RISC World

From The Cutting Edge

Paul Middleton decides that September is a memorable month.

Google was set up on September 7th 1998. On Black Thursday 17th September 1998 Acorn announced that they were effectively leaving the Home Computer market and now in 2008 on 30th September Iyonix Ltd (who took over Iyonix sales from Castle Technology Ltd) have announced that they are no longer producing the Iyonix computer and will only continue to trade for as long as existing stocks of Iyonix and other Acorn parts are available.

Google was set up by two students from Stanford University Sergey Brin and Larry Page. Brin was the son of a Maryland mathematics professor and a NASA scientist and was a recognized math prodigy by his teens. Larry was the son of a Computer Science Professor. Together they set out to produce a system which used the academic principle of citation, whereby published academic papers cite previous works, and are in themselves then quoted by future works. The number of times specific works are cited increases the kudos of the author. Parks' dissertation was to take the principle of citation and apply it to world wide web - which at that time consisted of only around 10 million pages. Each web page was to be searched to see how many links it contained to other sites and in turn how many of those sites contained reverse links to the original site and forward links onto new sites. The importance and hence the "ranking" of a site was thus determined. It was only once the crawler software had been let loose on the internet in 1996 that the pair realised that the software could also create a searchable index of the internet by treating the whole web as an enormous graph.

The computing demands of the BackRub crawler software at first consumed nearly half of the network bandwidth at Stanford and by 1998 the newly named Google software (after the Googol which equals 1 followed by 100 zeroes) had outgrown the pair's two dormitory rooms and with the advice of Professor Jon Kleinberg "Google" the company was launched.

Meanwhile over in the UK the idea for setting up RISCOS Ltd came two months later on 24th November 1998.

The future for Acorn Computers running RISC OS at that time was uncertain. The new Labour Government - which had come to power in May 1997 had been immediately courted by Bill Gates who addressed a conference in Cambridge in October 1997 to share Microsoft's vision for the future. It was soon announced that Microsoft, RM and BT were to be the key partners in the National Grid for Learning initiative. Acorn were not part of the initiative and so whilst Acorn continued in its partnership with Apple via the Xemplar Educational Supplier it was not long before in January 1999 that Acorn announced that it was to sell its share in Xemplar to Apple. The writing was clearly on the wall for Acorn in the Education market, as despite the love by teachers of Acorn computers for their ease of programming and reliability, the lack of support from the new Government meant that the days of near total PC dominance were not far off. Acorn themselves admitted that the Risc PC 2, or Phoebe, was not aimed at the Education market as it was to have retailed at a price of around £1,500 at a time when PCs were falling well below the £1,000 mark. Admittedly Apple have since built a huge market for selling expensive, but well engineered computers, but Acorn regrettably didn't have the finance to try and emulate Apple.

Publicly Acorn were pushing the concept of Thin clients or Network Computers where a low powered client computer used resources on a much more powerful computer or server. The ARM processor was ideally suited to this role, but the need for computer administrators and the rapidly falling costs of a basic PC meant that most schools simply dumped their Acorn computers and put standalone PCs in their places. Many schools still don't have a Network and some don't even have internet access because of the cost imposed by local authorities to have schools connected to their "walled garden" local network at a cost of over £600 per PC per year, rather than allowing them to have a local BT or Virgin Internet connection at a cost of £120 per year, with a free Wireless Router thrown in. All it needs is for the school to get one teacher a mobile phone contract with Talk Talk and the rest comes with it, but the local authority insists on trying to recoup the cost of their own network at a ridiculously expensive price.

So were Acorn too far ahead of their time? As always the answer was Yes. In the mid-90's Acorn were testing IPTV in Cambridge delivered via a fibre optic network, with TV programmes on demand. At this years IBC broadcast conference in Amsterdam the talk is all about IP delivered Television. IP stands for Internet Protocol and means that video is digitised and sent in packets around the Internet rather than being transmitted as a continuous stream from a huge power consuming TV transmitter. IPTV means that you can watch TV programmes on your PC or via a set top box. The BBC i-Player is based on IPTV technology in the same way as You Tube or Google Video. The Internet is designed so that all computers connected to it have a unique worldwide address, with addresses currently being of the form XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX or IPv4 where XXX is a value 0-255. To cope with the growing demand for numbers there is a new protocol called IPv6 which will give every computer an address of the form XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX this allows for a maximum number of 2^128 addresses which is the equivalent of 3.4 x 10^38 individual addresses. This may not seem a lot, but as the current world population is only about 6.5 billion people = 6.5 x 10^9 then each person could have 50 billion billion billion addresses of their own before the numbers ran out! Out of those numbers certain blocks are allocated to sending "multicast packets" which means that video services for example can be broadcast within that range and received by anyone in the world set to receive those packets. The current addresses cover the range through to which is quite a range of addresses!

The point is that the traditional means of delivering TV programmes is likely to be replaced as the bandwidth of the internet increases. The capabilities of the average desktop PC now far exceeds what is actually needed to run most applications. Watching TV on one screen on your PC, whilst carrying on normal work on another screen is a perfectly viable choice. In fact the power of most computers is such that apart from peak loads, most will run at less than 10% processor capacity. Virtual Computers are now the buzz word on PCs with many organisations looking to replace 10 or more old servers, with 1 new Virtual Server hosting multiple Virtual PCs. The power consumption is reduced proportionally and different operating systems can be run simultaneously, as long as sufficient memory is fitted to the PC to support the multiple virtual computers.

The demise of the Iyonix computer and ultimately the closure of Iyonix Ltd is sad for the RISC OS market. Castle Technology took over distribution and then manufacture of the Risc PC and A7000 in 1998 shortly after Acorn made their Black Thursday announcement. Jack Lillingston and John Ballance fought hard to continue the battle to keep RISC OS Computers in homes and schools as well as the Broadcast Industry - which had been a large purchaser of Risc PCs and A7000s which were then badged up as products from Omnibus Systems. Millipede Electronics also sold considerable number of Risc PCs as the driving force behind the worldwide success of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire". Each TV station had to buy a number of Risc PCs and associated TV graphics cards to produce the famous question board and the voting system for fastest finger first. Unfortunately political pressures and the increasing sophistication of PC software, slowly eroded the advantages of RISC OS computers, and in an increasingly global market, systems that were not PC or Mac hardware based have become increasingly difficult to sell, outside of the mobile phone and other similar markets. Acorn has thankfully produced one lasting legacy in the ARM have just announced that their licensees have just shipped the 10 billionth ARM chip. Meaning there is nearly 1.5 ARM processors for every single person in the world.

This brings me to the conclusion of this "From the Cutting Edge" because the future for RISC OS is certainly very much based around the capabilities of the Virtual Acorn products. Love it or hate it, the fact is that the sheer volume of PC production means that a PC host is the future for RISC OS development. Running RISC OS 6 on a new Mac under Virtual Acorn software is fantastic. The Windows or Mac OS operating system is effectively acting as a hardware abstraction layer for RISC OS, and you gain all the hardware benefits of fast processors, fast networking and fantastically fast hard disc performance.

Give it a try, you won't be disappointed.

Paul Middleton