Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

15th March 2007

SYS “Wimp_CloseDown”

This started out as a fairly short post, but has mushroomed into something long, rambling and possibly incoherent. ENTER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

I’m in the process of moving my remaining e-mail account over from my RISC OS machine to Thunderbird. Unless something drastic happens in the ex-Acorn arena within the next few months, I can’t really see any reason to continue using it, thus ending an association which goes back nearly 15 years.

I fell in love with the BBC Micro at primary school. The computer geek in me, raised on the Commodore 64, was blown away by the Beeb’s amazing BASIC interpreter (“You use GOSUB? How quaint. I say DEF PROC to you sir!”), its superb MODE 2 graphics (8 colours! 160×256 graphics resolution!) and its ability to boot into the Geordie Racer game with a single press of Shift-Break. Of course, everyone’s favourite part of the game was the “help the pigeon get home” challenge, where my classmates took great delight in guiding the poor bird straight into power lines (with realistic “fzzzt” sound effect).

Then I got into my final year at primary school, where we got to play with the A3000 (running RISC OS 2 with the classic Archimedes “A” logo). My desk was right next to the computer and I was forever getting told off for nosing at what people were doing when I should have been working. I had the last laugh when the computer crashed one day, because I was the only one who knew how to fix it.

Naturally, when the time came to ditch the C64, an Acorn computer was the only way to go. And what a computer it was: the cheapest model available, still weighing in at over £400. A shiny new Acorn A3010, with 1Mb RAM, high-density floppy disc drive, two Atari-compatible joystick ports and… er, that was it. Well, it was exciting at the time. This was 1993. Windows 95 was still 2 years away, and the Internet was something used by men with glasses and scary giant beards.

Many long winter nights were spent playing Lemmings and Fervour, doing school projects on StartWrite, and crucially, bashing away at that lovely BBC BASIC which was built right into the machine. (version 5! With WHILE…ENDWHILE structures!)

1996 rolled round, and the family upgraded to a RiscPC: with RISC OS 3.5! 8Mb RAM! 210Mb hard drive! 4 speed CD-ROM drive! I could play the RISC OS port of Sim City 2000! I also taught myself how to program multitasking desktop applications. I sent in a “handy hint” to the *INFO section of Acorn User and got it printed, earning myself the princely sum of £10.

At the same time, the aforementioned magazine was running a “teach yourself HTML” series (with the evocative, of-its-time quote, “the figure has dropped recently, but Netscape still has about 75% of the browser market”). I familarised myself with <H2> tags and animated GIFs, even though I couldn’t actually get online yet and had to content myself with loading them into ArcWeb on my local machine.

I finally got a ‘Net connection in September 1997. While the rest of the world was huddled round the TV mourning Princess Diana’s death, I was exploring the wonders of the World Wide Web. The test pages I’d written were hastily cobbled together into a website and uploaded to Argonet‘s web servers. Struggling to find a name, I settled on an obscure family in-joke (which ten years later, I’ve forgotten the origin of), and called it FABland.

And for a while all was cheerful and rosy. The RiscPC got its RAM upgraded, then a 200MHz StrongARM processor fitted (which promptly broke, forcing me to spend an extended period of time on the phone with a bored-sounding technician at Acorn support). Meanwhile, Acorn got a lucrative contract to supply set-top boxes, and optimism abounded: we were assured that the technologies developed for this market would feed their way back to us, the loyal RISC OS users.

Then, in September 1998, the bomb dropped: Acorn closed their desktop computer division to concentrate entirely on set-top boxes and embedded products. There was an extended period of gloom and uncertainty, until six months later in March 1999 when RISCOS Ltd was set up, with the intention to finish off RISC OS 4 (which was nearly completed at the time of Acorn’s demise).

It would have been tempting at this time to simply say goodbye and switch to Windows, but I didn’t — partly because I’m a stubborn bastard, but mainly because there were lots of good reasons to continue with RISC OS. The PC world was stuck with Windows 98, which had all the lovely games and multimedia addons (“Intel Inside! Dun-dun-dun-dun!”), but simply wasn’t as pleasant to use, and was dogged by complaints about reliability. RISC OS just seemed so much… nicer. Unfortunately since then the situation in the RISC OS market has declined, to the point where RISC OS is no longer viable for me to use for serious work.

The first problem was Internet Explorer‘s total domination of the browser market in the late 90s/early 00s. The current trend for accessibility and standards-compliance was years away, and with IE on every PC and (at the time) Mac, site designers saw no reason to code their sites to work with anything else (“Fresco? What’s that? RISC OS? We don’t support BBC Micros.”). This has become slightly less of an issue now — with Firefox eating into IE’s share, most sites at least pay lip-service to browser independence. These days the problem is with the non-HTML bits: there’s no way to play the latest Flash, RealAudio and Quicktime files natively on RISC OS, and Windows Media? Forget it. Obviously there are valid reasons for these (licensing, complexity, development costs), but it’s still very frustrating.

Even more frustrating was the tendency to dismiss these useful add-ons as “PC bloatware”, when that clearly isn’t the case. While the rest of the web moved on into a world of entertainment, multimedia, music and video, the RISC OS web experience has remained steadfastly text and PNG-based.

The dominance of Microsoft Word in the word processing market hasn’t helped. EasiWriter is Word-compatible, and is a very capable word processor for most people’s purposes. However, I wanted to write scripts; it’s simply not geared up for that.

Then of course there’s the lack of hardware support. If you needed a printer or scanner, you had to make sure you had a driver, which was usually available for something like 25 quid on top of the price of the hardware itself.

“It’s worth it,” cry the devout, “because you have the pleasure of the RISC OS user interface.” — yeah, and? A great user interface is no good if there are no apps to run.

I was one of the last hold outs. It was not until 2000 that a Windows PC crossed the threshold of our house, for the rest of the family to use. That PC ran Windows Millennium Edition, which nearly put me off PCs for life with its unrelenting horribleness. It was 2002 before I finally caved in and bought a PC for myself. Even then I tried running Linux, which failed to work properly and resulted in me buying Windows XP for it (pissing off the staff in the electrical department of John Lewis, who had to break off from watching an England World Cup game to serve me).

As 2007 dawned, I found myself facing up to the famed “you’ll have to upgrade them every few years” issue that RISC OS advocates (including myself, it has to be said), used to scream about. But you know what? When I upgraded, I felt like I was getting something useful out of the deal. And, realistically, the only reason I could get away without upgrading my RISC OS machine for so long was because the platform had stagnated.

I’m certainly not blind to the faults of Windows: security holes (fixed in Vista, they say, although they said the same thing about XP), hundreds of viruses (although good AV software is available for free), spyware (hopefully IE7’s paranoia about installing any add-on, ever, will help with this), difficult to use (not entirely true any more, although some UI quirks still get to me: remind me again why dialogue boxes freeze the whole application until you click OK?).

The final straw was the deterioration in the RISC OS community. One of the plus points for RISC OS over the past few years was that a friendly community of users existed out in cyberspace. Not any more though; the remaining users on the comp.sys.acorn groups seem to prefer squabbling — see this recent thread for but one example.

More than anything else, the sense of fun has gone. And if you can’t have fun using a computer, when can you?

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