ARM’s original operating system goes open source

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In today’s increasingly digital world, learning to code has become an integral part of STEM curriculums. Schools are using Raspberry Pi and other ARM-based hardware as a low-cost means of introducing students to coding.

Following the recent news that RISC OS, the original ARM operating system, is going open source, TechRadar Pro sat down with the Director of RISC OS Developments, Richard Brown to learn more about how the operating system is being used in schools and other hardware projects.

Can you tell us a little about RISC OS and how long you have been using it for?

RISC OS is a high performance and low footprint operating system. It provides a modern desktop interface coupled with easy access to programming, hardware and connectivity.  It continues to incorporate the world-renowned programming language, BBC BASIC, and is incredibly compact, fitting onto a tiny 16MB SD card. Originally developed in Cambridge, England, by Acorn Computers in 1987, RISC OS was specifically designed to work hand-in-hand with the ARM series of microprocessors.  

I personally have been using RISC OS since version 3 on an A5000 system. It was the first operating system I had used with a graphical interface and it very naturally felt right as you used it. The process of learning the system was incredibly easy and even after a few hours you began to realise just how much you could do. The A5000 system with the then standard set of software, enabled the user to produce output with superfluous ease.

What prompted the move to open source?

When you have an operating system that you know is stable, long lasting and easy to use; it is only natural to want to share this with others. The most prolific software in the world is generally Open Source allowing for innovation and updates to reach an OS quickly. We want the same for RISC OS because it has the potential to be useful for so many people now that it has a clear and simple licence.

Do you think it will lead to more people using RISC OS?

Yes absolutely. We are already seeing this happening. Open sourcing has raised awareness of RISC OS around the world and people like what they see.

Do you see more device makers opting to use your OS now that it is open source?

With the new licensing for RISC OS, all the old obstacles for real development have been removed. This will allow curious device makers the ability to tinker and be amazed with what RISC OS can and will do.

In your press release you mentioned the fact that BBC BASIC is being taught in UK schools, is there a lot of interest in your OS in the education sector?

When Acorn was at its height, every school in the UK was using their hardware and software. Now, with the re-introduction of ARM based hardware in UK (and others countries) schools, RISC OS is a natural fit especially with single board computers such as the Raspberry Pi. RISC OS is a great way to start programming and get younger generations into coding. With the bonus that parents will know it too, it’s something of a revival, if you will!

What opportunities can you now pursue that were previously inaccessible due to license restrictions?

We can now place RISC OS in front of industry leading people and companies, and offer them solutions without any of the holdbacks of the previous licensing. One such opportunity has arisen with the makers of the compact and low-cost Pinebook; who have supported our developers to integrate the OS on the device. We have also worked with a couple of Dutch companies who use the OS in their products; one being a control system for watering crops around the world and the other which started as a database system for medical practitioners and is now deployed in the UK in education and car racing. From these great international examples we hope to build the user base with this new release and work on more exciting and useful projects.

Could native ARM-based laptops be the future of mobile computing?

Certainly one of them! ARM based laptops are already in existence and as time passes more and more will have ARM derived/based chips in them. I already mentioned the Pine Book earlier. If manufacturers can see the advantages of the ARM hardware (and they do) then it should be practical and possible to show them the huge advantages of using RISC OS, which was designed for ARM-based hardware in the first place.

Where do you see RISC OS going next now that it is open source?

With a little imagination this system could easily go to Mars. RISC OS is a small, robust, fast and close to the metal system that draws small amounts of power based on the superb ARM based technology out there currently. The sky's not the limit! We want to develop this amazing software that we have great faith in to achieve so much more. With new awareness and development funding support from the industry, business investors, and the general public; we have no doubt that RISC OS will transform itself from what we have today into an operating system fit for the present and indeed, the future.

Richard Brown, Director of Developments at RISC OS

Anthony Spadafora

After working with the TechRadar Pro team for the last several years, Anthony is now the security and networking editor at Tom’s Guide where he covers everything from data breaches and ransomware gangs to the best way to cover your whole home or business with Wi-Fi. When not writing, you can find him tinkering with PCs and game consoles, managing cables and upgrading his smart home.