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The Icon Bar: News and features: An arbitrary number of possibly influential RISC OS things

An arbitrary number of possibly influential RISC OS things

Posted by Phil Mellor on 15:00, 23/3/2007 | , , , , , , , ,
In this article we look at some of the programs and projects - some obvious, others less so - that influenced the history of the RISC OS platform and its users. These are our suggestions, not a top ten and certainly not in any particular order. What other applications would you add to the list?


ImpressionImpression is often thought of as one of the most impressive and professional RISC OS applications of its time (at least by the publishers and Acorn enthusiasts who used it). It was competent and flexible enough to produce anything from school newsletters to Acorn User magazine to hefty scientific journals (the Journal of Physiology). But that's not why I consider it influential: it's all about the interface.
The 3D icons implemented by Computer Concepts, as well as the window and keyboard behaviours, later re-emerged almost unchanged in Acorn's RISC OS 3 style guide. Take Neil Hoggarth's comments posted in 1993 on comp.sys.acorn:

"If you want a good idea of the new look and feel then simply look at member of the Impression family. The whole new style is basically copied from the Computer Concepts house style. This includes the feel as well as the look. The "select a block, move or copy block" paradigm for manipulating text which has been with us since View on the BBC B is gone, replaced by "cut or copy block to clipboard, paste from clipboard" method used in Impression. When interacting with a dialogue box the RETURN key is now defined to activate the default action button (OK, PRINT or whatever) completing the dialogue, rather than taking you to the next field as was previously the case.
Admittedly it wasn't until RISC OS Select was released, almost 10 years later, that the standard Acorn applications (Draw, Edit, and Paint) implemented the style guide's clipboard recommendations, but most products followed it with care.
Computer Concepts took the user interface design seriously. In an interview in Acorn User in 1994, they explained the pains they went through to produce a clean menu system for Impression. Their contempt for ctrl-alt-leg-in-the-air-click operations, and large dialogue windows that opened within the menu structure only to disappear when the pointer was moved, was adopted by developers and users alike.
Impression family from Computer Concepts
Impression-X, under development by X-Ample


ArtWorks applesHow could Computer Concepts follow the success of Impression? With a brilliant vector graphics application, that's how. ArtWorks was groundbreaking in terms of its speed and visual quality, and an essential tool for anyone using Acorn for DTP - even now. Impression was one of several proper DTP packages, PhotoDesk similarly just the best of many bitmap graphics packages, but ArtWorks is still the only fully-featured vector graphics package (rather than a hack based on Draw) for RISC OS users. If you want to do serious vector graphics, it's the one you have to have.
One example image, the ArtWorks Apple, was created by Computer Concepts' CEO (so easy, even the boss can use it!). Infamous for its lengthy rendering process, due to the number of blends involved, its presence on every RISC OS computer shipped since the Risc PC has made it a popular, almost standard, test of performance.
As to its influence, look how many magazine covers were designed in it (which are there to influence people - at least to buy the magazine). Following its release, all literature produced by Acorn users made gratuitous use of its graduated fills, text distortion tools and hundreds of bundled fonts. You could even tell which games used it to design things like title screens due to the way it did dithering.
It's also hugely important because ArtWorks is one of the few RISC OS applications with a user base and market still capable of supporting its development commercially. RISC OS isn't dead until ArtWorks stops moving - and with a new version set for release Q2 2007 providing advanced support for modern technologies like PDF, things look good.
ArtWorks 2, developed by MW Software
ArtWorks at Computer Concepts


ArcFSBefore ArcFS, compressed files were a problem. David Pilling wrote Spark, a commercial program, which archived files in a custom file format (not Zip). If you wanted to pass your archives to a friend who didn't own Spark they could use SparkPlug, which decompressed only. This was useful, but to a limited extent: applications had to be extracted before they could be used. Enter ArcFS.
ArcFS allowed Spark archives to be treated as a real filing system. Running an application from within an archive was no different to running an uncompressed version directly from the disk (albeit a read-only disk, as ArcFS could not write to an archive). The first version was rather slow and memory hungry, but the second version - ArcFS 2 was much faster.
The timing was impeccable; all this occurred just as cover disks were becoming popular additions to the Acorn magazines. Disk space was in high demand, with increasingly large application and game demos, public domain software, and programs accompanying printed articles all in contention for the 800k available. ArcFS saved the day.
David Pilling saw that this was a Good Thing and subsequently released SparkFS, which worked in a similar way and supported more compression formats such as Zip. Even today, it's hard to find a utility that integrates so seamlessly into any operating system. Windows users might have been impressed by the compressed file handling in Windows XP Explorer - but try accessing the zipped files in the same way from the command line. ArcFS and RISC OS did it better ten years earlier.
Robin Watts' brief history of Spark and ArcFS on comp.sys.acorn
ArcFS from The ARM Club
SparkFS from David Pilling


