Musings on PC progress

Ever since my collaboration with my New York friend Carol on our joint authorship of the IBM CICS Application Programming Primer1 back in 1983 she and I have been exchanging a (now 33 year long!) sequence of emails. Our initial exchanges were simple text files that we batted back and forth across the Pond courtesy of IBM mainframes and their network nodes. Neither of us had what used to be called Personal Computers at the time we began. My own early walks along that path are described here.

They did not involve either IBM kit or Microsoft operating systems!

Bowing to the inevitable

By late 2002 — after my happily productive decade and more of RISC OS — it became clear (even to me) that my beloved RISC OS desktop systems weren't going anywhere despite the huge success enjoyed to this day by the underlying ARM architecture.

My ¬blog entry...

... on 14th August 2010 mentioned the 'fun' entailed with email here in not-so-Technology Towers back in my early days of Windows XP Pro on my Shuttle PC. Here's another chunk of inglorious history, as recounted to Carol back in the day:

Anyway, what about your new PC? I hear you asking. It's gorgeous! Thank you for asking. It's small, but perfectly formed (like its owner) and reasonably quiet with a lot going on under the covers. At the moment, it's basically a Windows XP Pro box in one half and a Linux box in the other. To add to the fun, the XP half can emulate my beloved Acorn RISC OS at anything up to sixty times the speed of some of the original Acorn hardware though I have yet to manage the trick of connecting my non-network capable existing Acorn machine to the home LAN. We (Peter, the resident computer hacker) think it may be easiest long term to plop everything datawise I want from the Acorn onto its biggest disc (a mere 10Gb suffices several times over) and then move just this disc physically into the Linux server he's building for the LAN as Linux now has the ability to read the Acorn ADFS format. I could then ftp from it whenever I want to my PC with its Acorn emulator. This is both cheaper and easier than adding a network card to the Acorn. Hardware prices in non mainstream markets make my eyes water.

The equation is slightly complicated by the fact that new RISC OS machines are finally coming out with 600 MHz to 1GHz Intel XScale derivatives of the (Digital StrongARM) derivative of the Acorn (latterly Advanced) Risc Machine (ARM) chips that made the system such a delight in the first place. Since 1989 I've moved up from 8MHz to 206 MHz on the Acorn side, which doesn't sound much in the PC world but which with a 2Mb ROM-based operating system and a 16-instruction instruction set lends itself to tiny applications that fly like the wind. The Acorn reboots in about 20 seconds (not that I ever need to reboot it) where my new monster 2.54GHz P4 takes about 25 seconds — by far the fastest I have yet seen for Windows to appear.

So I may yet end up with one of these new generation even faster RISC OS machines sitting alongside this new PC but properly networked to it. The truth is, applications such as DTP are still better accomplished under RISC OS than anything I have yet seen on the PC, though I grant you the (never affordable [by me] in the UK) Mac can give RISC OS a fair run for its money. <Sigh>

Of course, getting Linux onto the new PC meant a certain amount of PartitionMagic shuffling and an initial foray (or should that be skirmish?) with SlackWare before over-ruling Junior and buying the latest Red Hat distribution on five CDs. Even this has, alas, had to be completely recompiled about three times so far, and is still showing a distinct lack of interest in driving the (very tasty 18.1" TFT digital input) screen at anything like a respectable speed for such a high-spec video2 card. It seems to me that we now have mainframe equivalent desktop systems complete with all the fun of mainframe operating systems but without a glass house full of white-coated technicians and acolytes. This is progress?

DCM in December 2002

Nearly 14 years later, of course, that footnote about the video card makes me smile. Though (much to my annoyance) nothing ever came of the faster RISC OS machines because the financial engineers moved in and asset-stripped the value locked up in ARM shares from Acorn Computers for their Friends in the City... and it was suddenly no more.

Still, with SSD turbo-assistance, I again have PCs that boot in seconds!


1  And that's a whole different story!
2  The video card alone, a mere 64Mb and more MIPS than I can calmly contemplate, makes me feel like a relic from the Ark.