Geoffrey Potter reviews the 32bit version of Schema
The history of my Accountancy practice, and the role that RISC OS computers have played in its development and success is something for another day, but for the purposes of this article the reader only has to imagine a busy office where Windows software is confined to idle hard drives for occasional use (or more recently as a slave to Virtual Acorn), and various RISC OS computers effortlessly turn out all manner of documents on a daily basis, neatly avoiding the viruses and endless security upgrades that Mr Gates's wonderful software demands.
It may seem remarkable that Microsoft can be sidelined in such a way when so many Accountants seem to live and breath Windows software, but my practical experience is that I rarely need to use Windows software, as good as it often is, because RISC OS provides perfectly adequate and often superior alternatives. .
Until 2000, I had been using the same accounts production software for 20 years, first on a CBM computer and later via a PC card in a RiscPC, but the company who maintained this software decided to sell out to Sage and then my problems started. Sage started imposing unrealistic conditions on the use of the software so I politely told them to stuff it and decided that I would develop my own programs. A rash decision at the time as I had no viable alternative, but I was determined to have more control over my key programs and saw this as an opportunity to develop systems that better reflected the needs of my business.
Still with the proviso that as much as possible was to be RISC OS based, I soon came to the conclusion that I would best achieve my aims by using spreadsheets, but to a much greater extent than I had ever done before. I purchased and tested the three main RISC OS programs, Eureka, Resultz and Schema2 and decided in the end that Schema2 was the best for the job. This has turned out to be the right decision and whilst both Eureka and Resultz have their own particular qualities and advantages, Schema2 has provided me with the best overall tool.
Over the last three years, I have developed many spreadsheet 'programs' for use in my business and whilst my programming techniques are fairly basic, no macros for example, I am extremely pleased with the results and see no need in the foreseeable future to purchase any (Windows) commercial programs, other than a payroll. Although I have managed to develop a perfectly usable Schema2 based payroll system for up to 20 employees, in practice the growing complexity of payroll management makes it difficult and time consuming to keep up to date, so in this instance a commercial program is more efficient and actually works out quite inexpensive to maintain.
Ever since my initial involvement with the mass Acorn market through Safesell Exhibitions Ltd, the company that was owned and run by myself and my wife and through which we organised seven Acorn User Shows, I have tried to keep up with new developments in the Acorn market and as a result I have owned nearly every type of Acorn or RISC OS based computer produced since 1989, and a couple of BBC machines before that as well. It did not take long, therefore, for me to take a fancy to an Iyonix - purely on the rational basis that this would improve the efficiency of my business you understand - and although there were still a number of negative aspects to the Iyonix, even 8 months after the launch, I took delivery of the new machine in July 2003 and set it up with the help of Chris Evans from CJE Micros.
I already had an inkling that whilst a number of key programs had already been converted to 32 bit at that time and many more would run under Aemulor, my own key Schema2 program had not been converted to 32 bit and probably did not perform well under Aemulor. My fears were confirmed when I discovered that Schema2 worked adequately on small spreadsheets but was up to ten times slower than a RiscPC on large sheets.
The situation seemed impossible to reconcile and with no promise of a 32 conversion in the foreseeable future, my only alternative was to network the RiscPC to the Iyonix and carry out all spreadsheet work on the RiscPC.
The situation looked a little better around the end of 2003 when I was studying the performance figures for Virtual RiscPC and these suggested that with a powerful processor in an IBM compatible machine, Virtual RiscPC would run at up to 30% faster than a standard RiscPC. After my usual five minutes to assess the situation I decided that an A6 from Stuart Tyrell would provide me with an up to date Windows machine as well as a way of getting Schema2 to work faster, and it was not long before I had an A6 networked to the Iyonix and the RiscPC carefully stored for back up use. I now had a slightly clumsy but perfectly practical set up with which to carry on with my work.
