I'm a confirmed RISC OS user, enthusiast, promoter and what some may even say, evangelist. Most people know my views on RISC OS and also on other, lesser operating systems - so why did I feel inspired to write this short article and share my views with people? Partly in response to an article on The Icon Bar and partly because there are a number of (IMHO) rather ignorant, yet arrogant, PC users inhabiting some of the comp.sys.acorn.* newsgroups who love to complain about RISC OS and prosthelize about how good PC applications are to their RISC OS counterparts - usually without the skill set or experience to make a valid judgement. I'm all for argument, but when people argue through ignorance or though blinkers, I feel like shouting "Oi! No!" in their faces, but instead I'll settle for writing this article.
So, what about my background?
I first started using computers back in 1978, when I learnt BASIC programming on an aged (even then) Commodore PET machine. I then advanced onto early Apple machines before being introduced to the Acorn BBC B in 1982. At the time it literally blew everything else away. For a start it could emulate arcade games, probably better than the original arcade machines (in fact Acornsoft's Pacman clone Snapper was so close to Pacman that it got withdrawn, later to re-appear with modified graphics).
The BBC B had a powerful version of BASIC built in - and arguably BBC BASIC is still the world's most efficient and productive version of the Beginners All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code available. Current RISC OS machines still have it built-in - and now you can write powerful windows based, multi-tasking applications in it - you still can't get any other computer system out of the box and start programming with absolutely no extra software whatsoever! (and no I'm not talking about the primitive Windows scripting or AppleScript). Sadly, the lack of being able to dabble and write your own programs has led to the demise of computer programming being taught in schools - another thing I tend to blame Microsoft and their inferior Windows operating system for.
After the BBC B, Acorn produced the worlds first RISC (Reduced Instruction Set Computer), the Acorn Archimedes, powered by an ARM (Acorn RISC Machine) 2 processor (and subsequently upgraded to an ARM3). I saved up and bought one of these, which quite frankly made current IBM PC technology look like something out of the stone age. I rapidly started to teach myself programming on this, again because the powerful BBC BASIC was built-in. That's physically built-in. In a ROM chip inside the computer, along with the rest of the operating system. No boot discs, no corruption through damaged discs, impossible to damage the OS by viruses and malware and super-fast boot-up from power on. These are the things other operating systems such as Windows and Mac OS can only dream about.
What's more, RISC OS had things in 1987 which Microsoft and Apple are STILL trying to copy, now in 2006, nearly 20 years later! Just goes to show how well RISC OS had been designed originally. We can still smugly turn our noses up at Windows users who only got their 'task bar' with the advent of Windows 95, when we'd had the (still superior) icon bar since 1987. Even Apple, only introduced their 'Dock' with the arrival of Mac OS X in 2001, and even with the advent of Leopard almost upon us, they've still not quite got it right. Acorn's iconbar worked right from the outset - and it's still better than the competition nearly 20 years on - an awfully long time in the I.T. world.
I'm now the proud owner of an Iyonix computer which I would argue is the fastest and most reliable RISC OS computer ever built. RISC OS still has that infectious efficiency about it which, put simply, lets you get the job done - and in (literally) a fraction of the time it would take on lesser systems such as Mac OS or Windows XP.
No holding you back
Windows XP is an insult to the intelligence of most normal people. It treats you like a moron who thinks a computer is just another office tool and something that goes wrong all the time!
Duh! That's precisely BECAUSE Windows is so damn unreliable and that to do anything in Windows XP is like trying to swim through treacle. I've been using Windows machines since the Windows 3.1 days so I have pretty extensive Windows technical knowledge too (I actually have an MSCE, but I don't talk about that in polite company!) but whenever I have to use Windows I'm left cursing it after about 10 minutes, threatening to throw it out of the window. Nine times out of ten, you're still trying to fix some silly "Windows issue" three hours after you thought you'd quickly do a ten minute task.
Of course, I can actually exploit this to my advantage in the workplace because I can guarantee my clients that I'll get the job done (I'm a web designer) in a quarter of the time of the competitors, and costing less too. When I come up with the goods, they're usually mighty impressed at the speed, especially as they no doubt think I'm struggling with some inferior package like Dreamweaver on a Mac/Wintel box. I smugly laugh to myself, patting my Iyonix 'secret weapon'. How little they realise how many man-years of work are wasted around the world by people struggling with Windows.
Windows users seem to be stupid!
