Castle, RISCOS Ltd., FinnyBank theatre reportBy Martin Hansen. Published: 1st Mar 2004, 04:53:33 | Permalink | Printable
Martin Hansen reviews the South West show presentations and the future direction of the platform's major playersAttending a distant RISC OS show can be an effort but with the Sun shining in a blue sky, the CD player on loud and a large supply of snacks and drinks, early on Saturday morning I zipped south-bound on a traffic free M5 towards Somerset. This was going to be a good day out and I was looking forward to being immersed in all that is good about the world of computing. At last year's South West show I exhibited as The MathMagical Software Company, however this year I was going as a regular punter. Simply a normal user, particularly keen to attend the theatre presentations being given by three of the top RISC OS players; Castle Technology, Finnybank and RISCOS Ltd. All three contributed to the build up to the show by announcing new products in recent days; Castle with an Iyonix packaged in a new case, Finnybank with the launch issue of Qercus, and RISCOS Ltd with a ROM release of their latest version of RISC OS 4.
Castle theatre presentation
The main man, Jack Lillingston (pictured), had clearly made an effort to prepare for this event. As we entered we were greeted by chairs on which were already placed an up to date Castle Technology price list and a colour A4 promotional leaflet offering up to 50 percent off the recommended retail price of various LCD monitors if purchased with an Iyonix. So, for example, an Iiyama 17" 1280 x 1024 which retails for 329ukp is now 164ukp. The offer officially runs from 1st March to 31st May but was clearly being made available early for those attending today's show. Having digested the offer, the front desk grabbed my attention: It was laden down with hardware. The first thing to catch the eye was the new X100 Iyonix, which looked very elegant. The case is metal, and it's a close size match with a single slice RiscPC. The floppy drive had two slots for memory cards as well as a floppy disc. A second, tower build, Iyonix was next to the X100, and to this, via a USB hub, was connected a scanner, a stand alone card reader, a zip drive with 256MB zip disc inserted, and a mysterious device that, as I was thirsty, looked to me to be the size of a box of 120 tea bags. The tower Iyonix was driving a large screen projector and also, so that Jack could see what was happening on the large screen behind him, a standard LCD monitor.
Jack Lillingston, managing director of Castle Technology Ltd, is impressive. He speaks clearly, succinctly, and without waffle. He began by showing us what the Iyonix is outstandingly good at. In a word, it is 'photography'. In 16 million colour mode at high resolution he double clicked a 1MB JPEG. Wham, it was in. He selected a small area of the on screen image. Wham, it was enlarged and filled the screen. Thump, the thumbnail photograph filer viewer, was summoned and its window filled instantly with the small but remarkably clear, images of around fifty photographs. The climax to this first part of the presentation, however, was the box of 120 tea bags. It was, in reality, a photographic quality printer that Jack set to print as he talked. As he continued his talk we watched it print, suck the image back in, print again, suck it back in again, print, suck, and finally print. Three colours had been applied and a gloss finish.
The 6" by 4" photographic print that had finally been dropped into the world was passed around. It was of a stunningly good quality. "Can you read the words on the top of the tower?" Jack asked, referring to scene depicted in the print. He knew full well that the answer was "No". He placed it in the scanner and called up David Pilling's Scanning Software. (Previously known as 'ImageMaster'). He scanned the printed photograph, and then enlarged the scan. There it was; the word advertising a well known company was clearly visible. I'll not reveal it, so as not to spoil the party piece. Placed side by side with the original JPEG the image had, of course, degraded a little. Remember, however, that the word could not be made out with naked eye on the print. Interestingly, Castle, having developed the drivers for this printer, handed it over to Stuart Tyrrell to develop further and market. It is likely to cost under two hundred pounds and the consumables work out to around 50p a print. I can't wait to have one. Perhaps, Jack should have at this point mentioned PhotoDesk. What we had just seen plus PhotoDesk, which is 32 bit compatible, must surely place the Iyonix at the forefront of easy to use photographic gathering, filing and manipulation. Several of the audience, including the charming elderly gentleman sitting next to me, had bought an Iyonix precisely for this reason. By way of rounding off this section of his talk, Jack demonstrated the ease and speed with which Iyonix can burning a CD-ROM's worth of photographic images.
