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The Icon Bar: News and features: Wakefield 2006 show report

Wakefield 2006 show report

Posted by Phil Mellor on 00:00, 14/5/2006 | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Advantage 6

One year on from when the A9home was first unveiled - it was infact sneaked into the Advantage 6 show theatre in a "makeup bag" - we see the release of the A9home.
CJE, who are A6's retail partners for the A9, were "so happy" with the hardware and progress, that they were confident to begin selling it at the show.
While A6 were disappointed that they are not yet able to totally sign-off the project - there are still niggles, not major problems, with the system, such as providing USB printing (32 bit printer drivers) and the serial port is apparently "not good".
So while the A9home is "not ready for everybody", it is "getting very close". People will have to be patient for the "I want everything release". The iterative beta testing programme shows there is still some work to do, but everything is "much closer each time things go out".
Stuart Tyrrell made things very clear regarding their decision to prevent software without the correct 32 bit headers from running. "We wanted to show that RISC OS wasn't it a toy, it is a real operating system." When demonstrating the system to potential clients, it is very important that it is shown to be stable. If they download some software from the internet, and it crashes the machine, and A6 tell them that the software isn't compatible, they won't be impressed. Why doesn't the system prevent it from running? They want their clients "to feel they want to be associated with [RISC OS]".

The future

The A9home is the only version of the A9 for the retail market. Advantage 6 said they didn't want to be distracted from the other things they were working on at present. This means it is unlikely that other versions - different form factors, even a range of memory/hard disc options - will be offered.
Above all, "if people don't buy, there won't be another."
If a customer commissioned a large order and they could retain the rights, or charge less to the customer with the view to selling elsewhere, then things could change.

Mobile telephony

In the second part of their presentation, Advantage 6 showed some of the other A9 variants they were working on.
During the introduction, a phone was heard ringing over the speakers, and a window popped up on the projected A9 screen showing the caller ID. Clicking the "answer call" button allowed the audience to talk with Stuart on his mobile. You can see on the GSM aerial on the black variant of the A9 in the photos below.
The mobile telephony could be used to transfer updates to/from the system, give status reports - "I'm sure you're all thinking of a different way this could be used". The system can make calls as well as receive them.


The A9 variant that was shown had inbuilt bluetooth. An unconventional portable bluetooth keyboard was demonstrated, that worked not using physical keys, but by shining a laser on to a flat surface. (A Risc PC lid was used!) It worked perfectly, allowing members of the audience to type messages behind his back from the far end of the theatre.
Other bluetooth devices are in development, but were not able to be discussed.
The Advantage 6 presentations were impressive, not just because of the technology under development, but also because of the enthusiasm shown by the developers. Whether juggling (and dropping!) A9 homes or chatting on their chunky home made mobiles, they were obviously enjoying the rewards of their labour!


RISCOS Ltd had a new build of the operating system to demonstrate during their theatre talk. During bootup, it showed "Select 4pre8 (26bit)". We now have one common set of code for all current models, said Paul Middleton. The core version is for the A9home, other versions including the Risc PC and A7000 versions build on top of this. An Iyonix version could be another level on top of that. 26 bit or 32 bit versions can be built from the same code base. This means that ROL have one set of code to keep updated - if a bug is found in the A9 version, it will be present and can be fixed in the versions for all other machines.
The A9 ships with a version of RISC OS functionally equivalent to the Adjust ROMs. There will be a Select subscription scheme for A9 owners to provide extra features, much like for owners of any other machine (bar Iyonix). The A9 was the impetus for producing a 32 bit version; without it they would still only be supporting older models.
For future upgrades, only Risc PC and A7000 series machines will be able to use ROM updates. The R7500, Mico, and Omega have extra modules unique to that hardware, that aren't part of the core OS, so the only option for these machines is to softload the OS. Softloading will work on all machines except the Iyonix.
As for the Iyonix, a version of Select was not ruled out. The plan is to finish everything else for the core version first, including Risc PC kernel changes. It is "quite a lot of work down the road". Iyonix owners who are seriously interested and are not already Select subscribers will be contacted in a couple of months.
Paul said that the costs of development are rising, manpower in particular, and reiterated that they need a guaranteed level of return to justify any investment. He estimated that the total RISC OS market is around 3000 to 4000 people.

