RISC World

Interview with Paul Richardson of Explan

Paul Johnson

Paul Richardson of ExpLAN, maker of the ground breaking Solo machine (amongst other things) has agreed to tell us some of his thoughts regarding the RISC OS arena...(interview conducted via e-mail just prior to Wakefield).

PFJ: Paul, how long have you been involved with the RISC OS market as either the boss at ExpLAN or in any other guise?

I first met the BBC Model A in 1981 when it was undergoing pre-trials for acceptance in the UK Government scheme to place 2 computers into each school in the country. At that time I was working for a computer research department in Plymouth that later became one of the MEP training sites. I was on Acorn's first technical training course in Cambridge the next year, run by John Coll, where he showed us a prototype 40-track floppy disc drive that could store 100k. ExpLAN released its first software product in 1984, a menu-system for BBC computer running on Econet servers developed by SJ Research.

PFJ: In that time, what would you consider to be the most significant change to the RISC OS market?

The development of the ARM processor. I understand that Olivetti actually 'bought' the majority share in Acorn in 1986 without even being told that the Arm existed. I still don't think they knew what to do with it when they found out.

PFJ: ExpLAN has always been associated with the printers side of RISC OS. What do you currently think of the state of printer drivers for RISC OS and what would you consider to be the best approach for modernisation of them?

Hmmm. Although we had beta-tested version of !Printers for Acorn since 1994, we only actually became involved with printer driver development in the spring of 1999 when I became one of the founding shareholders of RISCOS Ltd. I realised that the company's scheduled targets laid down in the share prospectus were so demanding that we ought to keep the main programmers doing the core work.

Printer drivers could be done by others like us, especially as it often meant long months negotiating for the release of confidential documents from printer manufacturers. And since an OS without wide support for the main mass-market printers would be particularly unattractive, ExpLAN spent almost a year creating drivers and delivering bug reports back to ROL. We weren't commissioned or being paid to do so, but if the OS was to survive and grow, then someone had to address those issues.

There has been little movement in the ongoing maintenance of !Printers since version 1.64 was released FOC at the beginning of March 2000. We handle one or two tech-support calls or emails each day on !Printers issues, so I have a fair idea of the problems being experienced by the majority of end users. There are now very few basic A4 inkjet printers that can be run from !Printers, and this obviously reflects on our ability to 'sell RISC OS' to fresh pastures.

I don't mind how it's resolved. Either ROL could add in the necessary code enhancements to their existing !Printers, to enable others to write the required drivers. Or we could see ROL step to one side in favour of a new printing system. If Pace's printing system were available, then that too is a good base to start from. However, no one is going to spend time developing a better approach if ROL is minded to work further on their !Printers code. There is no sense in dividing the market by going into open competition.

PFJ: Is the Solo project ExpLANs first foray into the world of hardware and how has it been so far?

We've done other hardware products before, going right back to buffer-boards and motor drivers for schools teaching computer control to pupils using BBC model B's. We also released several network connection systems, including surge suppression units, mainly for Research Machines 480Z networks! Solo is our first full computer, however. There are 14 companies and individuals who have contributed, half of whom come from the known 'RISC OS camp'. The others include casing and materials specialists, and Iridium with whom we're working on inbuilt satellite communications.

PFJ: How does the SOLO differ from other RISC OS machines, given it is based around the RiscStation/Simtec motherboard (with all of it's power advantages)?

Only the first two (of three) prototype stages are based on the RiscStation motherboard. Even then there are extra boards hung on to provided additional features such as direct LCD screen driving. The pre-production (Mk III) prototypes are to use Arm9 processors and will no longer conform to the standard layout of connections at the back of the motherboard. We don't need most of the usual connections, but we do require USB, satellite aerial, and PCMCIA for example.

PFJ: Is it likely that we will see a version of the Solo for the UK domestic market?

Possibly. Ideally I'd like to see them imported from Africa with nice carved wooden cases!

PFJ: Will you be displaying a working model at Wakefield?

Yes. We hope to have two prototype Mk II's available, and we may even demonstrate satellite-email connectivity, although we won't have this internal to the Solo's by that time.

PFJ: Given the lack of a full 32 bit operating system, has this deterred you from shipping the Solo with another OS or are still hoping to stay with RISC OS?

We had always intended Solo's to have dual OS capabilities, from a choice of three: RO, Linux or WinCE. However, all development work thus far has been based on prototypes running RISC OS, so this is the 'face' of Solo which has been seen by the potential users. We have not been offered a version of RISC OS (32-bit) which is capable of being used on the production Solo's, although we had hoped that this would materialise from last year's announcements concerning Pace's version. It is theoretically possible to commission a version to be written, but this is morally unacceptable for the Solo project itself to support or fund. Most of the Third World countries where Solo's will be assembled and used are just emerging from decades of debt. It would be most unethical to expect them to have to fund development and ongoing maintenance of an OS on which their sole computer production facility depended. Only a 'live' generic OS can be regarded as acceptable for use on Solo's, which must exclude bespoke commissioned work.

PFJ: How damaging has the announcements of the likes of the Evolution and Omega been on the sales of current desktop machines?

We are not a major vendor of new machines to the domestic market, so it's had little effect on us directly.

PFJ: How can users help the RISC OS market out of it's current mire? Is it as simple as dumping their old Acorn machines and investing in one of the new RISC OS 4 machines or are there other ways if (for some reason) they can help out?

The Solo Project is being viewed by many people of influence in places of high authority, so there is still the possibility of it generating a separate interest from a potential investor who would like to take RISC OS in a suitable direction.... which for us would be a fully maintained generic OS.

PFJ: If such occurred, then RISC OS would become the third possible OS that could be used on a Solo if customers so wished.

I can't see that there would be a great effect from all remaining desktop users simply buying new machines. We really need fresh market opportunities with a growing user-base. Solo would be a fantastic way to achieve this if it ran RO.

PFJ: As with all companies, you will have had a "masterplan" (or road map) for how ExpLAN planned the future out. What was it?

ExpLAN is basically a facilitator, enabling others to do what they want with hardware and software. We do see Solo as our future, and we would expect to spawn new companies in the Developing World where these ideals can be realised. Ideally we would like to bring IT & Communications to the rough ends of the world. It's no accident that countries without such communications infrastructure are those favoured by terrorists, military take-overs, drug cartels, host government suppression and other destabilising influences. The Solo is a powerful tool to bring such corners of this earth into the limelight. With adequate communications to facilitate trade and gain basic education and medicine for the indigenous population, we don't need to keep waiting for the next disaster to wrench at our hearts and our purse-strings.

Tomorrow I fly out to Central Africa to discuss Solo production with other countries in that region. Let's pray that they sieze the opportunity and use Solo as an appropriate tool to shape their own destinies.

Paul Johnson