Old Iyonix, new case
Re-housing the existing Iyonix in a new case may seem at first glance a trivial news item; but, like everything Castle do, they have sound business reasons for the move. Announced two days before the event, all three established Iyonix configurations were available to buy in the new format from stock at the show. Although the tower Iyonix has the necessary certification to be sold in Europe, this is not the "case" (sorry) in America. The new packaging of the Iyonix addresses the issues in the existing design that were causing problems and the paperwork to make it a legal product for the American market is now done and dusted. Furthermore, many of Castle's existing commercial customers required a similarly sized replacement for their RiscPCs.
There are some drawbacks to using a smaller box, of course. It is not as quiet as the tower machine, because setting up a natural convection cooling air current within the case could not be reliably designed in. In consequence, fan-noise is back at the RiscPC level. The ability to add legacy podule cards has gone, and PCI cards need to be in a mini low profile format. There is no facility to internally add a second floppy or CD-ROM drive. Jack pointed all of this out very clearly. He showed that the unit comes with a stand and so, like the RiscPC it can be used on its side, as a thin, sleek tower. I asked if the DVD drive still worked reliably in this configuration. Jack assured us that it does.
Iyonix networking, Artworks and PDFs
A couple of other highlights from the Castle Technology presentation stand out in my mind. Firstly, in regards to networking, Jack plugged an ethernet cable into the back of the tower Iyonix and the back of the X100. Apparently, the machines auto-detect whether a regular patch or crossover lead is present, and both work equally well. With no network hub or switch needed, the 1MB JPEG printed out earlier passed effortlessly from one Iyonix to the other.
Secondly, the famous Artworks "Beer Glasses" with the RISC OS cog logo on the sides by Henk Huinen were swiftly loaded. Moving the Artworks window around the screen was very smooth indeed. An enlargement of the artist's name "Henk" was instantly processed and filled the screen. Remember that this is at 16 million colours and a high resolution. I'm not yet an Artworks user, but those in the audience who were collectively gasped. Thirdly, a substantial PDF document of around 400 pages was loaded. Hoping around this large file to pages selected at random was easily down to around a second a page.
Although preaching to the converted, Jack's presentation went down exceedingly well. None of his demonstrations went awry, and an enthusiastic round of applause greeted the conclusion of his talk. With its lid removed, a curious crowd descended on the new X100. I took a couple of photographs and left for that long awaited cup of tea and a chat with my good friend Tom Broughton, a teacher from East Court School in Kent who, like me, still introduces his pupils to the joys of RISC OS computing on old machines.
Lillingston, I presume?
After a year and a half of dithering, I bought an Iyonix at the show. Although I like the look of the new case, and love the idea of having the latest version, I opted for the tower. The issue that tipped me was the Green one of less noise, and cooling by convection rather than a fan. I've also yet to own a RISC OS machine that I didn't end up stuffing full of hardware add ons and it's just so much tidier to have them inside the case rather than strewn around the desk. It was interesting to have a choice though, and the new machine is better looking. Photographs do not do it justice; you need to see it for real.
Having bought an Iyonix to soften Castle's Jack Lillingston up for an impending interview, I decided to risk taking the edge off his day and asked him, "Does RISC OS 5 aspire to have the features of RISC OS 4.39?"
I don't doubt that this touched a nerve but he fielded it very well. The gist of the situation, to me, is that Castle are successfully pursuing some options that will, as a company, make them extremely successful. They care about the RISC OS desktop market, and success elsewhere will, and is, feeding back into development of the Iyonix. Development of RISC OS 5 along 'Select', and now 'Adjust', lines is emotionally desirable, but realistic business objectives and priorities lessen what could otherwise be done in the short term. As ever, however, Castle are unwilling to talk about future products or enhancements before they are brought to market. Pushing a little more, Jack clearly feels regret that RISCOS Ltd are hanging onto their expertise beyond what Castle perceive to be sound business sense. However, in true sparring tradition I had noticed on RISCOS Ltd's show hand out the statement that, "RISCOS Ltd is committed to making the new features of Select available to all RISC OS users but it also requires the co-operation and support of the hardware manufacturers." I think there are a few awkward personality and emotional issues between Castle and RISCOS Ltd and both feel defensive about their position when challenged. I asked Jack if sensible and sound business issues were perhaps now also dragging the two companies in different directions. My impression was that he thought this was now the case, although changing fortunes and market circumstances could easily reverse the situation in the future.
I have to say that I like both Jack Lillingston and Paul Middleton, and enormously respect their achievements over the last couple of years. I asked my questions from the perspective of one who likes and supports both prongs of the RISC OS fork, and who is not ever going to take sides.
