dalliard.net

Bride Of Frankenputer

My son is currently sat next to me, thumbing his way around Lego City on a Kindle Fire, which he plays like a pro. Bearing in mind that he’s not quite five yet, this all seems quite odd. When I was five, technology just wasn’t on my radar - and at the age of ten when I got my first computer (a ZX81) I had to program my own entertainment. Well, as much as you can in 1K of memory, anyway.*

As the years went on my computers gradually got more powerful. Memory turned from K into MB into GB and processors ran from MHz to GHz, but when I think back, I still think the machine I had that was way ahead of its time was my trusty Acorn computer. Of course, if you're looking at buying a new computer these days, you probably fall into one of two camps - Windows or Apple, but twenty years ago Acorn were The Third-Way.

Acorn were a British company that manufactured a variety of computers until the eventual demise of their workstation division at the end of the nineties. If you're of a particular age you'll probably remember the BBC Model B computer, which found its way into the majority of UK classrooms. It's the tool that many of us cut our programming teeth on, giving us the computing "bug" and encouraging us to enter the I.T. industry. Acorn were also instrumental in the creation and growth of the ARM processor, that little chip that's probably in your smartphone as you read this article.

Back in the nineties I bought an Acorn computer, an A5000 - and a RISC PC followed later. As computers go, they were a joy to use. The ROM-based OS booted up in seconds, had an exceptionally easy to use desktop and was a great productivity machine. I used mine for application development and as a desktop publishing system for many years. The RISC PC was a hackers dream because it came in "slices", allowing you to access the internals within seconds by unlocking a few plastic pins and popping off the cover. You did your coding in BASIC, C or ARM Assembly language, a job that wasn't astoundingly difficult because Acorn were very good at documenting the guts of their OS. The system also had networking and multiprocessor support, allowing you to pop in a PC processor card and run Windows if you had to. Virtually all the internals were upgradeable in some way, explaining why it had such longevity. It was my workhorse throughout my time at college, university and for a good few years thereafter. I was a fickle bugger, though - once Acorn announced they were stopping production I defected to the Apple camp and kept the machine in storage.

Unfortunately, storage isn't kind to computers. It's far better for them to be used on a regular basis. Long-term storage resulted in near-terminal damage to mine. The rechargeable CMOS battery that retains the system settings and clock leaked its contents over the motherboard. When I fired it up some years later, it refused to boot. The alkali within the battery had damaged a good chunk of the internals. If I was ever going to get it going again, it was time to hunt down some replacement parts, a task that becomes a bit harder when the manufacturer went out of business 15 years ago.

With some perseverance and the assistance of forums, eBay and The Internet Archive, the machine is back up and running - and I'm chuffed to bits. It's now a fully-functioning antique. My next mission is to pimp it out and get the spec as high as I can reasonably manage - here’s a screenshot of RISC OS, the operating system. I’m running NetSurf as the browser of choice.

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But why did I bother with the refurbishment? Surely the price of computers has dropped so much that we shouldn't give much thought to replacing old for new? After all, if your computer dies you can buy a cheap laptop for a few hundred quid. No, my RISC PC was an awesome machine. The technology inside it heavily influenced the future of computing. Systems that were multi-processor, multi-OS and multi-tasking shaped where we are now, so if I can scrape together the spare parts for next to nothing, then why not? Environmental reasons aside, I can still think of a good few things to do with it. It's still a solid machine for productivity and I've even managed to get it internet-connected now, so it's always a good backup device for e-mail and bare-bones web-browsing.

Over the last six weeks, I've managed to source a replacement motherboard, a free 486 processor card, memory upgrades for just a couple of pounds and an ethernet card for network connectivity. With the PC card running, I've managed to install DOS 6.22, Windows 3.11 and my old application development environment. That's allowed me to compile (and run) the source code that I found on a certain floppy disk mentioned in my last post. Sure, this isn't cutting-edge technology now, but it does serve as a reminder about our computing origins. I'm running Windows like it's 1993.

Computers like this all go towards demonstrating how much computing has changed in the twenty years since I bought this machine. They've shrunk, operating systems have grown ever more "smart", prices have come down and power has exponentially increased. Despite all that, I find that I get so much more done on a command-line, where there's no GUI to get in the way, although I imagine I'm part of a dying breed. What's wonderful however, is that RISC OS, the OS in my RISC PC continues to live on. The wonderful Raspberry Pi has turned out to be RISC OS's savior. Version five of the OS is very much under active development. If you want to to turn your Raspberry Pi into the ultimate portable computer, then RISC OS is probably the best thing you can run on it. It starts up in seconds, is fast, responsive and has a good selection of productivity applications available.

So whilst Acorn disappeared, its legacy lives on. My aim this time is not to leave it unused and get as much out of it as I can, joining my Atari ST in my "Retro Corner". In the meantime, this has made me wonder what my son’s generation will be doing in the future. Will they understand the nuts and bolts of computers and be able to program them at a low level? Or will they just be putting together presentations in Powerpoint 2030? Who knows? This is where I hope that hardware like the Raspberry Pi and initiatives like the Festival of Code really take off. We need new computer programmers, not just computer users. There’s nothing uncool about getting your geek on.

* - I appreciate that I’m about to descend into Monty Python’s Yorkshiremen sketch. Sorry about that.

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