RISC World

A secret history of... APDL

Dave Holden spills the beans on the history of APDL

This article was prompted by people repeatedly asking me why a company who's name clearly states that it's a PD library mainly sells commercial software and hardware. Many of these people don't even know what the 'Archimedes' stands for, since they only became interested in Acorn computers after the introduction of the RiscPC. I've therefore decided to write this short history to explain how APDL expanded from it's original PD library format.

The beginnings

APDL was formed by Peter Sykes a few months after Acorn announced their new RISC powered Archimedes computer. Peter had been aware of the large number of PD and Shareware programs available for the Atari ST and Commodore Amiga computers and thought that something similar for the new Acorn machine would be a good idea.

At the same time Paul Beverley of Archive magazine, then just launched, was thinking the same thing. The Archive Shareware discs were the first to be announced, but these were never intended to be a 'proper' PD library and so although APDL appeared after the first Archive Shareware discs it was the first independent PD library for the Archimedes computer.

In fact, the name chosen for the Archive Shareware discs caused considerable confusion for many years afterwards. Because they contained mostly PD and Freeware programs people assumed that the terms Public Domain, Freeware and Shareware were more or less interchangeable, and failed to appreciate the important difference between Shareware and the other varieties of freely distributable software. This confusion may help explain why Shareware never really took off with Acorn computers despite its similarity with the Atari ST and Amiga markets where Shareware became an important factor.

Things really took off when RISC OS 2 appeared. This was a far more attractive base for programmers to work from than the old Arthur OS. Although it was a very stable and much improved OS there were still many gaps and omissions in RISC OS 2 which left plenty of scope for people to write 'desktop enhancements' and so the PD scene flourished. There was also no internet, so PD libraries were the main distributors of this material.

In 1991 changes in Peter's job meant that he would no longer have sufficient spare time to enable him to continue to run APDL. Because of a long standing health problem I was forced to reduce the physical side of my own workload, and, partly as a result of this, had written a number of PD and Shareware programs which had been included in the APDL catalogue and those of the other PD libraries as well as writing various articles and programs, mainly for magazines (who then paid substantial sums) and mostly using pseudo names. I had also written a number of Shareware programs for the PC, and this was looking like a promising move as they were beginning to earn a significant amount of money. Knowing my situation Peter Sykes asked me if I would be interested in taking over APDL and I agreed.

Since Peter had been running APDL in his spare time I assumed that I would be able to do the same, fitting it in alongside the other computer work I was doing. Things didn't work out quite as I'd planned.

Re-inventing APDL

I had known that Peter had not been able to give as much time latterly as he would have liked to APDL and this, accompanied by a lack of promotion, had resulted in it becoming slightly run down. To revive APDL I completely re-wrote the catalogue and gave a lot more emphasis to our huge collection of clip art, which was something that no other library had. This, coupled with an advertising campaign and promotions in magazines and by attending dealer's 'open days' and other events considerably raised APDL's profile. To go with the new adverts I introduced an APDL logo (shown below), something that Peter Sykes had never bothered with.

The earliest catalogue that I can find from this period is June 1993, and by this time I had begun to supply what, for many years, became APDL's specialty - hard discs. I can't now remember exactly when I began to do this, but I can recall the motivation.

It had been possible to fit a hard disc to the earliest Archimedes computers, but most people didn't have one. They were also very expensive, though whether this was the cause of their rarity or an effect it is difficult to say. With the appearance of the A5000 with its built in IDE interface and 'add on' IDE interfaces for other models prices should have fallen but they still remained unreasonably high.

Users now expect to just go out and buy almost any IDE drive to fit to a modern RISC OS computer, but things were a bit more difficult more than a decade ago. IDE was a fairly new technology, and some makes or models of drive didn't work with some interfaces, jumper settings and connectors were not so standardised as they are now and the users of the day were unfamiliar with hard drives so tended to assume that there was something 'special' about the drives required for Acorn computers. Some dealers used this situation to charge inflated prices. I didn't think this was a good thing, so APDL began to supply hard drives and interfaces at prices that undercut just about every other Acorn dealer. This tended to make me rather unpopular with the dealers, but it ensured that the prices of hard drives (and, later, CD ROM drives) for all models fell drastically.

