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Oregano

The Castle Technology Web Browser examined by Robert Richards

Oregano has been available for well over a year now, probably anyone who uses the internet knows that it is the browser from Oregan Networks that is published for desktop users by Castle Technology. However, as with any product I'm sure there are many people who haven't yet got Oregano, and need something other than marketing blurb to make a decision. When I saw the editors plea for a reviewer I jumped at the chance.

I'll begin by looking at the inspiration behind the release of Oregano for desktop users, what the perceived needs were and how well Oregano achieves those aims. Finally, a look to the future and what we can expect in the coming months and years.

"For the platform to be effective in the market place that currently exists, effective web browsing is essential". The words of John Ballance in reply to being asked about the reasons for Oregano appearing in desktop machines. I tend to agree. While much hyped, the internet is becoming increasingly important for work, leisure and education. But wait a minute, don't we already have web browsers available for our platform? Well yes we do.

There's Browse, whilst good it hasn't seen any development for around three years and is hence becoming rather long in the tooth. No javascript locks you out of banking and shopping sites. Cascading style sheets and HTML 4 are unsupported so it can't really be considered an ideal solution.

What about Fresco? I used Fresco for several months before buying Oregano. On the face of it, Fresco is a very capable browser, javascript, 40 and 128 bit SSL get you into shopping sites. Unfortunately, Fresco is very bugged particularly the later versions which include all the useful stuff like SSL. Many sites don't work with Fresco or even cause it to crash - in extreme cases this brings the machine down. Ant no longer develop a desktop version of Fresco, and the rumour is they won't unless there are 50,000 potential customers.

And there's RComps WebsterXL. I'll confess I've never used the full version, but it is frequently updated and users report it's able to cope with many shopping sites. Out of three commercial browsers only, one was in development and it was by no means perfect.

Castle looked at all the options. Fresco and Browse both needed lots of work doing to bring them up to scratch, but more importantly nobody was committed to future development. Somehow Castle and Oregan started talking and both companies saw an opportunity. Oregan were commissioned to make changes to their existing STB Oregano product to make it suitable for desktop use. This primarily consisted of being able to use multiple windows and other changes specified by Castle to make Oregano behave like a standard RISC OS application.

So, we now have a partnership committed to producing a browser that outperformed those already available, and more importantly perform well enough to be considered a truly modern browser suitable for general surfing, banking and shopping. But have Castle and Oregan managed to achieve those goals?

Buying Oregano

When you buy Oregano, you get sent a CD with a demo version of Oregano, and some freeware mail and dialler software. Most will already have some mean of connecting to the internet and using email, but it's a useful addition. If you already have any internet software installed, I'd advise you choose the "Oregano only" option otherwise there's a good chance that the installer will break your existing setup in some way. Another annoyance with the installer is that it will overwrite things like !Flash with it's own version, even if it's replacing a newer version than it's installing. I'd say it would be a pretty good idea to back up !Boot before installing Oregano, as whilst the installer is easy to use it isn't exactly configurable.

After installing Oregano, you must visit a secure server and download an update (using a unique registration key) that turns the demo into the full version. This is evidently to stop piracy, and it works well. Once the update is downloaded everything is automatic and simply quitting and reloading Oregano is the only action the user needs to perform. The same process is used for installing updates as and when they become available.

I did suffer from a corrupt download (as have a fair number of others) but Castle Technology were quick to respond and reset the server so I could have another go. I was even told how to save out the downloaded file before the autoupdater ran so that I wouldn't need to have the server reset again if the installation became corrupt for some reason. Perhaps these instructions could be included with the CD?

Also on the CD is a special offer for the Warm Silence Software Netplex server suite, as well as information about the various plugins WSS offer.

One final point is the system requirements needed for Oregano. You need RISC OS 3.5 or later and a minimum of 8MB RAM. Just loading Oregano gobbles about 3-4MB and 8MB is easily reached if you have a few windows containing images opened. Yes, Oregano is a memory hog. In practice, I doubt if anyone with a machine running 3.5 will have less than 8MB of RAM anyway.

Documentation

A PDF file is included on the installation CD. It runs to around 50 pages, and whilst brief covers everything most people are going to need to know fairly nicely. One slight problem is that no software is included for reading the file. No problem if like me you already have !PDF or something similar, but it does seem a bit of an oversight - I'm sure the authors of !PDF would have agreed to it's conclusion.

That aside, the manual is well written, and contains lots of appropriate screenshots to guide you through the application. Beginners should have absolutely no trouble getting to grips with Oregano. Also included is an HTML help file accessed via the main Oregano menu which has a handy list of keyboard shortcuts.

