RISC World

The case for Emulation

The starting point for this article is the recent pole on The Icon Bar. This was about RISC OS emulation and invited people to select from five options. I won't bother listing them all here, but the last one is the most interesting, it is 'Native RISC OS does everything I need'.

Now you might think that's not strictly a question about emulation, but for me, it was the most telling option, because at the time of writing only 13% of people, just over one in eight, had chosen this. Logically this means that nearly seven out of eight people who use RISC OS also either need or choose to use another operating system as well.

It's really worth pausing to digest this. It explains so much about what has been happening with the RISC OS user base in the past few years, and why Virtual Acorn is so popular. But this isn't a new phenomena, it's always been there.

So you've got a PC then?

As more and more RISC OS users also become PC users they discover that there are lots of things that their PC can do better. The sensible user appreciates this, and continues to use their RISC OS machine for the things it does best while using the PC for the things that it does best. The problem is, over the last few years PCs and PC software have got better, more powerful, faster and (proportionally) cheaper, while RISC OS has not made similar advances from where we were at the end of the millennium, so the things RISC OS is better at get fewer and fewer.

For many, as the Icon Bar poll demonstrates, something other than RISC OS has now become a necessity and the alternative OS for most of these people is Windows. Quite often this isn't from choice but from commercial or other requirements. This isn't the place to discuss the reasons, but we do need to understand that it's happening, and that ranting against Bill Gates and Windows doesn't alter the fact that for many people it's necessary. For someone who needs to use Windows the possession of a reasonably up to date PC is not optional. No matter how much they might like RISC OS it is often the case that if, for whatever reason, a decision has to be made it's the RISC OS machine that has to go. This may be prompted by lack of space, finances or a hardware failure of some kind, but if the choice has to be made between something you like, no matter how much, and something you need, it's no contest.

This leads us to...

Where do we go from here?

When the RiscPC was launched, for almost everyone who bought one it was their main computer. The PC card was therefore adequate, and only a few users also felt they needed a PC as well as their RiscPC. It would seem to me that things have now come full circle. It's the PC that, more and more, is becoming the main machine and RISC OS that is getting sidelined. This might help explain the success of VirtualRPC. It's nice to have the 'real thing', but if RISC OS is your second, not primary, OS, then a good PC with VirtualRPC is probably a very attractive combination for users who want to have their cake and eat it.

RISC OS has changed in another way as well. Whatever their faults, Acorn had a reputation for producing good quality, rugged machines. With surprisingly little refurbishment these machines will probably go on for another decade. This bears testimony to this quality. We used to sneer at the poor quality and reliability of PCs and compare them unfavourably with Acorn machines. Not any more.

The Iyonix

The Iyonix has been hailed as some sort of saviour for RISC OS. It's the first machine to use one of the new breed of ARM processors; it has a 32 bit OS; it's the fastest RISC OS machine ever; etc. etc. The trouble is that it does nothing to address the real problem, the falling user base. I would be very surprised if more than a very small number of these machines have been sold to anyone not already a dedicated RISC OS user. Indeed, it's obviously not even aimed at trying to encourage new users. We had to wait several weeks for our Iyonix to arrive. I won't recount the whole saga, except to say that when it did appear it wouldn't run for more than about 40 minutes at a time, which made software testing rather difficult, although these problems have now been fixed. I'm not trying to slight the Iyonix, if you want 'real' RISC OS hardware and you need something significantly faster than a Strong ARM RiscPC then, at present, it's your only option, but to be realistic this is not a machine that we can proudly show to the world as the 'RISC OS Flagship'. We probably all understand why it's so expensive, but how do you explain to a PC user why this machine, with a price tag of over £1.300, around twice that of a good PC, doesn't have anything like the build quality that would be expected of a PC costing a fraction of the price? The first parts a prospective purchaser sees are the case, keyboard and mouse, and when I saw these I was rather dismayed. All three are the sort of thing found in the 'bargain basement' PCs where every penny counts, and even someone purchasing a 'budget' PC would expect to find much better.

This is not a good advert for a top of the range machine. Another £15 to £20 spent on these components could have made it look much more attractive, and surely that wouldn't have been too much to expect bearing in mind its price tag.

Personally I would not like to try to persuade someone used to a modern PC to buy an Iyonix. Not only is there the problem described above, there is also the total lack of RISC OS documentation, which would make it almost impossible for anyone not familiar with RISC OS to use it. The dealer would then have to make up for this lack, which would mean they'd have to spend many hours teaching a purchaser how to use RISC OS, and this means that a dealer is going to be less inclined to promote the product. Someone buying a low cost machine wouldn't expect this level of support, but for £1,300 new users will. With a PC or Mac you can go into any bookshop or library and find lots of 'how to' books, but there's almost nothing available for RISC OS, so a good manual is absolutely essential.

With just a few more pounds spent on the case and keyboard and even a fraction of the effort put into the hard drive build (as was done with Virtual A5000 so that new RISC OS users would find it a little less unwelcoming) and a decent User Guide it might be possible to sell the Iyonix outside the current user base. However, the Iyonix I see in front of me as I write this doesn't look a very attractive package except to those already committed to RISC OS.

There are a couple more problems; with the Iyonix what you see is what you get, it's running at 600Mhz; in 18 months time it will still be running at 600Mhz. By that time VirtualAcorn will be running at or round 1Ghz on new PCs. Even if you never buy another copy of VirtualAcorn and never upgrade it as you replace your PC RISC OS will get faster and faster. Then we have the compatibility issue, a lot of programs have to be re-written to run on the Iyonix, VirtualAcorn runs 32 bit software, 26 bit software and even runs non StrongARM compatible software at greater than StrongARM speed.


For existing RISC OS users who are determined to stick with a RISC OS hardware solution come what may and who can afford the price the Iyonix is probably the way to go at the present time. It's the fastest way to run RISC OS, it is reliable (after it's been repaired), but it's dull. Stand it next to any £800 computer in PC World and it looks like a £250 toy. Apple machine sell on their looks as well as their abilities (and their processors aren't very much faster than an Iyonix either). Put the neatly designed Iyonix motherboard in a fancy case, provide a proper keyboard, a cordless optical mouse and a proper printed manual and you might be on to a winner; at least you'd be in the game. If you can't compete with PC's on performance, style or price then don't play.

So if the Iyonix can't compete what can? Another PC, that's what. Personally I don't care what hardware RISC OS is running on, I simply want to run RISC OS, if I can run it on new cheap PC hardware, or even on my existing PC then great. I will be running RISC OS. If I had to choose from the current options I would choose a real PC running VirtualAcorn over an Iyonix, and I might well even spend some of the money I save on updating some RISC OS software. If I do that I am supporting VirtualAcorn, RISCOS Ltd, the dealer I buy the machine from and the software developers who I buy software from, and I can run both RISC OS and Windows if I need to, both far faster than on a RiscPC. I can run RISC OS on machines at work, I can try to persuade friends and colleagues to try a VirtualA5000, after all it's only £30. They might like like RISC OS, but they won't spend £1300 to find out! Then they might go further and buy VirtualRPC-SE, or even a real RISC OS computer. VirtualAcorn finally frees RISC OS from expensive hardware, RISCOS Ltd and two out of three hardware manufacturers can see that, and they are embracing the VirtualAcorn solution.

For nearly two decades people who liked Acorn and RISC OS have had almost no choice. They have simply had to take what was offered. Suddenly there's almost infinite choice - and some people are complaining!!>/P>

VirtualAcorn is the future. It's a no brainer.

RISC World