The first APDL CDs

I had been thinking about producing some sort of CD for some time now that, with the introduction of the RiscPC, CD ROM drives were at last beginning to appear on Acorn computers, but hadn't been able to work out a sensible way of producing a PD CD for the Acorn marketplace. At this time PC 'Shareware' CDs were very popular, with companies producing a new CD every month whose contents mainly consisted of the latest version of thousands of PC programs. The PC Shareware and PD market was so huge that there were always sufficient new programs and updates every month so this was easily possible, but there simply wasn't enough material for Acorn computers to make this marketing model viable. I didn't want to just produce a CD with all the current PD stuff crammed onto it because I was afraid that once people had purchased it they wouldn't buy any more PD software, and this would not only damage APDL's future (I was supplying in the region of 500 discs each week at this time) but I was also afraid that it would stifle development as someone who had spent around £30 (the average cost of a CD then) on a PD CD would be unlikely to want to then buy floppy discs with later versions, and this would discourage programmers.

As it happened someone else didn't have my reservations about the possible consequences and so DataFile, another major PD library, released their PD-CD 1 in September 1994. I was writing a regular column in Archive magazine at this time and I've just re-read the comments that I made. I remarked that the CD seemed to be rather hurriedly put together, as if the main aim was to have the first CD ROM on the market. It was confirmed later that was that this was exactly the case. I was already in the final stages of preparing APDL's own first CD which was actually released in November 1994, and DataFile had heard about this and rushed to be first. Two months later they had to issue an updated and improved version of the CD with the faults fixed.

In reality there was no need for DataFile to hurry. Having thought very carefully about the situation I had decided to release a CD of Acorn format clip art rather than PD programs. This seemed to me far a more sensible strategy than PD programs as it wouldn't damage the PD scene. There was also a ready market as with many more people beginning to use DTP programs on Acorn computers there was a growing demand for reasonably priced clip art and we had a huge collection.

The clip art CD was a huge success and the following year, at the 1995 Acorn World show, I released no less than three new CDs. Another, completely new, clip art CD and two CDs of PD programs. By now I had formulated a strategy for producing PD CDs. One of the CDs, PD-1, would contain serious programs and utilities, the other, PD-2, games, desktop 'sillies', music files, etc. The idea was that I would produce a new version of each CD periodically (actually, as it turned out, this was annually) and offer an 'exchange' system for people who already had the previous version. In this way I hoped to ensure continuing sales of CDs.

Meanwhile, probably due to the various PD CDs now appearing, sales of PD discs had declined. By the end of 1995, long before the internet had begun to have any effect, the two biggest PD libraries after APDL and DataFile, DataStream and Archangel, had both given up the struggle and APDL had taken them over. Since hardware sales now comprised a significant part of our income APDL was still doing very well, but DataFile was also feeling the pinch as they were reliant upon sales of PD discs and CDs. They produced three more PD CDs, five in all, but despite a brief and abortive foray into the games market the lack of a long term strategy and the growing influence of the internet meant that by the end of 1996 they were struggling and were eventually taken over by APDL early in 1998.

A new development was the sale of various Shareware programs. APDL had always tried to support programmers, and for many years we ran an annual competition awarding cash prizes for the best PD or Shareware programs. To further support the programmers we started to sell 'pre registered' copies of some of the best Shareware programs. These were normally sold at a slightly higher price than the normal registration fee, but we supplied printed manuals, which were not normally available from the authors. The fact that APDL attended most of the shows and events and could offer the software 'ready to run' at these helped to improve public awareness of these programs and develop extra sales for the programmers.

At some point during this time (I can't remember exactly when, but it was certainly before the first APDL CD appeared) the logo changed to the one people are familiar with now. The main reason for this was because APDL was now becoming much more than 'just' a PD library and I thought the old logo, with it's clear visual 'library' association, should change to reflect this. The new logo was also more compact, and this was an important consideration since advertising in magazines is expensive (we were spending over a thousand pounds a month at this time) and the new logo took up less valuable space.

By the end of 1997 APDL was well established as a major player in the Acorn scene and had diversified somewhat from its original PD library roots. A significant part of our income was still the sale of PD on floppy discs as well as various PD and clip art CDs, but the effect of the internet was now starting to make itself felt in reduced sales of PD software as more and more authors began to distribute their programs via their own web sites rather than through PD libraries. The majority of our turnover was now the sale of hard drives, CD ROM drives and interfaces.