SibeliusWikipedia describes a killer application as "a computer program that is so useful that people will buy a particular computer hardware and/or an operating system simply to run that program." It's not difficult to argue that Sibelius was the killer app for Acorn computers.
The original Sibelius was written in ARM assembly language, making it incredibly fast when redrawing the screen and reformatting the score. The interface was intuitive, simple, and uncluttered; free from distracting menus and dialogue boxes. The manuscript and the notes upon it could be dragged around in real time, and the on-screen and printed manuscripts were of exceptional quality and detail. Musicians found the experience so compelling that they bought the entire computer system just to use it. Sibelius and Acorn gained massive exposure in the music community. It is suggested that Sibelius was responsible for selling almost 7% of all Acorn machines worldwide.
Unfortunately (there's always an unfortunately in these otherwise happy tales) Sibelius needed to stay ahead of the competition, and programming in pure ARM code wasn't a suitable choice for the long term. Far from an attempt to abandon the Acorn market, the developers opted to write the new version in C++ for reasons of maintainability and complexity, but Acorn's neglect of modern C++ compilers meant that the other benefit of high level programming languages - cross-platform compatibility - meant Windows and Mac OS were the only viable target platforms.
The Data Store, supporting the Acorn version of Sibelius
Acorn FAQ from Sibelius Software


NetSurfDisclaimer: I contributed to the NetSurf projects in the early days of its development. However, I can safely avoid taking credit for NetSurf being an influential application as the main influences I had on NetSurf were the initial design for the icon and probably a whole bunch of bugs.
Like Impression, NetSurf is influential beyond its function in becoming a new style guide. Various elements of the interface can be seen in other applications, such as the status bar in Avalanche, and the auto-completion text boxes and hotlists in the forthcoming version of DigitalCD.
NetSurf is a rare example in the RISC OS world of concepts such as open source, teamwork, communication, enthusiasm and goodwill not just succeeding but even existing at all. This winning formula has led to positive reaction from the community and a quality product that is rapidly approaching its 1.0 release. An attitude and model that other RISC OS projects would be wise to follow.
NetSurf home page


I'm grouping these three developments together, even though GCCSDK runs on Unix-based operating systems and UnixLib is a programming library and not an application. These apps are great enablers: by bringing modern development tools, programs and techniques to RISC OS, they allowed utilities and applications that RISC OS lacked to be ported from other platforms (the Unix Porting Project), and eased the development of native applications like NetSurf. For example, NetSurf uses several open source libraries such as libxml and libcurl that were not written explicitly for RISC OS; porting them to the platform was simpler thanks to GCC and UnixLib.
A decade ago GCC was difficult to use on RISC OS. It required lots (lots!) of memory and was hard to use on a 4MB machine without virtual memory. Although it lacked the desktop interface, speed and frugality of the Norcroft compiler sold by Acorn, it had one obvious advantage: price (free, vs. 200). GCC has matured over the years and benefits greatly from the luxurious amounts of memory fitted in modern RISC OS computers. Without it, hobbyist developers unable or unwilling to purchase the commercial tools would be stuck with BBC Basic, and the range of software available for RISC OS would be much poorer.
Using UnixLib by Graham Shaw
Castle C/C++ tools suite


ZapOr, to give it it's alternative title, "Dominic Symes' excellent Zap", as it was commonly referred to. Dominic was the initial developer of this powerful text editor and sole maintainer until 1996 before handing it over to several other developers.
Zap. Responsible for preserving the sanity of countless RISC OS application developers and causing some of the bloodiest flamewars in computing. (Its battlefield rival was - and still is - StrongED. Edit stayed at home with a cup of cocoa, for good reason: it was rubbish.)
Consider, for example, the team of NetSurf developers:
James Bursa - Zap user
John-Mark Bell - Zap user
Richard Wilison - Zap user
Rob Kendrick - Zap user (when using RISC OS)
Daniel Silverstone - Zap user token StrongED/Emacs user
As a StrongED user, I think that proves nothing, obviously. For StrongED gave us more than mere text editing: it gave us StrongHelp.