Select 4 features

Disappointingly, Paul couldn't demonstrate most of the new features of Select 4, because the build he had was the base version for the A9 which excludes most of them.
He spent some time asking the audience whether they preferred the 'New directory' filer window to contain a blank text box or not, and showed the window furniture in different positions, including the title bar at the bottom of the window instead of the top. "I can't think of why you'd want to do this" he said.
He showed a new feature of HForm, which allowed smart logging to be enabled on hard disc drives. He admitted that there were no RISC OS tools to make use of this feature to verify the drives yet. He also spent quite a long time recommending users with old hard drives to backup and upgrade before they lost data.
Viewfinder support will be built in to future versions of Select. If the hardware supports it, RISC OS will be able to detect the type of monitor plugged in and automatically create an MDF. This would be especially useful for machines like the A9home which would be moved between the home and office and plugged into various different monitors. He also mentioned that knowing the physical size of the monitor would allow documents to be displayed at their actual size, so that an A4 page at 100% would look identical to a piece of A4 held up to the screen.
A lot of work has gone into the internet stack. It is no longer necessary to reboot after changing the network configuration - changes can be applied straight away. Virtual ethernet connections can be set up. The aim is to make networking as straightforward as possible, and allow seamless integration into other networks (eg. Windows). This will allow RISC OS machines to see and be seen on the network, and makes the use of network attached storage through Omniclient much easier.
Paul was dismissive of requests to improve the firewall in RISC OS. "It's there because it happens to exist" he said, also stating that RISC OS doesn't need a strong firewall because it does not support most of the services that Windows is vulnerable to.
Printing is another difficult issue. Paul's view is that it seems silly to develop and charge £30 for a driver to a £25 printer. Support for Postscript 3 and/or PDF printing seems likely, and workarounds like UniPrint and connecting digital cameras directly to printers using PictBridge exist.
When asked about future developments, Paul was vague. He pointed out that it would be cheaper to give everybody a second hand PC with Internet Explorer than to develop a fully fledged browser. He rambled on for a while without really answering one person's question about implemented the feasible new features suggested on the mailing list.


"Have you got your tomatoes ready?" asks John Cartmell. "It's my fault."
Experimentations John had made with the magazine did not work, which combined with illness and other problems, and the lack of funds to hire somebody else to help out during this period, meant it took far longer to get everything sorted.
Like many companies in the RISC OS market, Finnybank doesn't have the big money spare to use when in trouble.
Issue 277 will be "out very soon" - it's out of John's hands now - presumably with the Royal Mail or printers. Issue 278 is "nearly completed"; space is left for coverage of the Wakefield show itself, and it will be out soon after the show.
John confessed that producing the magazine on a monthly basis will not happen. He's now aiming for between 6-12 issues a year, with a promise on quality rather than quantity. Issues are likely to coincide with the shows and other happenings in the RISC OS world.
The editor also asked for help in producing the magazine. He didn't want to follow the Acorn User method of working, where several people were assigned editorial roles under specific subjects and tasked with producing copy each month whether there was anything to talk about or not.
He's asking for volunteers in certain areas to check articles that come in. There won't be payment for this technical help, but there will for the articles themselves.
With regards to the status of the magazine, Finnybank and Acorn Publisher, John tried to clarify the matter. Qercus is owned by Acorn Publisher, while Finnybank Ltd has the right to produce the magazine. AP owns the copyright on Qercus and previous magazines like Acorn User, Archimedes World, and so on. Income from advertising goes to AP, and AP pays contributors for their work. The split means that if Finnybank's magazine production becomes financially unviable, the copyright and content of the magazine is safe, owned under the Acorn Publisher company. Finnybank itself has not closed down; there was a problem with submitting the previous reports to Companies House (who, John says "are never seen to be making mistakes...")
John Cartmell finished with a warning about the new Acorn Computer company. "A company legally calling itself Acorn Computer has surfaced - not resurfaced. It has no connection whatsoever with the Acorn as we knew it." He urged the audience to contact the Advertising Standards Agency or Trading Standards if they thought it was misleading. "I thought it was misleading," he said.

