September 1998 was an important month for computing.... it was during this 4 week period that Google first opened their doors for business and arguably changing the face of the internet. However for users of RISC OS, a minority operating system made by the Cambridge based firm Acorn, it will always be remembered for a very different reason... it was during this month that the 16 year old firm, without any warning, ceased development on their next generation machine and closed its doors for the last time. In this article we will briefly look at the history of Acorn and RISC OS, some of the features which made the OS popular and what has happened in the past ten years with regards to development both on the OS and hardware. It should be noted that during the rise of dominance that is Wintel, many different machines and systems have become moribund, their stories are often very similar to the one described in this article.Some History
|Back in the early 1980s the BBC decided to produce a show educating views to become computer users. For this show they required a machine which would be relatively cheap yet act as a useful tool and as such a specification was written and distributed to computer firms. The likes of Spectrum (with their NewBrain) attempted to win the contract but all failed to meet this specification. |
However, a small firm known as Acorn did have a machine which met the specification (it actually exceeded it) called the Proton – this was the clear winner. Re branded as the BBC Micro the machine went on to sell over 1 million units and catapulted Acorn from obscurity into a major player, especially in the education market.
The rest, as they say, is history.... until the last eighties / early nineties when Acorn decided to build a graphical operating system for their new machines. After a somewhat failed attempt they came up with RISC OS 2 released in 1988, followed in 1992 with RISC OS 3. Although a general purpose machine, Acorn was especially strong in the education market, and as such if you were at a British school in the early nineties then chances are you used RISC OS – with a loyal following comprising of many pupils, ex pupils and teachers the popularity of ROS flourished. Features
There are many features which made this OS ground breaking and set it aside from modern alternatives, in this section just a few are briefly skimmed over. Firstly, the OS and its main applications resided in ROM – which meant that, short of taking a hammer to the machine, it was almost impossible to break. Secondly, and very important to many people like myself, it shipped with a full version of the BASIC programming language. Unlike other systems, users of ROS were encouraged to program on the machine and this language was integrated with the system. This fact also resulted in a busy shareware/freeware culture growing with many utilities and games provided via magazines and over BBS.
Apparently, after Bill Gates used an A5000 (one of Acorn's earlier machines running RISC OS) he copied the idea of a task bar for use within Windows – ROS was the first GUI which sported this kind of interaction.
The ROS 3 task bar
The system also implemented a true drag 'n' drop style of interface (this still isn't used in modern interfaces.)
RISC OS 3, showing drag 'n' drop
However, it wasn't just the user interface providing all the advantages, the OS itself was implemented as a set of modules. Each module could be added, removed or replaced as required which allowed Acorn and third party developers to easily add features without requiring a full OS update. The efficiency of the system and in no small part its programming meant that ROS booted up (and modern versions still have this claim) very very quickly, which is a major selling point.
Lastly, and a feature which I wish was present in modern systems, was the self contained application view. Applications were simply directories – if the name began with an '!' then the filer would treat the directory as an application and double clicking on it will launch the app. The major benefit of this is that all the application's resources can be contained within this directory and to install (or remove) then its simply a case of doing this via the filer... clever eh? (if you are not convinced about the benefit of this feature, then have a look at how a Windows program scatters all of its data around the drive and within the registry!)
The full RISC OS 3 desktop
After Acorn closed users were left with ROS 3.7 running on the then very capable RiscPC machine. Rights to the OS were sold to a newly formed company known as RiscOS Ltd. In 1999 RISC OS 4 was released, in 2004 RISC OS 4.39 and in 2007 RISC OS 6. Now, you might be wondering what happened to ROS 5 - well another company took the original code and released ROS 5 along with their own hardware in 2002 and as such forked the OS. This fork was a major problem but has been helped greatly by the fact that in 2007 it was announced ROS 5 was being made open source - which is still being released today in its component parts.
The modern RISC OS 4.02 desktop
Today, the OS continues to be updated and released. Although only a small dedicated community exists, there is still software written for the machine and hardware is currently available for those wanting native ROS machines. However, with many users trading in their aging computers the most popular choice has been to run ROS under emulation (which often exceeds the performance on older native hardware anyway!) Another option available is the use of ROX (Risc Os on X), a desktop for Linux machines made to look and run like RISC OS (the author of this article uses ROX as his desktop.) On a personal note, I own (and regularly use) a Risc PC, the last class of machine released by Acorn in 1996. The fact that this machine can, 12 years after its creation, still work (running RISC OS 4.39) and run popular applications (such as Firefox and GCC) is really a credit to its designers – I doubt you could find a PC with that claim!
Some RISC OS related URLS:http://www.drobe.co.uk
- General RISC OS news and information sitehttp://www.riscos.info
- RISC OS information site, hosting a free emulator and also the Unix porting project.http://www.riscos.org
- News and information site, most importantly also provides a great number of downloads
Article Source: http://www.TechnicalTalk.net
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