Friday, 13 March 2009

Seeing my name in lights

A long time ago, another life really, I worked for Acorn Computers in Cambridge. Whilst there I did lots of interesting stuff - Internet Computers, Internet Access modules for televisions, work on build systems; all stuff that, looking back was fun and good.

Well, Acorn went bye-bye ten years ago, but Pace (the Set Top Box makers) took over the part I worked for. They kept the Acorn Operating System, RISC OS, going. Then, in 2002, it all got cancelled.

Now, I really liked RISC OS. As an operating system it was very easy to use, with some features that are still not in Windows or Mac OS X (such as right-clicking on windows furniture causing the inverse effect). I still miss it. I've got a computer capable of running RISC OS somewhere, but I haven't started it up for years. I could run it on my PC using an emulator called VirtualAcorn, but it seems pointless. My memories will probably be better than the experience.

Pace canned their work on RISC OS in 2002, and with it went any realistic chance that RISC OS had as a mainstream operating system. However, it still has its fans, and new versions were produced by several companies. The ownership of the code became a thorny and complex issue, one which I believe had not been fully ironed out. The source code was open-sourced a year or so ago, and today I went to have a look at it. I was somewhat surprised to find my name in a few places.

The following is a commit log I made into the source control system. See:
Fix to bugzilla bug 4065

1MB VRAM was not being correctly identified. This was
due to register corruption in r12 in the VRAM detection
routines in s.ARM600. This bug has been a longstanding
one introduced in Kernel 4.69 two years ago.

Been put through the Kev&Mike change control process

Version 5.40. Tagged as 'Kernel-5_40'
This was apparently seven years, eleven months ago. How time flies.

It would be interesting to know who owns the copyright of the text above. I originally wrote it, but it would have belonged to Pace, who I was working for at the time. That code was passed onto two different companies, one of which open-sourced the code. The relevant licences are fairly heavyweight, and the chain of ownerships and rights complex.

I spent half-an-hour this afternoon looking through some of the source code, the first time for nearly seven years that I had really studied it. I guess this must be what it is like for an author to go back and read something he had written many years before; a creeping sense of joyful familiarity. Or perhaps it would be better to say an editor, as most of the work I did were in areas of the code that are not in the public domain. I have read over most of the code many times in the past, either sorting it out for putting into various build and versioning systems, merging code, searching for bugs, code reviews, or just for pure intellectual interest.

There was also a short document that I wrote back in 2000. We had a project to build a low-cost, ROM-based Internet access computer (which eventually became the Bush Internet TV). The customer wanted to support many different countries - Turkey, Germany, Spain, and others. This meant we needed many different languages, and as there was no disc, it had to be done in ROM, which was short of space (message translations are invariably large).

I looked at this problem on-and-off as time permitted, and I took the notes with me when I went on a walk through Scotland (the same walk where I met Sam). One wild night I pitched my tent on a boggy stretch of ground on a beallach, got my notebook out, and worked out an answer.

People often say that getting away from a problem can help you find a solution; on that occasion I think I took it to extremes.

Whilst looking into all of this I found a webpage that showed an Easter Egg (a treat hidden within the software). In this case it was a photo of the development team and, yes, I'm in it. What's more. I've actually got the original copies of the photos somewhere.

It really feels as though it was a different world. The technology has moved on so far in the last seven years. What we were trying to do then - low cost devices for Internet access - are now coming onto the market in the form of Netbooks. Some of these use the ARM chip, although these use the Linux operating system. I wonder if anyone will try and port RISC OS onto them? If so, I can see myself getting one, just to use a real Operating System, and one that I contributed to in a a little way.

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