A new beginning

Late in in 1998 I took another major step when I purchased the rights to what was then Ian Copestake's IDE interface. This was quickly developed from its original 2 device design to a new 4 device board using DMA and with built in ATAPI drivers and CDFS to enable users to connect CD ROM drives. Once again this meant a significant price reduction for Acorn computer users because not only was the interface cheap but they could now use low cost IDE drives and CD ROMs without suffering any speed penalty compared with the much more expensive SCSI alternatives.

This purchase was a new departure for APDL and highly significant because it was the first step in one part of the strategy which has kept APDL as a leader in the RISC OS marketplace while so many others, often much bigger companies, have vanished. I had been selling Ian Copestake's IDE interfaces for a number of years, since I first began selling hard drives, and it seemed to me that if I owned it myself I would be manufacturing and selling my own product and not relying upon just selling other people's merchandise as most dealers were doing. It also enabled me to invest in further development, culminating in the Blitz 32 bit high speed interface.

A 'spin off' from the purchase of the rights to the IDE interface was what was later to become the famous DataSafe. This has been extremely successful, but it happened almost by accident.

I had always been a great fan of Syquest drives and, like many other people, used them myself for backup purposes. Syquest had announced a new low cost 1 Gigabyte capacity removable media drive named the SparQ (in American, apparently, this is pronounced 'spark'). This was available in two versions, internal IDE and external parallel port. Since our IDE interfaces had always supported Syquest drives getting the internal version to work presented few problems, but I also wanted to write new software to enable people with Acorn computers to use the parallel port version since this seemed, with its portability, high capacity and low cost media, to be an ideal backup solution.

This took longer than expected, mainly because we were trying to wring the highest possible data transfer rates from the Acorn printer port. It wasn't ready for release until just the end of 1998, and a few months later Syquest closed down their UK distributors and went into Chapter 11 receivership.

This was something of a blow. It was still possible to obtain drives and media, but people naturally weren't happy about purchasing under those circumstances. It looked as if our investment was going to be wasted, but there was another possibility. The Syquest parallel port drives were actually IDE drives and employed a parallel to IDE converter with chips licensed from a company called Shuttle Technology, who were the market leaders in this field. By adapting the software slightly it was possible to make it work with the more generic converters made by the same manufacturer and used in external drive cases for 'normal' IDE drives. We found a suitable case, and the DataSafe was born.

Another new venture

The following year, 1999, saw several major developments and another change of direction for APDL.

A few years previously there had been five main magazines dedicated to Acorn computers. By 1999 this had shrunk to just two, Archive and Acorn User. RISC User was due to cease publication and it seemed to me that it ought to be possible to do something about this. My intention was to take over RISC User and re-launch it as a CD based magazine. By utilising APDL's expertise in CD production this would be much cheaper to manufacture and distribute than a printed magazine and so make it financially viable once again. In the event, for various reasons, I didn't take over RISC User, but the idea still seemed worthwhile, so RISC World was launched and Issue 1 appeared early in 2000.

Despite the fact that we didn't manage to buy the rights to RISC User, during our talks with Beebug (who owned the magazine) it was evident that they no longer had any interest in Acorn computers. Towards the end of 1999 we therefore began a series of negotiations which resulted in us purchasing the rights to all the various Beebug software titles with the exception of Ovation Pro which was 'bought back' by it's author, David Pilling.

The first of these programs to be released was Easy C++ at the 1999 Epsom show. It was received with great enthusiasm, so much so that we sold out half way through the first day of the show. One reason for its success was the price, about one third of that previously charged. For the first time this meant that someone who was interested in learning C could obtain a desktop compiler at a price that wouldn't break the bank.

We followed the same strategy with the re-releases of the other Beebug programs which followed; Sleuth, TypeStudio, MasterFile, Ovation and Phantasm. Since these were 'mature' programs we needed to make only minor changes to ensure that they worked properly with the (then) latest machines and OS.

By now I had, almost by accident, formulated another of the key features of the APDL philosophy. I can't claim that it was a carefully calculated policy, it just seemed to happen, but it's very important and has enabled us to produce high quality software packages at very reasonable prices. The basis of this is 'do it in house' and 'buy the tools, not the product'. Translated into practical terms this meant that I purchased a CD printer (then very expensive) and CD writing tools so that I could master, print and manufacture my own CDs. This allowed me to make good looking CDs in small numbers at a time when the minimum you could have manufactured by normal means was 500, and to make it economical you really needed to buy 1000. By doing everything 'in house' (including laser printing manuals, which meant buying more plant such as an expensive guillotine) I could manufacture CDs in quantities as low as ten at a time. I no longer needed to invest thousands of pounds in each new CD and then clutter the place up with piles of boxes of stock, I could just make them in small batches as required.

