cool to make sweeping generalizations about British schools and hospitals at the moment. "They're all crap!" Aren't I just so funny? ;)

 is a RISC OS Userfylfot on 24/12/03 2:04PM
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Sorry long post, no direct internet connection, only just noticed this forum/thread, 'need urgently to go and, er, celebrate New Years, etc:

I have been threatened with prison if I tell why the Government is pushing Ms so much, but if I don't make any references to who I am, the establishment I used to work for can't do that.... (cue manical laughter)

It's another scam to get taxpayers money, then waste it senselessly... There was an initative to get more computers into schools, which were at the time being nicely stocked up with Acorn machines. Then several things happened around the same time:

-Acorn cashed itself in.

-The media jumped to conclusions about spare parts not being avilable and said Acorn machines were no longer a viable option.

-Microsoft started a load of "Intel inside" and "easy networking" (lie), and "plug and play" (lie, the sequel) TV commercials, which headteachers fell for; hook, line and sinker. (No Acorn commercials, see?) Then they insisted that all Heads of ICT buy PCs instead, which cost ten times the amount and, as we all know, don't work. This provided a massive demand for massive IT budgets, which played back into the Government's hands. The Government, as usual, weren't listening about the details of whether this still made any sense...

Now these computers may be American but the Government can't see that because most of them are built in this country, and all those companies pay more taxes on that. And don't forget which PM is best buddies with the American Government, who collect the other half of the tax bonaza.

On the bright side, all that trumping 'n' junking boosted the Acorn secondhand market, which helped cheap old me no end.

Not all is lost though: The Chinese Government, fed up with buying expensive product that doesn't produce and fixes that don't fix, has outlawed all Microsoft products. Posession, selling or use of Windows etc in China is now illegal. Here's hoping the United Gates goes on holiday there.

... So the Government are not pushing Ms in schools, true. They're pushing computers in schools, but blindly, like all the other stuff they do.

They Are American computers -- clones built here, designed in the States, any changes the slave designs have to follow Exactly.

Nonetheless, some schools (mainly private ones) continue to use and promote Acorn machines, with one dusty old PC in the corner somewhere as comparision. And so the PC stays dusty.

"Frothing about how much better it is than MS product." 'Trouble is, a broken pencil and an abacus frequently out-performs Ms. Product, so saying that it does that it generally not enough, ie saying how it outperforms, instead.

I frequently use PCs connecting to the internet un-practically-tracably at intercafe's, 90% of my skill is used just keeping the thing running long enough for it to do anything useful at all, but always bloody slowly, except POV & Ghostscript in MsDos, but then stack overflows or memory problems if you try to do anything fancy.

Some schools did and do get a massive IT budget of millions, but budgets are segegated and other departments can be denyed a new felt-tip pen while brand-new scanners, printers, etc arrive daily at the ICT Dept.

Now, stop that! British schools do an exellent job under unbelivable pressure. I know, I used to work in, er... If only our hospitals were up to it. Perhaps they need Acorns more? Come to think of it, the hospital I went to last was sparkling. The US scan got my beard all sticky, but that's entirely unavoidable.

Oh, and: Happy New Year!!

 is a RISC OS UserAnon on 3/1/04 9:06PM
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