RISC World

An open letter to the powers that be

Dave Bradforth vents his spleen

Like many of us, I first gained an interest in Acorn computers in relatively early days. The year was 1987. The computer was the BBC Master 128, which at the time would have been running Granny's Garden during my time in school.

That wasn't all it was capable of, indeed software such as Pod, Interword, Teddy Bear's Picnic and many others made the BBC Micro and Master series the ideal computer for use within infant and junior schools and for a long time the Acorn series were true leaders in education.

When I moved up to secondary school, my interest only grew further with my own introduction to the Archimedes series and, courtesy of a friend, the games available for it. The presentation of the Archimedes was similar to the BBC Master 128 the red function keys across the top of the keyboard bringing instant familiarity and a desire to experiment with the desktop.

Over the years that followed, and through applications such as Vector, Impression, ArtWorks and many classic games, my school years were spent sitting on various breeds of RISC OS computer from an A3000, to an A5000 and Risc PC.

The time did, of course, arrive when I would get a Risc PC of my own a StrongARM Risc PC, in fact, from Beebug and at the time it cost a tad over £2,000 including all the bits and pieces I'd wanted with it. With my departure to university imminent, and my commitments to various Acorn magazines (RISC User and Archimedes World) the Risc PC came with me.

As Dafyd McFlanders I wrote, from my university halls, the games column in Archimedes World up until its closure. Through this I introduced many people to the Acorn world, and got them writing in the magazine, and gained some very useful experience myself.

Unfortunately, come September 1998, things were going to begin crashing down. With the closure of Acorn's workstations division, and the cancellation of Phoebe and Acorn World '98, the confidence of the Acorn market as a whole was hit; and while many companies responded positively to the news the next six months would see some significant departures including the good ship Archimedes World and the beginning of the end for RISC User.

My passion for RISC OS didn't cease, and by chance of a conversation with David Holden, we acquired the rights to Sleuth 3 from Beebug Limited; the first of many such acquisitions to form the APDL-ProAction software range. ProAction was, at the time, the name through which I was publishing software of my own, and as such an amalgamation of the names for a joint branding seemed sensible.

Some of the APDL-ProAction projects have been extremely successful, including Sleuth 3, whereas others have been less so but over the years what has become very noticeable is the rapidly increasing size of the project. What started with three titles, now has available to it in excess of 160 with the acquisition of products from Clares Micro Supplies, Beebug Limited, Davyn, most recently The Fourth Dimension and I don't doubt many others.

While this has doubtless proved worthwhile for us, actually it's been extremely worthwhile, the fact that we've been able to acquire these titles at all is a sign of the changes within the market as a whole. Clares Micro Supplies Limited was placed into liquidation, shortly after the sale of the titles to ourselves, as unfortunately they were not achieving the sales required from the RISC OS market. Beebug Limited dropped out of the Acorn market entirely from the moment we acquired their last product.

The community feel that was present in the Acorn market since my first BBC Acorn User show in 1992 is still here, but in a market that's now one fifth of the size. Other players have long-since gone, many changes have occurred over the years but the community feeling which is essentially what kept a lot of people here has always been key to it.

The hardware scenario

In 1999, RiscStation Limited announced publicly the development of the R7500 series, which ultimately would take over a year to come to fruition. Around the same time, MicroDigital announced their Mico and Castle Technology had the A7000+.

The common factor between these machines lay in the processor the 7500 series which ultimately would be the limiting factor. Despite little quirks between each machine, they were all slow in comparison to a StrongARM Risc PC and none of them offered the hoped for speed improvements from Phoebe Risc PC 2.

RISC OS 4 was added to these machines eventually, and this would prove to be a very worthwhile product; allowing for the Omega and Kinetic series to be developed. The Omega took a bloody long time, the Kinetic was too expensive by far. The net result from both companies products that you would have to think long and hard before buying.

Recent developments have been somewhat more interesting. With Virtual Acorn releasing VirtualRPC SE (and, more lately, VirtualRPC Adjust) the ability has been put in place for RISC OS dealers to supply solutions catering to the best of both worlds PC technology with the Acorn operating system.

Of course, the PCs still run Windows XP, but as a result of that if users simply must have an application for their work purposes they don't have to buy a separate PC to use it. They can still run RISC OS applications, and support the RISC OS market, but in the meantime they have to continue with their work.

The other recent development (in the last two years) has been the Iyonix PC. The Iyonix PC has as its processor the Xscale, allowing for a 600Mhz machine, but requiring that a 32-bit version of the operating system be prepared. This had significant ramifications for the software market as a whole, as any software compiled for use with RISC OS on a 26-bit machine would require recompiling but only if it was written in a language other than BASIC.

With the number of software companies that have disappeared from our market over the years, this left new Iyonix PC users without the ability to run many applications they'd depended on over the years. The new machine is fast and powerful, yes, but if you can't run software such as Impression or Sibelius because both companies have dropped out of the market how does that help you complete your work?

What was needed was a partnership, something that would allow current developers to develop and current users to emulate. Aemulor was released allowing many applications to run on the Iyonix the next part is where my spleen is vented.

RISC OS 4 and RISC OS 5 working hand in hand

Whatever you may think of the current situation, let me make this quite clear. It's not physically possible to release applications for RISC OS 5 unless you're able to release applications for RISC OS 4 as well. The market (as in those who are actively purchasing RISC OS software) for Iyonix PC software is a fraction of that for RISC OS 4-compatible software.

To release software at all, you need to bet on a combination of the both allowing for a reasonable return on your sales.

The reason? This market is now at the smallest it has ever been, and with every public argument between companies involved it hits the confidence of those in play still further. We can't afford to lose any more users, the summer months usually quiet in the build up to the big autumn shows have been their quietest ever.

We have people continuing within the RISC OS market because they have a passion for the platform; but if their own confidence is hit as a result of very public disputes, their desire to continue in the market is hit and as a result they reduce their own activities. This is a scenario that I'm only too familiar with.

What I would like to ask is very simple, and straight to the point. Can we all just get along?

As you will all know by now, I'm stepping back largely from my RISC OS activities; with the exception of Alligata Media the First Steps book will be with you by now, and we'll shortly release (via Alligata Software) a new hybrid PC/Acorn version of Repton 1. The reason for this step has been quite clear.

Necessity. It takes a lot of time to put software together, which I just don't have. However I would like to be able to look over my shoulder in six months time and still see a RISC OS market in place. Let's stop the in-fighting, let's just get on with it.

Dave Bradforth