Moving on to a happier topic, Jack commented that before long, a billion ARM processors will be filling the world, all with what he termed an ARM core, and then with a variety of various other building blocks built into the actual processor chip, tailoring the various members of the ARM family to various applications. As a developmental tool, the Iyonix is therefore currently selling to interested parties as a "raft". The potential markets in the East are vast and wide open, and Castle needs to capture just a small percentage of these to experience massive growth.
I concluded my talk with Jack by remarking how sad it was that RISC OS was no longer mainstream in the country's schools. With a friendly wink he told me that when they had the right product, at the right price, they'd be back. I replied that I looked forward to that happy day.
Qercus theatre presentation
Our next performer was John Cartmell, ex-teacher and purchaser and editor of RISC OS magazines, and a passionate believer in the RISC OS community and its ability to continue to survive and grow over the coming year. His manner of delivery was very different to Jack's efficient managerial style; much more slow, careful, and even a little pedantic. Teachers; they think we're all thick, don't they?
Qercus is behind schedule but is back from the printers in time for the show: our shiny new flagship RISC OS magazine. John held a copy up in front of him as he talked, which was too good a photographic opportunity to miss; the proud father with his newborn. It's quality he's after, with well written articles, colour, not too many adverts and none that are not RISC OS linked. John talked us through the first issue, and what was coming in the next. He explained, with good humour, the tortuous process that he'd had to go through to finally wrestle Acorn User from Steve Turnbull's grasp. He has had to cope with inheriting a lot of Tau Press' inefficiency, not least of which was a poorly maintained subscriber database. With a smile, he told us how one lucky subscriber in Holland had received four copies of the last issue of Acorn User. Others (including John himself) received none. Some returned the extra issues and, from their honesty, John has managed to get a copy off to those who had missed out.
John asked the rhetorical question, "Why had the 'u' been missed out of 'Qercus'?". A wag from the back quipped that he thought it was because it was 'you' (i.e. the readers and contributors) that were required to complete it. John countered that in English, a 'q' was always followed by a 'u', the 'u' was redundant and therefore you could miss it out because people knew is was always there. An original piece of logical thinking, that.
John, obviously, wants Qercus to be the medium that binds the RISC OS community together, and his talk was, in part, a chance to encourage current subscribers to draw others in. He announced an offer; any new subscription that is taken out that names an existing subscriber as the reason will cause the introducing subscriber to gain a credit of one free issue added to their subscription. The mathematically astute in the audience quickly worked out that by recruiting 13 new subscribers a year they would receive Qercus free indefinitely. Pyramid selling - nice one, John.
A subscriber asked on what machine Qercus was produced. Surprisingly, the answer was not an Iyonix. A RiscPC and an A6 was the combination John favoured, mainly because of the varied and often downright weird formats that contributors chose to send him material in. As an A6 owner myself, I wasn't surprised by his choice, but thought it brave of him to come clean to an audience of passionate RISC OS devotes who, inevitably, and rightly, see the Iyonix as the true enthusiasts' machine. Like me, another member of his family needs a WindowsXP machine, and it's a way an keeping them happy whilst still holding on to some credibility.
John concluded by placing three stacks of old Acorn Publisher magazines on the front desk and invited all present to take up to three, free. Again, the talk concluded with a round of applause and the atmosphere was definitely warm, supportive and positive.
RISCOS Ltd. theatre presentation
With only a brief interlude to let the queue of people waiting outside to enter, the final talk of the day, from Paul Middleton (pictured) of RISCOS Ltd, got under way. Whereas Jack and John had been wearing Iyonix blue shirts, Paul was all in black. Again, this was a well prepared presentation, with a colour A4 handout on the new RISC OS 4.39 ROMs being circulated to a curious audience. These 'Adjust' ROMs, slightly to my disappointment, where not available to buy at the show but Paul began by explaining that the software development, although done, was being beta tested for a further two weeks, and the release would take place at the end of March. Obviously, with any ROM release, the code has got to be perfect, not least, Paul explained, because Acorn had not designed into the RiscPC motherboard any means of reprogramming a Flash ROM by the RiscPC itself.