More importantly, using these methods meant that I could manufacture a CD which might sell only a few dozen copies, which allowed me to be far more adventurous and produce things like the Skullsoft and Soft Rock games collections. I could also now supply some 'retail' shareware programs on CD, which not only was far more convenient than half a dozen floppy discs, the customers (most of whom now had CD drives) much preferred it. Most of these 'small volume' products could simply never have been produced at such low cost by bulk manufacturing.

Of course, another big advantage for the customer of doing printing and CD manufacture 'in house' is that if a program is improved or a manual updated then these changes are incorporated into the finished product immediately. Customers almost always get a CD with the latest version of the software, not something that is three versions or six months behind because we still had 200 CDs in stock.

Without using this system it would be impossible for APDL to function in the way it does today with the huge range of software that we have available.

By now almost all of our software was being distributed on CD and because I hate complicated software protection systems, especially 'key discs' and 'install credits' that don't stop real pirates but seriously inconvenience honest users, I was determined not to use anything that would prevent a genuine user from just copying the software over if they changed hard disc or computer or re-installing from the original CD if their hard disc crashed. However, I was slightly worried since more and more people were acquiring CD writers and so there was nothing I could do to stop them copying the CD. The system I adopted, which is only possible because all the CDs are manufactured 'in house', is to embed a serial number onto each CD. This isn't just on the CD, it's also embedded into the program, and, of course, if someone does copy the CD they can't do so without also copying the serial number. Although this doesn't cause the user the slightest inconvenience and doesn't prevent 'legal' copying by the user it does mean that I can track any illegal copies back to the original source since the serial numbers are all recorded.

The exercise with the Beebug programs made me realise that, with the demise of Acorn Computers, many more companies would be leaving the Acorn scene, and if something wasn't done about it this would mean that the massive back catalogue of software would be lost forever. This had already happened with many titles. Even if the publisher still existed they were often no longer interested in RISC OS and had ceased distributing or marketing programs for the OS.

Something had to be done, and done quickly.

APDL as a software publisher

It seemed to me that if too many software titles vanished then, no matter what happened about new hardware (and that was very uncertain at this time) there would be no future. If users saw no-one actively developing and marketing software and developers leaving the marketplace they would lose confidence and just wouldn't buy new hardware. If the market was to flourish then something had to be done, and no-one was prepared to even think seriously about the subject.

What happened was that APDL went through another major transformation.

All the income from sales of the programs we had purchased so far was used to set up a 'fund' to enable us to buy software titles and we created the 'APDL-ProAction' brand to do this. During 2000 and 2001 we added various titles including Studio24 Pro, RiscCAD, Personal Accounts, the GEK games collection (including FRAK), and others.

We also added the titles which we distributed as two compilation CDs, Celebration and Music Maestro. These were purchased from Clares, who were beginning to suffer from the slowdown in the Acorn market. By placing the various programs which made up these compilations onto CD and selling them at a a very attractive price we hoped they would do well. We introduced them at the Wakefield 2001 show and they were very well received.

The next stage was another major step forward. For reasons which became apparent later that year Aaron Timbrell was no longer able to devote the necessary time to running iSV Products. Shortly after the Wakefield 2001 show I therefore took over the company. This was rather different from previous purchases since it wasn't just the rights to software but the entire company. Because iSV had been around for such a long time I decided that, although it is now an inseparable part of APDL, I would try to keep its separate identity and continue to sell titles under the iSV Products brand.

The (not unrelated to the above) launch of Virtual Acorn early in 2002 helped to keep alive interest in RISC OS. None of the new advanced hardware promised by at least three companies had yet appeared, and, partly as a result of this, people were drifting away as the only new hardware available for purchase was the eight year old (though much speeded up) RiscPC. Virtual A5000, though based on RISC OS 3.1, was, when installed on a suitable PC, around as fast as a Strong ARM RiscPC, and, more importantly, it enabled people to install RISC OS on a modern laptop for the first time. This helped to keep people who would otherwise have departed the platform completely interested in RISC OS.