In use

OK, a nice auto-updater and good documentation, but lets get to the acid test, none of this is much good if the browser doesn't perform. Let's try a fairly ordinary site, Yahoo!. Well not too surprisingly Oregano copes fine and renders the site properly. Trying a few links we can see it's fine for general browsing.


Oregano displaying Yahoo.

A nice feature of Oregano is that the toolbar is very compact. The URL entry icon is nowhere to be seen in normal use, it's activated by clicking in the space where the current sites title appears. It's a bit strange but after a while you don't notice and it helps keep more screen available for looking at the web pages. The toolbar and window furniture are rather garish, but as is the fashion these days, Oregano is 'skinnable'. A number of different styles are available from the mailing list website, it's even possible to create your own.


Oregano displaying the iconbar.co.uk site.

I decided to try and buy some rail tickets from www.thetrainline.com. This was something I did frequently when I had a PC, but was impossible once I started using RISC OS. Fresco just couldn't cope with the site, often crashing on the first page and never got close to completed a booking.

Oregano coped perfectly with the site first time and has done subsequently. There have been a couple of occassions when the site has throw up various errors or acted strangely, but these turned out to be problems with the site itself and not Oregano.

How about internet banking? Well, I bank with HSBC and their internet banking service works faultlessly with Oregano. Again, this was something that just wasn't possible with Fresco. It must be said at this point that Oregano does not work with all internet banking services. This is a bit of a moot point, generally these sites require Java, or special code to run on the client machine. If RISC OS had a decent Java virtual machine, almost all these sites would work properly. Castle are aware of the problems with certain banking sites and are making big efforts to ensure that the next release of Oregano works with a wider range than at present.


Internet banking

"There will always be sites that are just too wedded to PC's, and sites that send you Pc code to run", says John. The intention appears to be to ensure that Oregano will work with anything that doesn't specifically require a PC to work.

Some shopping sites also cause problems. For example trying www.blackstar.co.uk results in Oregano crashing and disappearing from the iconbar! Incidentally, this is about the only time Oregano has crashed on me. Whereas it wasn't unusual for Fresco to crash several times an hour on even fairly plain sites, it's a surprise if Oregano crashes. However I've shopped at Dabs, Jungle, WHSmith, a theatre ticket retailer, UK Shareware registration with Oregano and all worked without problems.

Web-based email sites also work a treat, as do restricted access sites that pop up a box asking for a username and password to enter. One bug concerned with this is URL's entered in the form name:password@www.somesite.co.uk. This is a handy way to avoid having to enter user name and password details, but it result's in Oregano being unable to fetch the page.

More generally, some sites state that you must be sing a particular version of MS Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator to enter. Thus, attempting access with Oregano results in being directed to a "go away and upgrade" page. This can be got around in most cases by setting Oregano's faking options in the "Choices" window. Faking can be set to various versions of IE and Navigator, as well as Mozilla. There is only one site I have come across that this fails with, www.msn.co.uk which insists on MSIE to let you in. This is a good example of a site that is too wedded to PC's. Annoyingly it's for no good reason, it is just a web portal like Yahoo or Drobe - though in this case it's run by Microsoft. It demonstrates the problem of ignorance on the part of some web designers. There's no technical reason why Oregano can't display the content of the site, but the maintainers just don't know anything other than PC browsers.


Choices - you've got them all.

There's no easy way out of this. The only solution is to make Oregano as good as possible and hope that site maintainers wake up and realize that the world does not start and end at Microsoft. Fortunately the proliferation of TV STB's like the Bush box seem to be having an effect. = The Tesco website for example has a version specifically designed for these users. There's hope yet that web designers will become more aware of the need to cater for users on different platforms.

One pretty huge problem with Oregano is that as supplied it has no cache.

Thus, clicking on the 'back' button results in everything being refetched from the server instead of being pulled from hard disk as with Fresco, Browse, IE etc. This can make browsing rather slow if you like to hop backwards and forwards through a site. I have got used to just opening links using the adjust button, which brings them up in a new window. This keeps the previous page in the old window, so there's no need to refetch it. But of course, opening new windows means Oregano uses more RAM, and it already uses a lot. It's also a bit messy having so many windows open at once.

Some people who also own Browse have managed to get the cache program supplied with it to work with Oregano. However, for many people this isn't an option because they don't own Browse.

The solution offered by Castle at present is an unsupported copy of Navaho downloadable from their web site. Navaho is much more than just a web cache, it's a full server suite. It's also full of bugs, complex to set up and unstable. Given the excellent stability of Oregano itself it's a shame to have it let down by something like this. Really, it isn't an acceptable solution and fortunately there is a much better alternative available.