I was still irked by the fact that Schema2 was not able to take advantage of the speed of the Iyonix and I confess to experimenting with Excel to see if there would be any advantage in converting all my Schema2 sheets to Excel sheets. Whilst it was true that after some perseverance I was able to replicate one of my most useful sheets into an Excel format and that the program loaded, calculated and saved almost instantaneously when compared to Schema2, I found Excel to be a difficult program to use and simply moving about a sheet was a chore as the wild scrolling problem could leave you literally hundreds of rows or columns away from where you intended to be. In comparison, Schema2 has a crisp and positive reaction to the scroll bars and moving around a large sheet is a doddle.
I thought that there must be other spreadsheet programs available for Windows so I trawled the net and found a number of freeware, shareware and demo programs which all looked promising but each had some basic fault which made them that less appealing. In the end I realised that there is nothing anywhere quite like Schema2 and that the grass is definitely not greener on the other side of the monitor. If I had had any serious thoughts about changing platforms then these had now definitely been consigned to the recycle bin.
In July this year, I wanted to update another system in my office and having already bought a second A6 and networked it with a RiscPC, I now wanted to replace the RiscPC with an Iyonix. This would give me two identical systems which I have found in the past to be useful in case of problems. I had resigned myself to the fact that it might be a long time before a 32 bit version of Schema2 appeared - if ever - but this did not matter too much as the A6 would handle the spreadsheet work under VirtualRPC without too much problem. .
I placed the order for the new Iyonix and extras with Chris Evans early in August but just out of curiosity I, e-mailed David Holden of APDL to ask if there was any likelihood of a 32 bit version of Schema2 being developed in the near future. I already knew that David was a key person in the possible development and distribution of any future upgrades to Schema2 and he was the one to ask such a question.
I cannot describe the joy and excitement that I felt when David e-mailed me back to say that they had already been testing a beta version of a 26/32 bit conversion of Schema2 and would I like to carry out some beta testing for him? This news was on a par with winning the lottery or hearing that Microsoft has gone bust - a truly life changing event.
David acted very quickly and e-mailed me a copy of the new program which I unzipped and loaded onto the Iyonix in a matter of minutes. The effect was instantaneous with every sheet I tried, loading fast and faultlessly, no matter what size of the sheet was. The usually slow process of recalculating, which took almost literally forever on the Iyonix under Aemulor, seemed to take no time at all on every sheet I tested and saving back to the hard disk was also much zippier than ever before.
I soon realised that this was what I had been waiting for. All those hours testing alternative programs and platforms for the ideal spreadsheet program would now fade into distant memories as this was it - the ultimate RISC OS spreadsheet program.
I do exaggerate a little of course, as this is the same Schema2 program as before with the same limitations as before and compared to Excel - well there is no logical comparison. Nevertheless, I think the simplicity of Schema2 is its strength as this gives the user much more control over the sheet programming and allows the rapid entering of formula, particularly large blocks or repetitive actions. Excel is clogged up with user friendly interventions which I find annoying and unhelpful and simply slow up the whole programing process. .
I have now been using the 32 bit beta version of Schema2 on an Iyonix every day for about two weeks, and I have not encountered any particular problems in its operation. I am, of course, only using a very small selection of the facilities available but I am confident that for everyday use, the program can be relied on.
I have carried out a few basic speed tests which give a general indication of the way the program operates on a variety of machines. I have noted that there is no common rate of increase or decrease in efficiency for each machine as some seem to handle certain operations better than others, so the following information is just a rule of thumb guidance. Also remember that the new Schema2 program is neutral in that it will quite happily work on both 26 bit and 32 bit machines. .
For clarity I refer to the old program as Schema26 and the new program as Schema32 in the following tests although these are not official designations.
If we take the RiscPC (233 MHz processor) as our standard, then there was no discernible difference in the speed of Schema26 and Schema32 on this machine and both programs behaved in an identical manner. Although this is to be expected, it does indicate that Schema32 could be used on a 26 bit machine initially and then transferred to a 32 bit machine later without the need to update or change anything.