From the show floor

I asked Castle about any new developments, but they had nothing to say on the matter. "We never do until it's released" said John Ballance. They were showing the Iyonix in its latest cases, with some fancy large monitors, and were giving away free USB memory storage with orders over £50. They didn't see much in producing a new Iyonix with a marginally faster processor - a new machine would have to interest existing owners as well as new buyers. GeneSys shared Castle's stand. With the apparent stalling of the Firefox port, Oregano 3 is in a much stronger position in the RISC OS browser stakes. Richard Brown wants to ensure his investment pays off, and the browser is being heavily tested before it is released.
Adrian "Witchy" Graham had a working BBC Domesday system on his stand and was enthusiastically showing people photographs from their home towns. He recently obtained a Phoebe (perhaps that day?) but hasn't dared power it up yet! Next to his stand was JGH BBC software - did you know the BBC Micro is 25 years old this year? He had a mini BBC and a BBC hard drive to show off. Meanwhile, on the APDL stand, David Bradforth was selling copies of Retro Gamer and even Repton t-shirts.
RISCOS Ltd and APDL were sharing a large stand near the entrance. ROL had a PowerPC iMac that should have been running the Mac OS X version of Virtual Risc PC, but unfortunately it wouldn't start, merely giving the folorn message "demo version expired". Who says the copy protection is intrusive? ;) No sign of any Macs on the Virtual Acorn stand itself, although Aaron Timbrell said it was still in development.
Liquid Silicon provided an A9home successfully connected to a MIDI keyboard and running MelIDI, and had a second A9 connected to a touch screen display. Alan joked that you could use different fingers for the different mouse buttons! (Infact, you hold down your finger longer to use each button.)
RISCCad 10 was on demonstration and on sale, looking very smart on a flat screen monitor. RComp's new imaging software - UniScan - works much like UniPrint but for scanners. It uses Windows Imaging Architecture on a PC to interface with a scanner; apparently other peripherals like digital cameras and webcams could be integrated in the future.
I didn't get the chance to speak to Martin Wuerthner about Artworks 2 - his stand was constantly busy. The show talk was apparently excellent and very professional, receiving a loud round of applause from an appreciative audience.
I saw the new versions of TechWriter and EasiWriter on the Icon Technology stand. PDF export looks good, and the structured document format allows bookmarks to be embedded in the PDF really easily and effectively. I talked to Mike Glover about life, the universe, and everything (sorry, wrong book - Dirk Gently) and saw an EasiWriter document containing Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency as typed by Douglas Adams himself (into MacAuthor).
Ian Chamberlain was demonstrating RISC OS in action on the Qercus stand. He said he had spoken to several people who had used RISC OS in the past, and were interested in where it had got to now.
CJE were selling A9homes - you could walk away with one on the day - apparently they sold out! Good stuff.

Final words

In all, an enjoyable day. I think these days it's as much about meeting the people there as looking at the technology. Some of the theatre talks could do with some more planning, and a script writer, I think! There are still lots of developments in the RISC OS world, despite the (now, it seems) inevitable delays, and the obvious star of the show, the A9 home, gave the atmosphere a definite lift. Congratulations to the Wakefield RISC OS User Group for organising another successful show.


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The Icon Bar: News and features: Wakefield 2006 show report