Evolving Acorn Hardware to Citrix ICA and Windows
Andrew Harmsworth won't get rid of his Acorn machines....
Few things in life are as reliable as an Acorn. Ask any school IT technician who has worked with them for the last 10 years or so. They will tell you how easy their job was until some curious devices, called PCs, marched onto the educational scene.
PCs are here to stay in schools. The momentum that began with the launch of Windows 95 has grown stronger ever since. Anything that stands in the way of the dominant Microsoft machine is in for a pounding.
Part of the great strength of the Windows environment is its internet software, most specifically the two major web browsers, Internet Explorer (IE) and Netscape. Like it or not, without these and their innumerable plug-ins, enjoying the full experience of the web is an unachievable aim. For whatever reason of economics, these feature-rich, stable and useful programs are also free. Castle have done well with the release of Oregano, but it just isn't enough - and it costs about the same as a new PC for the site licence.
Another PC strength is the size of the installed base: Windows is everywhere, and so too is the Office software. The kids have it at home; their parents use it at work. We would be crazy to provide them with anything else without a very good, educationally valid, reason. These reasons do exist, but they are a feature of my next article.
There are partial solutions to the incompatibility problem. For starters, Icon Technology's excellent EasiWriter could be run to allow the loading, saving and manipulation of Microsoft Word documents. This has also proven a popular way of eliminating the possibility of infection of a school network from viruses distributed as Macro viruses, and also on PC-format floppies.
Spreadsheet compatibility has always been a problem. Longman Logotron's Eureka was an excellent solution, but it never handled Excel workbooks. This literally meant that if someone gave you an Excel file with two documents built in, Eureka could not cope. That it is no longer being developed means that forking out for it is not a sensible investment. Softease's relatively new Textease Spreadsheet will shortly cope with Excel files, but it is a little late in the day for most schools now.
I could list many more major program genres that offer curious compatibility issues to a school running Acorns. The bottom line is that even if you can load the document, the program that you load it in is not the same as the one it was written on - so you need to know how to use two programs to do similar things. Frequently, of course, the RISC OS program won't operate in the same way as the PC counterpart, or will lack features. The result is frustration of pupils and teachers alike.
When faced with the 'problem' of a lab of RiscPC 600s, running the out-of-date, incompatible Impression Publisher; the low-feature and stability-impaired Fresco; the dire Marcel; the dated, incompatible Resultz; and so on... what does one do? The kit is sound: the RiscPCs have run for years with problems few and far between. It would be a shame to move them into a cupboard or (as does happen) into a skip, and replace them with shiny new PCs.
In steps Microlynx with their TopCat solution. This allows you to do something very clever indeed. As long as you have a network, you can attach a powerful PC server onto it running Windows and some software from Citrix, called Metaframe. The TopCat software allows you to turn your Acorn machine into a network computer; essentially a terminal of the PC. So, overnight you can run Office, Internet Explorer, Eudora, and so on.
The cleverest part of TopCat is that it still allows you to run RISC OS programs locally on the Acorn machine. When the RiscPC was introduced, one of its major selling features was the secondary processor - the PC card. This promised to allow the running of Windows applications on a RISC OS machine. It worked, but was never a truly satisfactory solution.
Network Computing works.
It is true that advocating the use of Windows and its applications in this way is in direct conflict with the idea of "supporting" the RISC OS scene. The difficulty is that standard RISC OS machines do not offer compatibility with the machines staff and pupils have at home (in most cases). It is also true that desktop publishing can adequately be taught using Impression, that spreadsheet work can be learned through Resultz, and that database manipulation is possible using Pinpoint. However, with more and more homes acquiring a PC, it is not a sound argument to justify remaining with your old Acorns through "generic application teaching". This was valid in the mid-1990s. It remains partially true, but in itself is not enough.
By converting your current Acorn computers to run as ICA (Independent Computing Architecture) clients, you are in one stroke enabling the retention of this kit, and your favourite software. Furthermore, you allow the rapid growth of your network through the purchase of low-price NCs (Network Computers).
RISC OS NCs are available from two sources: Cumana and Surftec. They are considerably cheaper than a PC, and take up much less space. They can be turned off and on, without the worry that the machine will stop working. They allow you to load RISC OS software onto them over the network. They run Windows as an ICA client, with full functionality.
What's the catch?
Well, running multimedia over a network has never been easy, and via Metaframe is still problematic. This also means that streaming video over the internet is not possible. Whilst annoying, both are hard enough on a network anyway, and the provision of "standard" applications far outweighs the desire for their provision.
You also have to pay a licence fee for Windows, per machine that it is to be served to. The same is also true for Metaframe, and TopCat. Nevertheless, it remains a competitive solution, and has the major bonus of allowing RISC OS software to be run as well.
Since converting first generation RiscPC 600s to ICA clients over the summer of 2000, the school in which I work has been transformed. For me personally, web access (via our ADSL connection) has enabled me to produce new teaching materials at a far faster rate. I have also been able to teach the correct use of Excel in scientific analysis and graphing, which has reduced the occurrence of poor quality work produced on their own PCs.
For the pupils, they are now able to bring work in from home, and get on with it in the school. Similarly, they are able to take files home, safe in the knowledge that they will load immediately. The same applies to staff, who are now happy with the system.
Aged Acorns are useful machines, but are frustrating in too many ways now, compared to home PCs. The upgrade to RISC OS 4 and StrongARM processor may bring them into line, usability wise, with a home PC, but faster operation does not solve the software crisis. Nor does the dual-upgrade come cheap: it's the price of a brand new PC system! Last year I suggested to Castle and RISCOS Ltd that if they really wanted to stem the desertion of Education away from RISC OS, they should consider offering the StrongARM/OS 4 upgrade at cost price to schools. Alas, in a market this small, it would have been a bold move with no immediate benefit to the two companies involved, and did not happen.
Rather than migrating away from the platform, schools should consider evolving to the ICA client set-up. It meets the needs and desires of staff, pupils and parents alike, whilst keeping the RISC OS machinery we all know and love in place. This allows you to continue to use the investment you have made in RISC OS software, and even allows you to buy newer titles, assuming they are released.
At the BETT show, Castle's Jack Lillingston told me that they were working on an educational solution that would take the entire market by storm. Assuming this arrives sooner rather than later, retaining old Acorn kit could be the best move a school has made in the ICT field for years.
Opinions in this article are my own, and not necessarily those of my employer.