The Education Column
Andrew Harmsworth with the latest Education news
It would be fair to say that the RISC OS world was taken by surprise when the Castle Iyonix PC was announced. This may be so, but what could its potential impact be, if any, in Education? This month I also report on the BETT show, probably the biggest educational ICT show in the world. The RISC OS world is still there, just.
Iyonix in Education
It is my opinion, and probably Castle's, that the Iyonix does not really have much of a place in mainstream education. There can hardly be a school in the country by now that hasn't converted, or is on their way towards, PCs. Nevertheless, if a school has the provision to support the RISC OS platform, it is likely to prove a useful replacement for aging Acorn machines.
This has always been a problem. Acorn computers don't age (technically) as fast as PCs. Partly this may be due to their efficient OS and CPU. Partly it may be due to a slower rate of software development leading to a slower rate of software "bloating". Whichever is true, the StrongARM RiscPC is as useful to me today as it was in 1996. That's not a bad investment!
Upgrading to an Iyonix is, at the price, going to be difficult for schools to justify, given that you could have four cheap PCs for the same price. Even the idea of longevity - that RISC OS machines remain useful for a much longer time than PCs - is a poor card to play when the game is "bums on chairs".
An Iyonix is a powerful piece of kit (read my BETT report below) and its power is inevitably useful in schools who want to be power users of software like Photodesk, Datapower and Textease. The latter has become a less effective DTP package in recent guises; even a StrongARM RiscPC struggles to keep its operation smooth. This may be due to Softease's code growing in size (remember the PC is their prime market). An Iyonix would give the latest versions of Textease a new lease of life.
The connectivity of the Iyonix is impressive, and running on a school network would be an essential feature of its installation. This brings us back to the problem of the internet. Oregano 2 needs to offer a great deal if this machine is to compete.
The Iyonix specification, even the most recent release, is far above what most schools would desire. Perhaps school users should ask Castle whether or not an education version could be released, to make its price just a little more affordable?
For whatever reason, virtually the whole world uses Microsoft applications, and virtually the whole world doesn't comprehend the idea of alternatives. Office compatibility - the exchange of files - has improved over the years for us RISC OS users, but the spreadsheet situation remains just that. CSV import and export simply isn't enough these days. Eureka will need a 32-bit version. I wonder if anyone could buy its source from Logotron, and bring its Excel functionality up to date?
The use of a Windows session - either through ICA or rdesktop - might be the only sensible solution to this problem. i.e. run Windows applications remotely when you need the compatibility, and switch back to RISC OS for its numerous other uses. Given how "wired" most schools are becoming, this is easier than it may sound, and equally advantageous. I have happily used rdesktop sessions myself since its release, and am a convert.
Whatever the world of education holds for the Iyonix or the forthcoming Omega, neither parent company can be assuming that schools will flock to their websites to order these machines. This is probably a good thing, as both companies are likely to have their products aimed entirely elsewhere. Any sales to schools will just help fund further R&D. But sell to schools they can and will. A select group of pupils are likely to be in for a pleasant surprise.
BETT is the educational technology show, so is more than just computers. That said, the majority of exhibitors present were there with computer-related products. In years gone by, many of the Acorn names have attended, but this year the number was its smallest ever.
RiscStation Ltd were supposed to be sharing a stand with Surftec and Precedence. In the event, only the latter two were present. The delayed laptop is a gaping hole for this sector of the RISC OS market. Let us hope that it can come to fruition in 2003. Surftec and Precedence were showing off new, ultra-fast network computers, apparently with much faster processors. Reading their leaflet on the train, it would seem to be the case that this no longer runs RISC OS. I could be wrong, and will check in time for the next column.
Cumana obtained a last minute stand, to show off Castle's Iyonix. Having never seen one, let alone used one, this is where I made my way.
The Iyonix PC
The Iyonix PC, to give it its full name, is not as beautiful as Acorn's delayed RiscPC 2. It looks like an ordinary PC, which is fine. It was its functionality I was interested in, so loaded Draw, and gave it a rather tricky interpolation to do (see images). I was pleased with the result. Everything runs quickly, and yes - it is possible to think that things haven't loaded, because you just don't notice.