Image Software have recently released two spin off products from their ImageProxy software specifically designed for use with Oregano. Cassia is simply a web cache whilst Nutmeg also offers saving of web sitess in a usable form to the local machine. Cassia costs 5, and nutmeg 20. Although I don't yet have either package, reports are that they are extremely well supported, with requests for new features often being implemented in a matter of days.

Castle have said in the past that although they regard a cache as a top priority, Oregan view it as of very low importance - but isn't needed for Oreganos main market. I asked John if it was possible we could see either Casssia or nutmeg bundled with Oregano in the future. John replied that it was unlikely to be bundled as it could cause problems with regard to people asking for support from Castle. However, he did say that it was possible there could be some sort of special offer as with the Netplex offer at present.

There is a bug with regard to table rendering. Occassionally Oregano will decide that the table is about three miles wide and stretch the contents over hundreds of screen widths. This is simply cured by clicking the "reload" button, most of the time the page renders properly second time around.

Oregano does not use the RISC OS font manager, utilising instead it's own font system. This is a consequence of it's STB parentage. Whilst there's nothing wrong with his approach, it does seem a bit clumsy.

Support and the Future

There is an Oregano mailing list which Castle Technology staff read and sometimes contribute to. News of progress with the new version (known as Oregano2) is posted here. Also, a direct email to Castle about specific problems (such as the corrupt download) results in a prompt reply. In the past Castle have used the mailing list to ask users for examples of sites which cause problems, so the new version can be made to work with them.

When Oregano was initially released, there were a number of updates, bugfixes and new features introduced. A new version was tentatively promised for around Christmas at the Epsom Show. When that didn't happen Oregano2 was supposed to have been available at Wakefield, then we were told it would be available the week after Wakefield. Well it's a month after Wakefield and we're still waiting.

John is hoping that the Oregano2 preview will be available by the time you are reading this. It won't be released until it reaches "standards of coverage and stability" this is fair enough. However, the repeated imminent releases and then silence are frustrating. Castle have repeatedly assured users that they are receiving new versions thick and fast, but haven't elaborated on the changes that have taken place. The odd progress report, even once a month, would go a long way towards allaying some of the criticisms people have.

One of the reasons Oregano2 is taking so long is that the entire application has been rewritten. All STB and desktop versions will have a common core, with a veneer for each platform to make it easier to maintain a common version for all platforms. Ironically, this is what Ant have done to Fresco since dropping development of the desktop version! What this means in practice is that it will be much easier for Oregan to maintain Oregano. It also means that work on the desktop version is partially funded by third parties (STB version customers), so it helps keep the cost down for you and me.

Eventually, the STB version will have Flash 5, Shockwave extensions and a Java virtual machine. Much of the code for this will be in the core. The question for the RISC OS market is then whether licenses to use these technologies can be secured at a cost acceptable to users. The code will already be written and ready to use, partly paid for by other customers so the actual development cost borne by desktop users should be fairly small.

John says that one of the reasons for choosing Oregano was that it offered "the best value for money [and] the best prospect for competent continued development". Certainly this would appear to have been a prudent decision given that it now looks likely that Oregano will have modern implementations of Flash, Shockwave and Java. When that happens, there will be very few inaccessible sites.

It appears that as with the font manager, these plugins will use their own interface rather than the standard RISC OS methods. Presumably the RISC OS veneer will include support for the RISC OS plugin interface so that the SVG and sound plugins from WSS, for example, still work.

Summing up

In the 8 months I've been using it, I've found Oregano to be a very capable and stable browser. It copes with the majority of shopping sites and many banking facilities. More importantly, Oregano is well supported by Castle Technology and Oregan and looks likely to become even better in the future.

There's no doubt that Oregano is a much better browser than Fresco. Whilst WebsterXL offers a similar functionality, it is less stable and horrendously slow compared to Oregano. On balance therefore, it's probably fair to say that Oregano is at present the best browser available for RISC OS notwithstanding it's faults and lack of a cache.

Compared to Internet Explorer on the PC Oregano has a few limitations, mainly due to sites that require some version of IE. A more realistic comparison can be made with Opera, which I have used under BeOS. I would say that Opera and Oreagno deliver a similar level of functionality to the user.

With the ongoing developments to Oregano, and a new version scheduled to drop out sometime soon the future for effective RISC OS web browsing looks a lot brighter than it did before Oregano appeared.I'm not saying WebsterXL is a bad browser by any means, but a bit of competition should help both teams to build on the success seen so far.

Is Oregano worth the money?

Yes.

Robert Richards

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