32 bit and all that

The launch of the Iyonix at the end of 2002 brought a whole new series of problems.

Around this time we were negotiating with Clares to purchase the rights to their range of titles. We had been talking with them for some time, and the purchase of the Music and Celebration titles was an early manifestation of this. It's possible that they realised that they didn't have the resources to update their software and convert it to 32 bit and so this was the best time to sell, but whatever the reason our purchase of most of Clares' titles coincided with the Iyonix launch.

This created a dilemma. The purchase from Clares had seriously depleted our 'software fund'. Furthermore sales of the Iyonix were initially much slower than had been predicted by some people. We therefore needed to build up the fund from sales of 26 bit versions of programs again before we had enough money in the kitty to pay for the work. The problem was compounded by difficulties with early versions of the 32 bit C library. If people installed the new library on their computers then some old programs wouldn't work properly, and programs compiled with the 32 bit compiler would require the new library, even on 26 bit machines.

Luckily the C library problem eventually resolved itself so that older programs would work OK with the new library. This still left us with the main problem.

If we expended too much of our resources on producing 32 bit version of our programs before there were sufficient Iyonix computers sold to enable us to sell enough copies to recoup the costs we would be unable to do other necessary work and would also not have the funds to purchase anything else which became available. If we waited too long then we could find that by the time we did produce conversions people might have found alternatives.

Despite the pressures from certain quarters to commit to producing 32 bit versions of all our programs without delay this just wasn't possible, and we refused to succumb to 'Iyonix fever'. I quietly converted all the programs that could be 32-bitted without too much effort such as Ancestor+, Repton, Ovation and a few others. This also let us see which programs it would almost never be economical to convert. We then (again, quietly) started preliminary work on several others in an attempt to evaluate how much work would be required. As this proceeded we could roughly estimate the cost of each conversion. We also tried to assess what percentage of Iyonix owners would be likely to purchase an upgrade or the complete program. From this we could work out how many Iyonixes would need to be sold to make it economically viable to upgrade each program.

Admittedly this involved a lot of 'guesstimation', but it was the best we could do, and it did give us some sort of roadmap for the work.

We had identified a number of programs which would be moderately easy to convert or where the percentage of Iyonix users who would be likely to purchase could be expected to be quite high, normally because there was no equivalent program available. This resulted in us releasing 32 bit versions of programs like Mr Clippy, EasyFont Pro and StarFighter 3000. If the work incorporated an upgrade which would be likely to generate sales amongst 26 bit users this helped spread the costs, so whenever possible we tried to combine the two processes. If we produced an upgrade of a program we also tried, whenever possible, to make it 32 bit compatible at the same time.

The operation was helped considerably by the introduction of VirtualRPC. This generated quite a lot of sales of software and this money could be fed back into our development program.

By early 2004, with a significant number of Iyonixes sold (though nowhere near as large a number as many people seem to think) we were able to begin work on some of the more difficult programs; ProArtisan 24, Sleuth, Dr Fonty, Typography 2500, Schema2 and a brand new version of DrawWorks, DrawWorks XL.

Of course, during this process we found ourselves going up a lot of blind alleys. Some programs which we initially thought would be straightforward and which we did, in fact, manage to compile successfully just couldn't be made to work properly because of subtle differences in the actions of some of the newer C library routines. This resulted in a lot of wasted effort, but by always proceeding cautiously and ensuring that each new venture was properly funded before work started we have been able to achieve a great deal. We already have far more 32 bit programs than anyone else and the work is still continuing.

While this was going on we were still acquiring more titles, including the RISC OS versions of the Topologika educational programs. Many of these needed to be modified to get them to work on recent machines, and we've now re-released them, mostly on CD, at a fraction of their previous price.

The latest purchase by APDL is the complete Fourth Dimension games catalogue. Once again we're not rushing to sell copies without careful planning. There is a lot of work to be done to make some of these games work properly on recent versions of RISC OS. We have already released a couple of titles and hope to be in a position to announce some 4D compilation CDs early in the new year.

It's been a long and tortuous journey from the day I took over APDL to where we are now. It's also been rather unpredictable since I never really knew what unexpected turn it would take next. But we're still around, still looking to the future and still investing in RISC OS while so many others have given up.

I wonder what 2005 has in store?

Dave Holden