Of course, I'm sure some people like Windows because it gives an excuse for their own inadequacies. After all, when they fail to get something done, they can always blame the computer. Every one else will understand that because they probably have the same experiences each day.
I find that life with RISC OS is far less stressful. Computers do the work. My own imagination is the limit to my creativity - not the limitations of the computer. That's the way things should be. But it's not just productivity which is so much more when using RISC OS. It's the actual quality of the finished product. Again, this impresses clients when they find that a RISC OS designed website is so much faster and sleeker than a PC designed counterpart. Why is this?
Not only is there greater choice on RISC OS, because you can use an off-the-shelf web design package (if you're switching from Windows and think that's the way things are done) or you can hand-code your HTML in a dedicated text editor - again light-years more advanced than something like Notepad or Zeus, with things like context-sensitive keyword colouring, spell-checking and varying modes for editing HTML, perl or php (for the more advanced users). But.... It's not just the HTML which is more efficient - it's the actual graphics too. I can take any image, be it JPEG, PNG or GIF straight from a camera or something like Photoshop on a PC. Simply resave it from RISC OS and immediately it will be smaller and leaner - yet with the same, or even improved quality (examples coming soon for those who can't seem to grasp this!).
Things like this are not even down to familiarity over using popular packages. It also seems that the RISC OS application developers and programmers have taken more care over their products, and found new methods to improve things, perhaps implementing more efficient algorithms for encoding graphics. With things like this, everyone's a winner - and that's what I love so much about RISC OS - that feeling of the computer working with you and not against you.
I guess the biggest (and most noticeable) thing people fall in love with RISC OS for is it's user interface, which is a sheer delight to use. Whether it's having a proper windows stack (ie. you can drag windows underneath other windows and they're not forever jumping to the front every time you try to click on something) to having proper (and I mean proper) anti-aliased font technology (Acorn anti-aliased font technology is still the envy of the computer world) and little things like drop-down menus automatically expanding to fill the available screen space. This means that if you have a couple of hundred options on, say, a font menu or a manufacturer selection box for a driver you're installing, you get a proper scrollable menu of available options, and not a silly little box with about 5 items visible and having to nudge the mouse about half a millimetre at a time to see the next item without scrolling through loads at a rate too fast to see.
You can even save your data exactly where you want to save it - by simply dragging a file icon onto any open disc window - no need to navigate through some restrictive file browser window to find the directory in which you want to save your work - and you can have as many filer windows as you like open. However, the RISC OS user interface was designed with minute thought for all those little enhancements that the competition has still failed to implement - such as being able to 'right-click' on a filer window close icon in order to close the window and re-open its parent window - so you can navigate through your entire disc collection without cluttering up your screen display and without losing your place half-way down a stack of directories inside other directories.
There are probably 1001 different niceties in RISC OS compared to Windows and Mac OS and this is why I can guarantee to do any task in RISC OS in a fraction of the time it would take a counterpart to do it under Windows.
Join the comp.sys.acorn.* newsgroups and you'll find all manner of discussions, arguments and sometimes petty bickering - although on the whole they're a very friendly bunch - and you're often made to feel very welcome and part of a family community. There'll be programmers discussing the best way of improving RISC OS from a development point of view and even arguments as to why other developments are doing things wrongly - although a lot of these type of discussions are generally irrelevant to the end user who just wants an application to solve a particular task. Ask a driver what the most efficient or best way to design a combustion engine is and nine times out of ten he/she won't care. He just wants to get from A to B and doesn't care what's under the bonnet or how it works.
I have the advantage in that I can get under the bonnet and tinker about, break things, mend things or improve things - another beauty of RISC OS in that it doesn't treat you like a moron (as Windows and Mac OS generally do). It doesn't lock away the internal system because you're unworthy of dabbling. RISC OS is virtually indestructible in this sense - mainly because the entire operating system is fixed inside a ROM chip in the computer. Sure, some additional modules and upgrades can 'soft load' from what's known as the !Boot sequence on your hard drive. However, it's impossible to break RISC OS in such a way that it can't boot up to a usable, multi-tasking desktop complete with text editor and built-in vector drawing application.
However, there's nothing special about me. The beauty of RISC OS is that everyone is capable of being an expert. It gives you the chance to expand your knowledge, tinker under the bonnet or just do your work - but more efficiently. RISC OS caters for everyone's ability, everyone's skill level and above all lets everyone do what they want to do - not what the computer 'thinks' you want to do.
