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RISC OS six appears, only a couple of years late

Acorn action at last
Fri Oct 20 2006, 11:46
THE LATEST BITE in the cat-fight that is the 21st-century Acorn-compatible world showed up this week, as here

RISC OS Ltd announced its latest version of the Archimedes and Risc PC operating system: RISC OS Six. Just to make life a bit more difficult, this isn't the successor release to RISC OS 5 - the release of which as open source was announced by its owner, Castle Technologies, at the end of September. The announcement of RO6 less than three weeks later is, we're sure, a complete coincidence.

Meantime, in the middle of October, Castle has just released the latest edition of its flavour of RISC OS, version 5.12, which for the first time costs - £69, or £139 with a new graphics card too. It contains USB2 support, previously a £30 extra.

Oh, yes, and the only surviving newsstand Acorn mag, Qercus, is about to put out a new issue - the first in a year.

It's all go.

If you're near London and want to see and play with all this stuff, Saturday 21st October sees the RISC OS SE Show in Guildford. Or you could just buy Virtual Acorn and run it all on your XP PC.

WTF is all this? Bit of history...

When Acorn was split up and sold off in 1998, its unfinished products were left in limbo. There was an unfinished PCI-based "Risc PC 2", codenamed Phoebe, and a similarly incomplete version of RISC OS, 3.8, to run on it. Acorn's offspring company element 14 sold the rights to desktop development of RISC OS to the newly-founded RISC OS Ltd (ROL). Another new company, Castle Technology, was set up to continue production of Acorn's existing models - the A7000 and Risc PC. Set-top-box manufacturer Pace Micro Technology got the rights to the Acorn's STB and network computer technology, including RISC OS itself. Meanwhile, element 14 got acquired by Broadcom and disappeared.

ROL finished off Acorn's incomplete RISC OS 3.8 and in 1999 released it as RO4, an update for owners of existing Acorn kit. This made it up to 4.02 and ROL sold about 6,500 copies. Then in 2002 came Select, a subscription scheme where for £229 you got a year's subscription to rolling updates: RAM-based patches for the ROM-based OS. It got as far as its third edition - 4.39 - in early 2004. You can buy 4.39 on ROM under the name "Adjust" - ROL's shifted about 500 of them.

Since 2004, Select subscribers have received no new versions. ROL says it's been working on a 32-bit version of Adjust, for new hardware such as the AdvantageSix A9home.

So what's this RO5, then?

It appeared at the end of 2002. Some Pace engineers had produced a version of RISC OS for the latest Intel XScale ARM processors, which lack the 26-bit mode that RISC OS ran in. Castle licensed this and put together a new, 32-bit ARM machine, the Iyonix. Castle called this new version RISC OS 5. It's based on Acorn's final code, so it's a bit more primitive than ROL's version, but it does the job. Castle bought RISC OS outright from Pace in 2003, but ROL continues to plough its own furrow.

The Iyonix has had no significant updates since its launch, and at 600MHz, the four-year-old machine's looking a bit tired. But Intel's just announced the dual-core 1.2GHz XScale IOP342, so something new might be coming soon.

Confused yet? You're not the only one

So now there are two versions: RO5, for the Iyonix and nothing else. It's all 32-bit, making it incompatible with all older versions - apps need to be tweaked and recompiled. It's still being actively maintained and Castle plans to release as much as possible of it under an open-source licence through RISC OS Open Ltd.

And then there's RO4, from ROL, with a few years' more refinement and polish - but apart from the not-yet-ready-for-prime-time A9home, it only runs on old kit. Stable for a couple of years now, but the new 32-bit version's not quite there yet. When it's ready, it should run on both old and new hardware - presumably including the Iyonix - and ROL has decided to leapfrog Castle and market it as RO6.

Most Acorn aficionados just wish the two companies would stop mucking about and make good on their promise to get together and reconcile the two versions to produce one unified RISC OS. Castle, the ultimate owner, is showing willing by opening the source, but it's pretty unlikely that ROL, which has no other source of revenue, will do the same.

Which is a pity, because in a small market like the Acorn-compatible one, divisions like this are suicidal. µ

Castle Technologies
RISC OS Open Ltd
Qercus magazine
RISC OS South East Show
Virtual Acorn


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