Software

This area of the site houses software that I've written (and, in one case, software that someone else has written but which I sell). Check the categories at the left to find out what sections are present.

The rest of this page is a personal story about my own computing background, in terms of the machines I've owned and so on. It's probably not terribly interesting to anyone but me, but if you're of a mind to wade through it, don't let me put you off!


My computing history

I started off with computers at the age of twelve, playing about with a Commodore PET 2001 Series which my uncle borrowed from work during the summer holidays. I have very fond memories of the PET, but it was an atrocious machine in many ways. Its storage medium was a built-in tape drive (which took standard audio cassettes) and it had the most peculiar and unpleasant keyboard ever devised for a computer.

People subsequently complained vociferously about the poor-quality keyboards on Sinclair's machines (particularly the ZX81 and original rubber-key Spectrum), but they were luxury models by comparison with the old PET keyboard; and bearing in mind that the PET was an expensive business machine, whereas the Sinclair models were ultra-cheap home computers, that doesn't say much for the PET. All its keys were flat little plastic squares with inset metal labels, and were arranged in a highly non-standard order, with no consideration whatsoever paid to ergonomics. As I recall, the keys were arranged in a rectangular matrix; they weren't even offset from one another from row to row, as you'd expect from a QWERTY keyboard. It was certainly impossible to type at any speed on this machine. (Later models of PET were fitted with professional-quality standard keyboards, but the keys on this machine were memorably awful.)

Commodore BASIC was also notoriously poor. In fact, with hindsight, it was quite astonishingly badly designed; it wasn't even possible to position the cursor on the screen without resorting to long strings of indecipherable control codes, such as a reversed-out heart symbol to take the cursor back to the 'home' position at the top-left of the screen. Mind you, they do say that 'home is where the heart is'. Anyway, Commodore BASIC barely qualified as a high-level programming language at all. In order to do anything even vaguely useful it was necessary to PEEK and POKE all sorts of memory locations, and fill all your listings with reams of incomprehensible control codes. As a result, all programs, no matter how simple, instantly became impossible to read, let alone debug.

So with hindsight the PET was actually a terrible computer, but I enjoyed my time with it hugely nevertheless. For a start, it looked like a computer; it was a perfect fit for the sort of thing I expected a computer to be, in those far-off days in the early age of microcomputing. It was a very large, bulky white metal box with a black base. Its keyboard had lots of little coloured legends on the keys as well as the letters. The tape recorder could magically start and stop itself. And, best of all, it had a built-in black and white monitor perched on top of it like a head, with a narrower neck to separate it from the body. It had personality. I had it for two summers, but then apparently it broke down and was thrown on a skip. I'm told that, when it was turned on, it started doing nothing more than displaying a forlorn question mark in the centre of its screen, and rather than trying to have it fixed, the company just threw it away. I was heartbroken.

Computing in parallel

But in 1981 I got a computer of my own: a Sinclair ZX81. This was really the start of my fascination with the machines, because, despite its huge limitations (notably just 1K of internal RAM), the ZX81 actually had quite a good version of BASIC built into it (a lot better than the PET's, anyway); so I started to write proper programs.

The next year the ZX81 was replaced by a Spectrum, which had 48K of memory, a better version of BASIC, and fancy features like colour and sound. I spent a great deal of time with my Spectrum, both programming it and playing (and hacking) games, and it remains the computer of which I have the fondest memories from the 1980s.

However, at the same time I also had a BBC Micro. This is the machine for which Acorn is chiefly remembered, and it was what everyone used in schools. It was an exceptionally well-built machine, and indeed very well designed in every way, but its worst feature was its lack of memory: it had a mere 32K, of which up to a massive 20K was devoted to the screen display (often leaving under 10K available for user programs). BBC owners tended to look down on Spectrum owners because the Spectrum was considered to be a cheap little toy, whereas the BBC was an expensive and serious machine. That was undoubtedly true, but the Spectrum also had significantly more usable memory than the BBC (up to 42K for user programs, in fact), and many of the Spectrum's features were surprisingly good; it was a more powerful little machine than was apparent at first sight.

Ever since the early 80s, I always seem to have managed to have at least two computers. I used the 48K Spectrum and the 32K BBC Model B in tandem for several years until around 1986, when they were both replaced by upgraded models: a 128K Spectrum (Sinclair's last genuine machine before being bought out by Amstrad) and a BBC Master 128 from Acorn. I liked the Spectrum 128 a lot, but it wasn't much of an advance on the 48K model. The BBC Master was a much bigger upgrade, and the model I got was a Master 128 Turbo, with an internal 65C102 co-processor.

Growing up

Then it was time to go to university, and it was there that I was really introduced to the Apple Macintosh. I'd used a Mac briefly before, but it was at university that I had the opportunity to use Macs seriously. I had a range of machines at my disposal: several Mac Pluses, sitting atop external hard disc drives, and a few Mac II models with colour screens. However, I spent by far the most time using a Mac SE/30 for transcribing, editing and typesetting a mediæval music manuscript as part of my final year project (this being a music degree, not computer science!). The SE/30, though only black and white, was actually quite a nice little machine, and comparatively fast for the Macs of the time.

But I didn't really like Macs very much in those days. They were too 'closed'; you could run applications on them, but they weren't very intelligent about the way they operated, and you couldn't write any software for them without spending lots of money on development tools, whereas other computers of the day positively encouraged you to write things by having built-in languages and free tools.

