"Insider" on current developments
Some odd things have been going on at PACE and RISC OS Ltd recently and I have been asked by our Editor to try and find out exactly what. As you may know, PACE are a little tight lipped when it comes to revealing exactly what they are doing. However with a bit of research and filling in a few blanks you can get a very good idea. Of course PACE are a separate company with no real links to the RISC OS market, except one, they own RISC OS. So the actions they take could have a very direct impact on desktop users of RISC OS. Other big things are also happening with the manufacturers of desktop machines. So by asking the right questions of the right people I hope to be able to fill in the blanks.
As an example of what PACE have been doing consider the new 32 bit C libraries released by RISCOS Ltd recently. This is a direct result of PACE needing to convert applications written in C to run on 32 bit only processors. The current version of RISC OS and many applications run in 26 bit mode. However once the new XScale processors from Intel appear the 26 bit mode will be dropped. So future computers will have a 32 bit processor and will need a 32 bit operating systems with 32 bit applications. It makes a great deal of sense for PACE to write a 32 bit compiler and then make it available through RISC OS Ltd.
PACE have also approached a number of well known RISC OS developers to produce 32 bit versions of their current applications. So a future PACE set top box will be able to run 32 bit versions of a popular wordprocessor and many other applications and utilities. However I am not allowed to tell you which ones.
Castle Technology and Millipede
Suggestions are popping up from all over the place that the next Castle Technology Computer will be based, in part, on the Imago motherboard from Millipede. This could make sense. In order for Castle to maintain its current position it will need a computer to take on the Microdigital Omega head to head. The current design for the Imago board uses an existing StrongARM processor design with the possibility of plugging in an XScale at a later date (the same as the Omega - ED). I know the release date for the Omega, as I am sure do Castle, and they will have to move quickly to try and catch up.
It as also been suggested that Castle will be showing a prototype machine running at the Wakefield show. This seems very likely as Paul Middleton of RISCOS Ltd has already hinted about the release of RISC OS 4.5. Indeed rumours suggest that the motivation for RISC OS Ltd taking on a programmer working inside the Cambridge offices of PACE was to get RISC OS running on the Imago (or a similar -ED) motherboard.
As many readers will know the XScale is the name for the new generation of high performance StrongARM processors that will be manufactured by Intel. However the processors are not currently available. Even pre production examples can't be obtained yet. Once they do become available only Intel registered developers will be able to obtain them. Of the four companies currently working on desktop machines (Castle, Microdigital, RISC Station and Millipede) only one seems to be registered with Intel as a developer. Strangely enough the one that is registered seems to be the closest to releasing a new machine.
Just In Time
So accepting that in order to make future machines we need 32 bit applications and an operating system, what can be done about current applications, such as ArtWorks, that are 26 bit only. Well the rumour mill suggests that both PACE and RISC OS Ltd are working on a Just In Time (JIT) application that will convert old 26 bit code to the new 32 bit version just before the code is required by the processor. RISC OS programmers may well end up working on this problem almost full time. Just In Time may not be of great use to PACE in the long term, however it would be of a great deal of use to makers of desktop computers such as Castle Technology and Millipede. (Strangely enough Cerilica were talking about a JIT application at RISC OS Southwest - ED)
RISC OS Ltd
While it seems that RISC OS Ltd have been working with Castle and Microdigital on getting RISC OS running on a new motherboard other strange things have happened. The new version of !Printers has been removed from the RISC OS Ltd website, though you can still obtain it from Icon Technology! Also the proposed Disk Fixer has vanished, presumably so that it does not conflict with the Arm Clubs release of DiskKnight. However Paul Middleton of RISCOS Ltd was confident about the release of RISC OS 4.5, and at a later date the full 32 bit RISC OS 5. We will have to see. However I would not be surprised to see the new Castle computer running RISC OS 4.5, while other manufacturers are stuck using RISC OS 4.
No XScale? No problem!
While the Xscale isn't currently available another high powered RISC based processor is, and has been developed over a number of years. The manufacturer is Hitachi. The 128 bit Hitachi processor seems to have a similar instruction set to the ARM designs. The Hitachi also has full floating point capabilities. The processor can also be linked to a Power VR graphics set with great ease. Although this may not mean much to many it is very important. PACE has just signed a deal with SEGA to licence the DreamCast chip set (Hitachi processor and Power VR graphics). One developer in the RISC OS community has been approached with regard to porting their product to "an un-named" processor, I wonder which one?
PACE have have spent a great deal of time and money writing compilers and other tools to help with RISC OS development, could they have written a cross compiler for another "foreign" processor?
I will leave you with one important thought. The RISC OS we know and love is not same as the RISC OS that PACE are using. PACE will develop their own flavour of RISC OS for their own purposes. One only has to hack about a Bush STB to see what is missing from a normal desktop version of RISC OS. RISC OS Ltd, computer manufacturers and users can benefit greatly from the work PACE is doing. However all ways remember when PACE say RISC OS, they mean their own version, which could end up being quite removed from the operating system on our desktop machines.
PACE have just demonstrated their new set top box design to selected parties, I hope to have more details soon. (Don't worry I have them check out the PACE STB article - ED)