A brief look at RISC OS Direct

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At the 2019 London Show, news broke of something to be called RISC OS Direct – a new distribution (distro) of the operating system, and an accompanying video series. The actual launch of RISC OS Direct happened in February, at the Southwest Show, so should be covered in the show report – but that report is currently still a work-in-progress, and is very late, so it seems eminently sensible to write a little something about RISC OS Direct separately.

Before looking in more detail at RISC OS Direct itself, it’s worth examining the course of events that led to its release – starting with who is behind it: It is a collaborative project between RISC OS Developments Ltd and TSW Holdings.

The latter is more familiar to the RISC OS community as Tom Williamson of Ident Computer and Wi-Fi Sheep. As Ident, several years ago Tom released a case for the Raspberry Pi in kit form, called the Micro One, and later the 3D-printed RISC CE. Along with the cases customers were provided with a fully licenced distribution of RISC OS (on an SD card with the kit originally, then later as a download) that Tom had customised to better suit what he saw as his target audience. The licence was provided by the then owners of RISC OS, Castle Technology Ltd.

RISC OS Developments Ltd, meanwhile, was formed in 2017 by R-Comp’s Andrew Rawnsley and Orpheus Internet’s Richard Brown with the original aim of raising funds to develop (or port) a more capable web browser to the RISC OS platform. While browser development continues apace, the company has also taken on a number of other things – for example, acquiring the Impression family in 2019. More significantly, though, was the acquisition made by the company in 2018 – of Castle Technology Ltd. As noted above, Castle owned RISC OS, having themselves purchased it from Pace Micro Technology in the early 2000s shortly after licencing a version from them to be developed into RISC OS 5 and used in the IyonixPC – so by acquiring Castle, RISC OS Developments became the owners of RISC OS itself. Shortly after that the company made RISC OS fully open source by applying the Apache 2.0 licence to version 5.27 and beyond.

Under the new ownership and licence, RISC OS Open Ltd (ROOL) continues its stewardship of the operating system – the company hosts and maintains the primary source tree, co-ordinating further development, and so on, just as they did when the OS was owned by and licenced from Castle.

However, the release of new versions of the operating system under a fully open source licence, rather than the ‘shared source’ licence that Castle had used for it previously, has the potential to increase the appeal of the OS. The collaboration of TSW Holdings and RISC OS Developments is therefore intended to try and capitalise on that, and the RISC OS Direct distribution builds on what Tom was providing previously, incorporating some of the extras that he was including, but is based on the Apache licenced RISC OS 5.27.

With the Raspberry Pi as the primary target, the aim is to encourage take up of RISC OS by Pi users – and indeed to provide free copies of the OS on SD cards at events such as Raspberry Jams, all set up and ready to run without having to go to the effort of writing an image to an SD card card; just insert the freely provided one, switch on, and try out RISC OS!

For people unable to make it to such events, however (which at the moment is pretty much everyone, due to the pandemic and the ‘lockdown’ status here in the UK, and indeed much of the world) writing the image to an SD card is still an option; a RISC OS Direct image is available to download from the RISC OS Developments website. All that’s needed is a suitable computer with which to write the image to a card, and a piece of software to do so. Oh, and a suitable SD card – it should work on an 8GB card, but a 16GB one is recommended.

The standard RISC OS Open distribution remains available as well – and can be written to an SD card in the same way – but RISC OS Direct has a number of advantages over it:

The first and most obvious advantage is that disc image of the ‘vanilla’ RISC OS Open image is 2GB; no matter the size of the card, that’s the maximum total disc space that will be seen by RISC OS (including the space used). The RISC OS Direct disc image, on the other hand, is 8GB – so if nothing else, there is four times as much total disc space available.

The second big difference is in the software provided on that disc image – there is a great deal more included in the RISC OS Direct image than in the one provided by RISC OS Open; it includes applications such as PipeDream, Fireworkz, and Impression Style, and even simple niceties such as a shortcut on the desktop that immediately launches BBC BASIC in full screen mode – for those who hark back to the the BBC Microcomputer programming experience, but with a great deal more memory!

Targeting new users with a nicer distribution of the operating system is only half the battle, though. RISC OS behaves differently to other systems in some important aspects, and that needs to be conveyed to those users in a useful way – so that they aren’t confused about how to do certain things or, worse, put off because of that confusion, perhaps thinking that things aren’t working properly. To that end RISC OS Direct the distribution goes hand-in-hand with RISC OS Direct the introductory video series, which is being produced by Tom. The first three videos are now online, with episodes being released on a monthly schedule:

For existing RISC OS users with a Raspberry Pi, RISC OS Direct is a good choice of distro to use going forwards – if only for the additional software provided in the disc image. However, for potential new users, perhaps wishing to try RISC OS for the first time on their Pi, it very definitely is the distro to choose.