The machine that I really had my eye on was the Acorn Archimedes. It had come out in 1987, the year that I'd gone to university, and it was absolutely stunning: several times faster than any other desktop computer, with a fantastic built-in programming language (a much-enhanced version of BBC Basic), unbelievably high quality and cutting-edge font technology, and the best operating system I'd ever seen. It was so fast that it could run PC software under emulation even faster than that same software would run on an equivalent real-hardware PC (eat your heart out, Connectix!). It put the Mac and PC to shame, and I desperately wanted one. But the Archimedes was really expensive; it wasn't a purchase to take lightly.

Luckily there were two things in my favour: my 21st birthday was coming up, and I have a very generous father. So, arriving home from university a few days after my 21st birthday, I was overjoyed to find an Archimedes A410/1 awaiting me. Not only was it the best 21st present I could have wished for, but it fundamentally changed my life; it had a profound influence on all my future activities, and was the reason that I ended up doing so much in the Acorn world, editing magazines and so forth in later years.

The Archimedes really was a revelation. I greatly improved my programming skills by writing all sorts of applications on it, and I learnt a lot about all kinds of other things through using it. It became the centre of my life from an educational, business and hobby point of view. I used its PC emulator software to do the PC-based course work in my Open University degree, and its native (non-PC) software to write my assignments; I learnt a lot about many technical subjects through using it; it was the centre of my business activities (DTP and musical work); and I had lots of fun with it in general. I couldn't have asked for more from it.

At the same time, though, I also needed a Mac for certain aspects of my business activities, so I got a Macintosh LC. Aside from being known as 'Elsie' (how original!), this machine had no personality whatsoever, and I didn't much enjoy using it. It had a nice (though small) colour screen, but it was slow, it didn't encourage you to do anything constructive like programming, and all software seemed vastly expensive and amazingly under-powered by comparison with what was available for the Archimedes. So Elsie didn't really get all that much use.

Acorn released its successor to the Archimedes, the Risc PC, in 1994, and it was a foregone conclusion that I would have to have one. I'll never get rid of my Archimedes; it was a 21st birthday present, after all. But nevertheless, it's no longer used, as the Risc PC took over from it completely. That Risc PC, though heavily upgraded, is still in daily use today in late 2002, almost exactly eight years after I first bought it, and several years after the demise of Acorn itself. That's a testament to what a fine machine it is. Any PC or Mac of that vintage would be horribly slow and would seem totally unusable, but the Risc PC continues to perform exceptionally well. It's still the machine I like best, and I've designed much of this Web site using it.

In 1995 I got a Mac Performa 5200 to replace the LC. This seemed quite a nice machine at the time, and I did quite enjoy using it, but it soon became very outdated and was eventually replaced by a blue and white desktop G3 in 1999. I've still got that G3, though now it gets very little use, as I've had to replace it with a G4 in order to run Apple's new operating system, Mac OS X.

I feel that, with Mac OS X, Apple has finally got its act together. It's a really nice OS in many ways, and finally Apple encourages you to write software by giving you decent developer tools with the machine. Better late than never! It's a bit of a tragedy that Acorn's 1988-vintage RISC OS operating system is still significantly better than Apple's 2001-vintage Mac OS X in a surprising number of ways, but never mind: Mac OS X is sufficiently good overall that I'll forgive it its minor shortcomings, which are likely to get less over time in any case. It's certainly the nicest new OS I've used since RISC OS first came out, and it's a massive improvement on the 'Classic' Mac OS, which I hardly use now. I find myself doing an increasing number of things on the Mac, and it's mainly because I really like the new OS.

Today

Observant readers who have ploughed through all the above will have noticed that there has been no mention of Microsoft Windows. I'm sorry to say that I have been unable to avoid using Windows from time to time, and I'm familiar with a number of versions of it. At university I used an early version (though I don't know whether it was 1, 2 or 3.0). After university I made quite a lot of use of Windows 3.1, and more recently Windows 95 and 98. I've now got Windows XP. Whilst I've never owned a desktop PC as such myself, I do have access to various machines, not to mention other ways of running Windows such as the PC co-processor in my Risc PC and Virtual PC on the Mac.

All of this experience leads me to one inescapable conclusion: I loathe Microsoft Windows. Given the existence of incomparably, massively superior systems such as RISC OS (and, to be fair, almost any other OS you care to mention), I find it utterly insane that the world has standardised on this monstrosity. It's a criminally badly designed system which seems destined to continue making most computer users' lives a misery for years to come. Admittedly it's not as bad as it was (Windows 3.1 was just unspeakable), but it's still an ugly, unreliable and badly-thought-out system which should have been laughed out of the market over a decade ago. The success of Windows is a triumph of marketing over quality. The best thing to say about Windows is that it keeps lots of techies in jobs: either fixing Windows systems when they go wrong, or writing software to overcome problems that shouldn't be there in the first place. I've used many computer operating systems over the years, both popular and obscure, and Windows is the only one that I'd refuse to use if I could possibly avoid it. I'm not a fanatic; I'm just a good judge of quality, and someone who wishes that the world could have taken a different path.

With the above paragraph in mind, you won't be surprised to read that there's no Windows software on this site.

Obviously I'll use Windows if I have to; I'm not going to turn down work because of it, and it's not as if I'm incapable of using it. (Indeed, I've successfully fixed friends' and relatives' corrupted installations of Windows from time to time.) But if I've got an alternative I'll invariably go for it, merely because I find any system preferable to Windows, for both the pleasure and the productivity of the computing experience.

Here endeth the long and boring ramble about my computing history. I hope you enjoyed it, and if you didn't, well, you've only yourself to blame for not stopping reading sooner!


All material is copyright © 2002 Richard Geoffrey Hallas unless otherwise stated