Omega production saga continuesBy Chris Williams. Published: 18th Feb 2004, 15:14:20 | Permalink | Printable
Photos, excuses, hopesLast week we reported that Liquid Silicon were in the process of clearing their Omega order backlog. This week Dutch dealer Desk have announced that they too are assembling their share of MicroDigital's StrongARM powered computers.
Desk have also uploaded photos of their Omegas online, revealing one or two interesting things. Firstly, it would appear that MicroDigital have produced or commissioned a support CD for their users. Secondly, the Omega motherboard is copyrighted 2001 to 2003 and labelled as 'issue 2'. Also on the PCB silk screen, you can clearly make out "with ARMTwister Technology(tm)".
Omega issue 2 motherboard
The motherboards pictured boast a StrongARM processor hardwired to the PCB, an Xilix FPGA and an ALi chipset. We can also make out 4 PCI slots, a floppy drive socket, 2 IDE sockets, 2 RAM banks sockets, some Flash memory, sockets for the RISC OS 4 ROM set, a huge heatsink for the graphics FPGA ('Lightning'), some other glue electronics and the standard I/O ports. There's also a sticker showing copy '300060' of RISC OS 4. The cynical among us will presume the 3 refers to the serial number subset allocated to MicroDigital and that 60 is the unit number for that ROM. Go ahead, use this to guess how many Omega sales there have been, we know you're dying to.
In a newsletter this week, Desk told its customers: "With regards to the Omega, we don't want to keep people in anticipation any longer. While we have been waiting for a breakthrough to happen, we have wisely decided to keep quiet with respect of the Omega."
On the gradual distribution of the Omega, Desk added: "The userbase is growing steadily. On the club circuit the Omega will become more and more visible."
Desk, a MicroDigital partner, also explained that the delays in producing the Omega were down to testing and fixing completed motherboards. According to Desk, for every batch of manufactured Omega motherboards, "about half" need tweaking and fixing in order to work. Unlike a larger manufacturer, MicroDigital can't afford to order a pre-production batch to test and improve their product, before ordering a run of, say, 100,000 motherboard units. Economies of scale limit them to ordering small runs of boards, with MicroDigital's designer Dave Prosser concentrating on getting boards working rather than addressing missing features.
Desk doesn't appear to be too happy with the situation, commenting: "It is a pity that MD have not found a solution to this problem, such as employing someone to accelerate the rate of progress on all other unfinished aspects of the Omega such as software for the ethernet card."
Ah yes, the ethernet card. One of the promised features that is still not complete. As far as we're aware, ethernet, USB and the promised Lightning graphics system are missing and still in development. Apparently, the design of RISC OS limits the effective speed at which data from a network card is read, which is true to an extent. RISC OS reads packets from network cards on the centisecond timer, which isn't fast enough for 100MBit or 1GBit network cards. Presumably though, something could be worked out between the hardware and the current OS developers. Anyway, this flaw in the design of RISC OS is blamed for the delay in releasing an ethernet driver for the Omega.
The Omega was first touted in October 2000 with some quarters of the RISC OS media expecting it to arrive at the start of 2001. The Omega was full of hope and ambitious promises of XScale co-processors and its own graphics engine. The public first saw the Omega in May 2001 at the Wakefield show, as MicroDigital demonstrated a reportedly unstable prototype. In September 2001, MicroDigital's Dave Atkins told Archive magazine that his company was aiming for a release in October 2001 and that the Omega had till then "cost double" their budget.
MicroDigital next appeared in public in June 2002, at the RISC OS Expo. This time they had a more or less working prototype, which was tied to a PC to kick start it into booting. The Omega then went on a usergroup and press tour before the west Yorkshire based hardware company promised to have the Omega delivered by Christmas 2002 and the ARMTwister magic technology would be ready by January 2003. After busting through yet another deadline with no goods on users' doorsteps, MicroDigital had no explanation to offer. Dave Atkins briefly appeared at the February South West show with a few Omegas for selected, privileged developers and dealers.
Despite the delays and missed deadlines, MicroDigital sent letters to Omega deposit holders in March 2003 asking for full payment because the Omega was apparently within days of completion and delivery. MicroDigital were around the time also grumbling about RISC OS licensing issues and precisely who owned what. In May 2003, at the Wakefield show, MicroDigital demonstrated more working Omega computers, although they were lacking support for USB, floppy drive, hardware JPEG and MPEG handling, graphics acceleration, SCSI, networking and the all important XScale. In June 2003, a few machines were handed over to selected users at the RISC OS Expo 2003. show. In August 2003, we heard from our first reader who had finally received his Omega in the post. The Omega was shipping.
MicroDigital's apologists were in full effect around the time, stressing that the machine is a 'soft-puter', in that it can be re-programmed easily to add new features and correct problems. Except this design element doesn't appear to have been exploited much by MicroDigital. MicroDigital have also over the years blamed their problems in getting ASICs produced for them and then later, 'incompetent' FPGA manufacturers.
By now, the Omega's StrongARM processor is officially out of production and their decision to use a custom, in-house designed graphics engine over an off the shelf chipset, appears to have been a grave mistake. While there is some concern over whether or not MicroDigital have enough resources to support their Omega userbase, the damage sadly done to their reputation as a result of their wild cat PR tatics cannot be overlooked. Take your pick from bizaare posts to usenet, the rollercoaster ride that was the MicroDigital news pages (since purged by themselves), or telling the press - the very people who will help promote your stuff for free provided it's all true - to get lost.
Despite the fuss and unrest surrounding the Omega, Desk, however, are pleased that their users are, reportedly, happy with their Omegas. Some users are running RISC OS 4.37 on their computers, for example. As Desk put it: "Reactions from users of the Omegas currently in the field are that the computer works fine."
Thanks to Stan Williams for his help in translating Desk's newsletter.
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