As the talk got underway, it occurred to me that, once again, we had a speaker before us with a unique style and personality. Direct, outspoken, and with little thought of what is politically correct, Paul tells it like it is, from the RISCOS Ltd point of view. So, no 4.39 to see or buy but what he had brought along to show us was 4.38. This looked very cool, with a Macintosh Aqua style skin featuring prominently. Rounded buttons and radio icons featured the same look and although definitely RISC OS, it looked modern and tasteful. In some ways, a computers OS is a dull topic but Paul brought the subject alive and although he spoke quickly, he was clear and easy to follow. In Acorn's prime, 200 people worked on developing the OS, few of them having an overview of the whole system, most instead having only a detailed knowledge of the small piece in the jigsaw that they were working on. Although not modest, when Paul claimed that the few coders working on RISC OS now had a far better understanding of it than Acorn ever did, you believed him. RISCOS Ltd have done an extraordinary job of trawling through the RISC OS code, prizing apart the kernel into free standing modules and tracking down many of the more elusive bugs. An edited report of bug fixes was available to glance over; it ran to some sixteen A4 pages. The font size was small and there were no diagrams. It is only a bed time read for those of us in need of help to fall asleep.
The greatest number of problems had arisen from the toolbox module which had originally, allegedly, been thrown together by Acorn in a rush. In fact, sorting the mess out here was what had really put 4.39 behind schedule. It is a little creepy to know that so many bugs exist at the heart of RISC OS of old and on the code behind what I am currently typing this show report on. Paul admitted that a couple of known (to RISCOS Ltd) bugs still remained, that were rather to do with the original structuring of the OS kernel. Removing these would involve rewriting quite large chunks of the kernel which was not, realistically, a priority for the time being. Such honesty, knowing how writers of other OSes, most notoriously Microsoft, cover up their areas of weakness, strengthens one's belief in what is on offer. RISCOS Ltd, really come across as knowing what they are doing and 4.39 is a remarkable upgrade to a system, already noted for its stability and robustness. Apparently, the Flash ROMs used for RISC OS 4 originally caused some timing problems on some early RiscPCs, but 4.39 has eased off on the speeds it demands it be executed at and Paul seemed confident that the use of Flash ROM would not see these problems re-emerge.
New Features in the 4.39 OS
Although 4.39 deals with foundations, it also builds upon these, and there is a lot on offer in the 4MB 'Adjust' ROM to enhance the RISC OS computing experience. Quite aside from a modern look, the Paint application has been vastly improved and support for many foreign file types such as JPEGs and PNGs is now built in. Paul commented that when the GIF patents expire next year that format too will be added. This last comment made it rather clear that this ROM release is not the final version of Select. Indeed, Paul showed us how easy 4.39 had made it to softload future versions of Select from, for example, a CD or a network. With networking in mind, 4.39 includes AppleTalk, this enabling a networked computer to interrogate what is connected and available locally. No longer the painful process of manually telling your machine where to look for a server, printer, scanner, or zip drive. It asks around, receives replies and configures itself to present an expertly self set up machine to its operator.
When asked for a show of hands, around a third of the audience of about eighty subscribed to Select. So I was not surprised to hear that 78 of the first batch of 150 Flash ROMs were already spoken for by the time that Paul had left the RISCOS Ltd corner at the show to give his talk, with firm orders having been placed, and the money taken. Inevitably, but understandably, Paul's final message was that if you want an 'Adjust' ROM, it's in his interest and yours to place an order over the next couple of weeks.
Again, for the third time that day, a speaker was given a round of applause and a talk concluded with a real sense of big ambitions being realised, and the RISC OS market place being fuelled by yet another company that knows where they are going and how they are going to get there. I left the theatre with one hour left to whizz around the rest of the show.
On the way out of the venue, I overheard someone talking about crop circles. It was, of course, Paul Vigay, who was buying an extra hard drive for his Iyonix with Linux pre-installed from fellow Drobe staffer, Peter Naulls. Paul informed me that his site on crop circles draws many visitors, who are subsequently introduced to RISC OS. He was consulted for the Hollywood film 'Signs', and had RiscStation had its portable available, he could have sold the producers five of them, such was the favourable impression they received when Paul talked them through RISC OS.
Paul then pointed out show organiser John Stonier to me so I wandered over to thank him for running the show. It was now 4.30pm and well past the published closing time. However, John was in a buoyant and positive mood. Another year, another successful show, and with numbers up a tiny fraction on the previous event. He commented that most stands had had a satisfactory take with more money being spent this year compared to last. He seemed remarkably relaxed for a chief organiser. He told me that the event ran like a well oiled machine. Even the charity stand, unpublicised and raising cash for Lukemia research, had just happened with folks bringing along stuff they no longer wanted and others pouncing on what they saw as absolute bargains. What I had exchanged my six gold coins for earlier would have cost a lot more even on ebay, plus there was no postage to pay.
As I left, my biggest regret was in not having found the time to carefully go around each of the show stalls. The double long car drive plus over three hours of lecture presentations was exhausting but it had been a most enlightening and informative day.
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