We continue with Part 2 of Andrew Rawnsley's RISC OS interview.
What is your current RISC OS setup?
My work machine, as mentioned, is a RISCube Mini. This is a small box a little larger than my fist, with an 8-core CPU, 32GB of RAM and 2.5 TB of SSD storage. It runs RISC OS round the clock, and rather too many web tabs on the other seven cores! I find that the two operating systems, joined together via UniPrint, are really productive for me. I'm regularly passing data too/from between the systems, copy/paste, network, shared drives and so on. I know it sounds very cliched, but I find it to be the best of both worlds, and more than the sum of the parts. I think that's really all you can ask of a computer - it lets me do what I want/need in a neat and constructive manner.
I think most of us build muscle memory in different applications to a point where those programs define how we think about certain tasks - I feel that way about a lot of RISC OS software - and so I'd always rather bring up an Impression document (or Ovation Pro) than Word or LibreOffice. Similarly Messenger Pro for my email, or Draw/Paint/ChangeFSI/DplngScan etc for graphics. For some reason, I never quite clicked as much with Artworks and PhotoDesk - perhaps because they came a few years later?
Upstairs I have a trusty RCI iMX6 computer that is used for everything related to RISC OS 5 and Iris. This never has a lid on, as it seems to always have different discs and drives plugged into it. It spends a lot of time testing new versions of software and making master discs for the various RISC OS 5 computers that I build. Typically I will hook up an SSD to a floating SATA cable, and format/prepare the disc, then copy on a disc image from the NAS or from a folder on the iMX6.
This is accompanied by various of our other RISC OS 5 computers mostly for testing software or doing specific tasks - a 4te2, a Hydra and a RockyRAID. These get plugged in as needed, simply due to lack of space on the desk.
Realistically, I should probably progress onto a newer machine, but the iMX6 does such a good job of handling all the different types of disc I need to plug in, that it simply hasn't been necessary - it's a really good workhorse. However, I can't imagine many people preferring to use a stripped down machine sprouting cables and card readers!
Downstairs, I keep an original Pinebook and Pinebook Pro charged up for mobile use. I don't really travel all that much, so my practical use of these is limited, but the PBpro is jolly useful for presentations etc.
At the office (ok, my family home), we have RiscPCs that still run accounts and some email. This is largely because they do the job, and can also run the old floppy disc duplicator. Since that is very much on its last legs (think life-support-machine and oxygen tanks), it is probably time they were replaced by RockyRAIDs for data security.
What does your current RISC OS business entail?
These days, a lot of my time is spent building RISC OS computers for people. Since the early 2000s we've produced a series of RISC OS capable computers. We started (and continue) with our RISCube systems which combined RISC OS and Windows together. These stemmed from my hobby of building PC systems for my own entertainment, and optimising them to run as well as possible. People seemed to like the idea of highly optimised machines, with less bloat and reliable drivers etc.
When VirtualAcorn made it possible to run RISC OS on such machines, it was very logical to combine the two, and UniPrint (developed with Alan Wrigley) allowed us to join the two together. This made a compelling option, I think, during a period when native machines were expensive and harder to justify (less software, compatibility with outside world). RISCubes meant that people could run RISC OS alongside Windows apps (just like a RiscPC, really) and many customers come back time and again - for which I am very thankful.
From 2009 onwards, a group of us got together to produce ARM(R)-based computers again, after Castle ceased the Iyonix and went quiet. This wasn't simple, due to the battles that had been fought over RISC OS rights. We decided to pay both Castle *and* RISC OS Ltd, to ensure that both companies felt valued. This seemed the most equitable way to go about resolving the historical conflict. The "group of us" approach was also to try and share some of the reward with other people/companies in the market, to help everyone thrive.
Since then, we've produced a range of computers driven by Beagleboard, Pandaboard, i.MX6, Pi (4te/4tissimo range) and latterly RK3399 ARM(R) designs (Pinebook Pro, RockyRAID).
Building and supporting the computers takes a lot of time. In between, I still develop some of the programs (and new ones), and work with others to create new projects.
The R-Comp software portfolio has grown quite large over the years, and I try to keep as many of the programs "ticking over" as possible. Recently I've been helping XAT with updating and enhancing PhotoDesk, for example. Messenger Pro 9 is due for an update in the next few weeks too (thanks Chris), and we've also tinkered with UniPrint.
I've always felt there had to be a symbiosis between the software programs and the hardware - they each need each other to survive. Trying to find the right balance can be... a challenge!
The group-of-people that I mentioned above also led to the formation of RISC OS Developments, my other time-sink. Formed with co-director Richard Brown, I oversee the technical side of the business, devising and managing the various projects that ROD do. Sometimes I'll do a little coding too, but most of the work is done by the super-gurus who have tackled things like web browsers (Lee, Michael... thankyou) and TCP/IP (John, Andy etc). It can be surprisingly time consuming, and I seem to spend a lot of time on the phone!
What do you think of the retro scene.
I think it is amazing what people do with the older systems. They really push the boundaries of what is possible with that hardware. Really, it's mind-boggling!
However, I don't really do much in that space myself, because for me RISC OS is still my current platform, and not a retro one. I know that probably sounds daft, but it is still the platform I choose to use all the time. There's still so much newer stuff to achieve and explore that I really don't have the inclination to look backwards.
That said, I have a lot of fond memories of the old type-in listings on the BBC and A3000 (how I learned to code), and of course the old games. Technology seemed to move so much quicker then, with new, shiny software and games in every issue of the magazines. I totally understand why people love those systems, and it's why I still have the A3000 under a desk, and my original RiscPC (heavily modified) still in duty.
Sadly the A5000 is no longer with us, being pensioned off to run giant embroidery machines for a local business. It ran custom stitch software and created floppy discs that were used to drive the expensive machines. Once again, the staff found the full-screen RISC OS program to be more productive than the (fancier but far more clumsy) Windows version. I think I've heard that story somewhere before?
Side note - there's an unsung "killer app" here - a program called Stitchbuilder which allowed the creation of embroidery designs/patterns and outputted them in the formats required for the industrial embroidery machines to use. 30 years of long service - and I doubt anyone has ever heard of it!
Do you attend any of the shows and what do you think of them?
All of them, for as long as I can remember, both in the UK and in Europe!
I've always felt that supporting the shows was/is hugely important because they allow the community to get together and feel less isolated. To me, it is almost a duty that RISC OS companies should always try and make the effort to be there, to support the community that in turn supports them. Sorry if that sounds a bit pretentious, but I really feel the shows are super-important in holding the remaining RISC OS scene together.
Of course, it also means I can show my latest wares to folks, and meet/chat with all the familiar faces. I'd also be lying if I didn't admit that shows have tended to be financially beneficial too, but even when they're less so, it is still important.
For example, when the Southwest Show seemed set to disappear around 2010, Richard Brown and I stepped up to organise a replacement, which we've jointly run each year since (COVID excepting). Not the easiest thing when we both live far from the SW. Thankfully Vince of Softrock was brilliant as a "man on the ground" and spent a lot of time scouting venues etc. Big thanks, Vince, and also Chris Hall.
One of the few upsides of the COVID pandemic is that it ushered in the age of Zoom which has also brought the community closer together thanks to easier attendance of user group meetings etc.
To Be continued...
You can read lots of other interviews on Iconbar here and if you would like to be interviewed, just drop us an email.