StrongHelpBefore the web browser, documentation meant hefty amounts of pulped ex-tree or, perhaps more often, nothing at all. Even when the first RISC OS web browsers were released they were large, slow and resource hungry, and considering the typical screen resolutions of the time, not particularly useful. It wasn't useful to keep a browser running alongside other development tools, nor was it practical for a user to run one just to read an application's readme file. StrongHelp filled the niche in providing a multi-windowed, multi-document hypertext reader with fast rendering, free text search.
StrongHelp manuals soon became a common and essential source of documentation for both users and developers. The RISC OS programming reference manuals were expensive (99) and, although they were comprehensive, the information was spread over five volumes. A volunteer effort (years before Wikis were invented) led to an abridged version in StrongHelp format being made freely available, providing instant API reference material with a single keystroke.
Today, we reach full circle, with the majority of the StrongHelp manuals now available on the Drobe website.
StrongHelp manuals on Drobe

RISC OS application suite

RISC OS ROM applicationsThe first release of RISC OS 3 came with several built in applications - Edit, Paint, Draw, Calc, Configure, Alarm, Help and Chars. Why are these influential?
I've praised the ubiquity of Draw in an earlier article, yet condemned Edit for being rubbish in this one. Paint is fine for smaller bitmaps - it's the go-to program for designing icons. This kind of design is a completely different discipline to large 24 bit images: every pixel counts, use of colour is a challenge when you're trying to antialias from red to blue with only the default 16 colour palette, and so on. However, Paint doesn't really offer any help in the way of more advanced tools - what it does have is the ability to work in any colour depth, at almost any zoom level, and you can open multiple views of the same image with different zoom levels on the same image at the same time. You wouldn't want to use it for larger works unless you absolutely had to; you probably wish it was better at smaller images too; which means it's less a great tool for the job, more... just available.
That availability is what made the RISC OS applications so special. Edit might be a poor text editor, but when your hard disc is corrupt and you need to edit a file in the boot sequence, it's a life saver. Pulled out that old Archimedes from the loft and need to configure it? Configure is at hand, and interactive Help will remind you how to use the system.
The RISC OS applications weren't the most powerful or functional around - but their presence in ROM made the desktop much more fluid, especially on budget machines without hard drives. If you didn't have a hard drive (quite common in the early '90s) you could open and work with standard document formats without swapping discs. Written an application and needed to supply documentation or log files? Store it in text or draw format, and users could always read it without hassle.
The apps took an experimental vacation to the Risc PC's hard drive in RISC OS 3.5, but when 3.6 was released they were back in ROM, where they lived happily ever after.


Disclaimers: ArgoNet webmaster and developer, Richard Goodwin, stuck his nose in a fledgling Acorn Arcade and became The Icon Bar's benevolent dictator. One of the side-effects of ArgoNet/Voyager is Orpheus Internet which hosts this server.

VoyagerBack in the mid-1990s, Andrew Foyle, boss man at VTi/Eclipse, found getting his Internet account from a certain demonic ISP working on a RISC OS machine nigh-on impossible. Tech support hadn't heard of RISC OS. The software available was scattered and hard to configure. Most people would have given up - Andrew went on to found an empire.
The ISP was ArgoNet, the software application Voyager. Voyager was a collection of all the best software available at the time - ArcWeb for web browsing, Posty for email, Freeterm for telnet - plus Jason Tribbeck's front end for holding it all together. He went on to add an FTP client, NewsAgent for Usenet news, and a replacement Telnet client, making him easily the single most influential programmer on the project. However, due in part to a before-its-time extension system a number of third-party add-ons could be added into the suite, including a number by a certain Mr. Goodwin.
Thus the legacy of Voyager is, arguably, twofold: it got people programming to a productive end that might otherwise not have bothered, by writing simple API-following hacks to expand upon (or sometimes, fix) this popular program. But the biggest legacy is that, helped by free offers in Acorn User, it got a heck of a lot of RISC OS users using the Internet for the first time. It's why some of us are here today.
The Vigay's Voyager support pages


Contributions by Richard Goodwin and Michael Drake.
  An arbitrary number of possibly influential RISC OS things
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Jason Tribbeck Message #100858, posted by tribbles at 20:02, 27/3/2007, in reply to message #100816
Captain Helix

Posts: 929
It's about 60 quid to upgrade Xara but nearly twice that to upgrade ArtWorks (for me). Xara has a lot more going for it... but I do tend to use ArtWorks a lot more...
For me, there were three reasons for going Xara Pro:

1) It does PDF/X export (not sure if Artworks does - can't see any explicit mention of it). This is the high-quality PDF export used for taking to printers.

2) Pantone colour reference

3) My company paid for it smile
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
Jason Tribbeck Message #100862, posted by tribbles at 21:19, 27/3/2007, in reply to message #100858
Captain Helix

Posts: 929
Oh - and PDF import.
  ^[ Log in to reply ]
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The Icon Bar: News and features: An arbitrary number of possibly influential RISC OS things