The story is very similar on the A6 running VirtualRPC in that there is no noticeable difference in the speed of operation between Schema26 and Schema32 and both operate without problems. In some instances, however, I have noted that VirtualRPC does carry out some operations up to 30% faster than on a basic RiscPC. I am no expert, but the performance curve of VirtualRPC does suggest that the faster the processor of the host machine, the faster RISC OS programs will run under VirtualRPC and this seems to be supported by my simple tests of Schema26 and Schema32.
The development of Schema32 has set the scene for the future a far as I am concerned. With talk of faster X-Scale processors on the immediate horizon, this program is now ready to take its place in the 'essential' section of the RISC OS program library. My basis tests showed that under Schema32, no sheet loaded, saved or recalculated in more than half the time of the RiscPC and in many instances, operations were up to ten times faster than on a RiscPC. Of particular interest were operations that included insertion or deletion of columns or rows in the middle of sheets. I have literally waited an hour or two for such operations to complete on a RiscPC but on the Iyonix with Schema32, these operations now seem to take just a few minutes.
As a general observation, Schema32 recalculates or updates between two and three times faster on an Iyonix than on a RiscPC and the beta version I have been testing seems to behave very well indeed. I would have been happy with a 32 bit version that was only as fast as a RiscPC but the big bonus is that the power of the Iyonix has now been successfully mastered by this new program, and all indications are the conversion is clean and stable and should a worthwhile investment for anyone who wants to use a practical RISC OS spreadsheet which is compatible with both 26 and 32 bit machines.
I should mention the converters that come with the main program. These converters provide a limited ability to convert Schema2 sheets to other formats such as Lotus 123 and Excel, and also convert from other formats into Schema2. I have only tried the Excel converter and find that this is not actually very effective for anything other than very basic sheets using the most common formulae. Without going into too much detail, it is very much easier to work with Excel sheets on a Windows computer than to try and covert to RISC OS format and there is really no advantage in trying to convert a Schema2 sheet to Excel format.
Although great efforts have been put into producing RISC OS programs which can read Windows software, there is no way that such programs can keep up to date with the constant changes to Windows software and I think it is lost cause. I do see a great future for RISC OS, however, as other operating systems line up to challenge Microsoft's dominance and I think it is better to develop and maintain existing RISC OS software and simply use an IBM compatible machine if you want to use Windows software. (Adequate IBM compatibles can be found at your local council tip!).
For the purposes of this article I have passed on my own findings from a relatively short but reasonably inclusive test of the 32 bit version of Schema2 and I hope I have been able to convey my absolute delight with the way it operates on the Iyonix straight out of the box. This update of an old friend will certainly improve the efficiency of my business and also offer new opportunities for developing my existing programs so that they work better and faster in the future.
Having successfully completed this conversion, I hope the development team will consider adding a few improvements to Schema2. Whilst carefully avoiding the Microsoft passion of adding dozens of obscure and virtually useless operations to the software, Schema2 would definitely benefit from a little tweaking here and there, but having said that, the basic program is perfectly functional and easy to use and has proved to be reliable and stable throughout the last few years that I have been using it on a daily basis. I think the program is excellent value for money and is a very worthwhile addition to any RISC OS program collection.
STOP PRESS - I have today received a copy of the anticipated commercial package for the new version of Schema2 which includes an updated hard backed loose leaf manual and a program CD. I always found the original manual to be very helpful and written for the non-technically minded and the re vamped manual has improved on this whilst remaining easy to follow. In addition, the original manual did not include the Macro writing section which could be obtained separately, but the new manual now includes a section on the use of Macros.
I note that APDL are credited with the ownership of Schema2 and I am truly impressed with the presentation and work that has been put in to conversion of this program. There have been no short cuts here and although it has taken some time to arrive, the results are very professional and inspire confidence.