RISC OS Open: One year onBy Martin Hansen. Published: 21st Jul 2007, 23:16:47 | Permalink | Printable
As ROOL celebrates its first birthday, Martin Hansen studies the project's past and looks to the futureOpinion - It occurred to me this week that RISC OS Open is one year old this month. I checked by searching back through the news archives. Yes, there it is: the first proper mention of ROOL popped up on July 9 2006. That was an exciting moment. Unexpected too. Castle had taken the brave decision to begin the release of the RISC OS source code. ROOL, a new company founded by five experienced RISC OS enthusiasts, was the vehicle through which RISC OS source code would be made available to those who could handle it.
Anyone who wanted to was free to hack, modify, experiment and enhance the computer code at the very heart of the operating system. Good ideas, well coded, would be folded back into the source and so become a part of RISC OS. The ROOL team would oversee the entire activity and provide the system with quality control.
Opening up the RISC OS blue prints was a courageous initiative. From Castle's point of view, it was loosening the grip on a precious commodity, its intellectual property. Furthermore, it was a public admission that they were too small a company working too small a market and with too few resources to develop RISC OS further by themselves.
It can be a difficult thing to do, to ask for help. Many a business in the computing and electronics industry has gone bust through a combination of pride and failure to adapt to changing circumstance. Castle went through considerable internal agonizing before finally deciding to go down the shared source path.
When writing this article, I wasn't sure if I should emphasise that ROOL was one year old. It's so easy to slip into a negative mode of thought, and from such a position observe that after a whole year it is still not possible to run a version of RISC OS 5 on Iyonix that is better or fuller featured than that of a year ago.
The truth, however, is that the idea embodied by ROOL was reported upon at an early stage. It has taken a year to turn the idea into a workable practicality. Setting up a website to manage the system under which code could be accessed, worked on and returned was, I think, done quickly, yet professionally and to a high standard. Let us not forget, the enthusiasts making this happen, Steve Revill, Ben Avison and Andrew Hodgkinson, are doing so in their spare time.
Getting the wording of the conditions under which the source code would be released, in batches, took months. Castle, not unreasonably, wanted a modest financial return should RISC OS be used in a commercial product. That meant that a legal and properly worded license had to be drawn up. Better to get that correct at the start than to have problems later on.
A big time-eater must have been making sure that code posted on the ROOL website was legally theirs to give. All sorts of individuals and companies have contributed bits to RISC OS under various arrangements dating back years. ROOL have have to be careful not to take liberties with these previous agreements.
For my part, I feel quite positive about how ROOL is developing. The amazing fact is, that one year on, code is available. If the fact that the !Draw application features a "Save as" box that violates what is in the RISC OS 3 Style Guide bothers you, you can now get in there and sort it out. Being able to understand BBC BASIC, C and ARM assembler are the main requirements.
I suppose I can no longer complain about that "feature" in the !Chars application. The one that causes every press of the <shift> key to insert, into whatever window has the input focus, the random letter that happens to be under the mouse pointer. Given that <shift> gets pressed every time a capital letter is required it does not make for a good hot key which, presumably, was the original intention. Rather than complain, I can now sort it out for both myself and all other future users of RISC OS 5.
In more detail, the first batch of code published on the ROOL website featured utilities such as CloseUp and Chars, major desktop applications such as Paint, Draw, Edit and Pinboard, and large parts of the OS relating to the handling and integration into the system of a CD drive such as, for example, CDFS, CD device drivers and the CD filer. The BBC BASIC module is available in its entirety.
It is an encouraging first posting of material that was partly selected for the ease with which it could be made legally available and partly because even a less technically minded user would recognise what was being talked about and feel included. Opening up software successfully is all about inclusion.
Steve Revill, one of the ROOL five, recently assured me that this was indeed the first of several postings of code that would be made available from the ROOL website. As well as simply posting the code on the website, the ROOL team have begun to actively invite specific people who might be particularly interested in enhancing particular pieces of code to do so.
They are thus enjoying a lively dialogue about which parts of the OS are particularly wanted and which would be enthusiastically pounced on once released. I asked Steve if he'd be willing to let drobe publish part of what was on the current ROOL "most wanted" short list. Here is what he responded with:
• Toolbox modules and associated libraries.
• Printer stack (USB printer manager, PDrivers, PDumpers, PDFs)
• File system stack (ADFS, SCSIFS, DOSFS, FileCore, FileSwitch)
• WindowManager, FilterManager, DragAnObject, DragASprite, SpriteExtend, etc
He further explained that selecting the next components to release was an interesting process. Components were having to be released in a sensible order.
He said: "For example, there's no point releasing the kernel sources yet because even if someone were to fix a bug or add an amazing feature, they could not, as things stood, softload it. Only once more of the OS sources have been released will it be possible to build a viable ROM image for which there are tools available for a softload".
There is considerable pressure on the ROOL five to keep the process zipping along and build on the interest and enthusiasm generated by the initial, official unveiling. They know that building up momentum and a sense that the ROOL initiative is taking off are important psychologically. The knowledge is driving the team onwards to get the sources fully released and a management system to routinely handle coders' offerings set up and fully operational.
I was particularly interested to know what had happened to Tematic's Prism project. A couple of years ago I put out an article in Archive and this website on video playback under RISC OS. Sadly, capabilities in this arena have not moved on.
Cineroma continues to gather dust on its developer's hard-drive, and Adrian Lees encountered insurmountable difficulties in getting his Cino DVD player up to speed. Prism, you may recall, was an ambitious and official Castle/Tematic project to add multimedia support to RISC OS and which, allegedly, had resolved a lot of the problems that Cino was struggling with.
It was to be a part of their next-generation set-top TV box offering. Andrew Hodgkinson, one of the ROOL five, was fully involved with this project prior to Castle having to axe it in the autumn of 2005. Alas, the Prism code will have to stay under wraps for the time being due to the terms and conditions under which it was developed and financed. All of the ROOL team would love to see it released, but to do so is problematic. So, two years on, I still cannot unwrap those irritating Quicktime and Windows AVI files using RISC OS nor, if I could, am I likely to be able to play what is inside - which is a shame.
Not everyone who wishes ROOL well is able to help by enhancing the RISC OS 5 source code. Encouragingly, ROOL are receiving offers of help with other aspects of the project, especially with the administrative side of the business. As ex-Acorn and ex-Pace engineers the ROOL five should ideally at some point be able to switch from the task of getting the sources released, setting up forums, and negotiating with potential developers by email, to being amongst those free and able to get stuck into the code itself.
Part of the quality control will presumably involve them having to help with the odd stubborn bug thrown up by new offerings and providing intricate help as a less experienced contributor struggles with a particularly involved passage of code. Their role will have to evolve as time passes.
The most exciting thing about ROOL is that it does have the potential to become big. RISC OS is now a small band of enthusiasts, and we are down, but with initiatives such as ROOL, definitely not out. NetSurf is a glowing example of what can be achieved by a focused and motivated set of individuals doing something for love rather than money. With just twenty coders working in their spare time, RISC OS 5 could really start to develop and move forward fast. It's taken one year to get the idea turned into a reality that is more professionally set up and managed than I thought possible when I first heard of it. I am optimistic that over the next year we'll start to see some significant progress being made.
RISC OS Open website
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