The thing about RISC OS is that the more you use it, the more you come to love it. It becomes like an old friend that you can confide in, trust with your work, know what makes it tick and see what it's doing - without worrying about possible trojans, worms or spyware secretly hiding beneath the surface. No disc thrashing. No sudden pauses or hourglasses for no apparent reason and the mouse is always responsive, even when the system is busy or you're doing multiple things at once.
Believe it or not, RISC OS users have more choice and flexibility in the range of software available than even Microsoft users. Why is this? Because in the past 20 years Microsoft have managed to pretty much kill and destroy innovation, creativity and variety in the computer world. Ten years ago users had a choice of several word processors, different databases and even different spreadsheets. Ask a PC user to name a word processor other than Word (or even find one to buy in the local PC World!) and a spreadsheet other than Excel and you'll probably get a blank expression as if you'd asked them to name the first hundred digits of PI. This is because Microsoft has systematically killed off competition in order to thrust their own offerings on a gullible public - a public that doesn't seem to know any better than to blindly accept whatever crap Microsoft dish up.
Conversely RISC OS users still have a rich variety of different packages for different tasks. There are no less than four competing word/document processors, several different database systems and a wide variety of graphics/photo editing packages, MP3 players, web browsers, email clients and other everyday applications. What's more, because the RISC OS world has more of a community atmosphere, developers won't try to rip you off or try to manipulate and distort your computing requirements in order to lock you into a particular system. In fact, may developers work pro-actively to help the market as a whole, so even competing packages will import and export files so that in reality you find that sharing files with RISC OS is often easier than sharing files with other systems - such is the PR myth about incompatible filetypes unless you're using Microsoft - who are guilty for the worst file compatibility of any platform.
If you listen to some of the nay sayers lurking in the darker recesses of the Acorn newsgroups you could be fooled into thinking everything is doom and gloom and that Microsoft have taken over the world and 'won'. I don't accept this for second. The fat lady definitely hasn't sung yet. The fact development of RISC OS appears to have split into two different 'forks' isn't really relevant to end users. It may provide a bit of extra work for developers (although from my own programming projects, it's made no difference at all) and it may give a few people something to grumble about but ultimately, I think this is a red herring.
Select for the Iyonix? So what? I've got Select on the Risc PC, yet I use the Iyonix daily and personally don't find I'm missing anything - and those bits I do find useful I've added via third-party addons, essentially what most of Select is anyway. Either way, I've just renewed my Select Subscription - so I can occasionally remind RISCOS Ltd that I'm still waiting for the Iyonix version, but I'm not holding my breath. However, if an Iyonix version becomes available it will be a welcome addition.
Some people seem to become angry for the sake of being angry. Perhaps they've been subjected to the brain-draining mentality of Windows for two long (I'm convinced using Windows starts damaging the intelligence genes in your brain after about ten minutes use!). Life is too short to become stressed out by computers. That's why I refuse to use Windows - it's a computer stress creator, whereas RISC OS is a stress-reliever. After ten minutes fighting against Windows and it's unreliability, it's a sheer pleasure and delight to get back onto my RISC OS machine and complete in 30 seconds what you completely failed to do on Windows because you wasted an hour fixing something that broke just as you were about to do what you originally set out to do.
A large part of my day job is designing web sites and developing perl scripts. The simple answer is that if I couldn't use RISC OS for this, I'd probably give up and do something else. It's simply not the kind of thing you can productively do on either Windows or Mac OS X.
The proof of the pudding is that you can run a business entirely on RISC OS. I know from experience, from being managing director of a national ISP. All company accounts, database management, office work and correspondence (email and letter writing) is done exclusively using RISC OS, including designing flyers, leaflets and producing final artwork for printing. So confident am I that RISC OS will run my business, I don't even have a Windows PC in the office.
So, whether it's calculating a VAT return, designing a colour leaflet or remotely logging into a remote server to configure a web site, RISC OS copes with it all and makes my daily life more pleasurable. On top of that, it's simultaneously playing my favourite MP3 music and can even automatically lower the volume if the phone rings. That's what I call productive, intuitive and above all, efficient. I just need it to make the tea and I could claim that RISC OS can truly do whatever I want it to do.
RISC OS - Where do you really want to go today?
RISC OS - You know it makes sense!
Update - 12th Dec 2006
Ooooh. Seems like this article has just created some debate and even made a news story over at TIB. Looks like a cue for a follow-up article, with more evidence and some examples I think. Watch this space....
Update - 13th Dec 2006
To endeavour to explain some of the more, shall we say, contensious issues mentioned above, I've now written a follow-up article, complete with examples.