One of the reasons that I didn't personally rush out and buy an Iyonix (apart from my 1996 vintage StrongARM RiscPC being all I need) was the limited support on offer initially for legacy 26-bit applications. I was therefore interested to see Aemulor in action.
Aemulor is an emulator that attempts to support non 32-bit applications on the Iyonix. It is being written by Adrian Lees, the project being coordinated by AAUG's Neil Spellings. To load 26-bit applications, all one had to do was this:
I tried out Impression Publisher. This loaded successfully, and I was able to fill about 12 pages with text. Selecting all of it and emboldening it took more time than on my machine, and was probably slower than a RiscPC 600. However, this was an early version of Aemulor, and (at time of going to press) the Aemulor gang have announced a significantly improved version of the software. My personal minimum requirement would be StrongARM RiscPC speed (200 MHz). From what we hear, this is rapidly being approached. The Iyonix would seem to offer much more than just modern hardware.
The expanding number of Iyonix users has been guinea-pigged by Castle as a test base for the RISC OS version of their Oregano 2 web browser. One was installed on the Cumana machine, and as a user of Oregano 1.10, I was itching to see what it was like. Unfortunately, there was no web access on the stand, so I had to make do with a poke around on the desktop.
At last year's BETT show, the Castle/Cumana Slym - basically a faster network computer - looked as if it was going to offer a great deal to Education. Talking with Cumana, there would seem to be two problems. Firstly, the RISC OS ICA client stalled in its development last year. Secondly, the ARM7500FE hardware, despite pushed to its limits, was not quite state of the art.
Concept Stool Design: the Slym
The first problem is, apparently, being addressed. The second certainly looks much more promising now that the Iyonix is here. Teachers regularly put 2 and 2 together, and I would hope to see an Xscale-powered Slym in the future. This is, of course, pure speculation.
As has been reported on the RISC OS Education List, there were interactive whiteboards everywhere. I have some interest in these, and even ventured onto the RM stand to play with their TabletPC (didn't Acorn make one of those?). As yet there is no native support for interactive whiteboards for RISC OS. Given the huge drive to get schools using them, if the platform is to improve its competitive edge - tarnished, some would say rusted, somewhat in recent years - being able to plug and play with a i-board will become an essential feature. I wonder if anyone is working on this... ?
Text, Paint, Text, Paint. Easy!
Softease were enjoying the show as ever, and were showing off Textease Paint, amongst other things. This appears to be an excellent package, and I was hoping that the demo on their site would give me a taste. A time of writing, however, I have not been able to get it to work.
Textease: now available for RISC OS 5
(snapshot from the textease.com website)
Far more important than Paint, is the news that Textease itself has been recompiled to support both 26 and 32-bit modes, allowing it to run on the Iyonix. I have to say that if there was one application that the inability to use would be a factor in preventing my own purchase of an Iyonix, it would be this. The fact that Softease is now owned by RM, and this future support is being offered, is excellent news for the platform. I cannot reiterate that enough.
Within the millions of tonnes of paper carried away in bags was the following sentences in TES online:
"In the dim and distant days of Acorn computers, there was a program called Revelation, which later evolved to the Big Picture ... it met most of the ICT need of pupils [in art]. These days there is no single program to meet all the ICT demands of an art department."
Now, isn't that interesting? A whole world of software for the PC, and not one that meets the needs of ICT for art in the National Curriculum. Isn't progress grand? I wonder how well The Big Picture (some of us even remember teaching with it) will run on VirtualAcorn?
Acorn-derived hardware, and RISC OS software, was born in education, and has its heart in education. There will always be a place for it there. We just need to make sure that logic slowly prevails.
All photographs are © A P Harmsworth. If you have any questions or comments on the use of RISC OS computers in education, please either email firstname.lastname@example.org or better still join the RISC OS Education Discussion List, and air them there.