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back to article Microsoft: Welcome back to PCs, ARM. Sorry about the 1990s

More than two decades after the alliance of Intel and Microsoft drove ARM from the battleground of personal computing, Microsoft is warmly embracing the low-power processor designer for Windows 8. ARM was squeezed out of the then emerging and subsequently dominant platform of the time, the desktop PC, as computer makers …

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It blew the Apple, Amiga and ST away tech-wise in many ways.

Good to see an open source version of RiscOS is being ported to the Raspberry Pi.

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Anonymous Coward

Archimedes = Very good CPU, average chipset.

ST = Average CPU, average chipset.

Amiga = Average CPU, above average chipset.

Apple = Average CPU, average chipset.

It was horses for courses, if you wanted to do 3D rendering then the Arc was king. The fast CPU allowed for you to do a lot of things in software too, no need for hardware assistance.

But the Arc was too expensive, £799 at launch or £875 if you wanted 1MB. I remember paying around £500 or so for my A500 back then.

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Happy

Fond memories of Acorn

Acorn's Archimedes series of machines were wonderful all rounders and so easy to work with. Some of the games we converted (for example Pacmania which I did myself) were by far the best versions in fact. For games players, we supported it like no other games company did, converting a such a of major Amiga titles, such as the Lemmings series (which I also did) etc. I often wonder if it wasn't for our efforts on the platform, the format might have died a lot earlier, along with the Arm processor. What we achieved certainly made it a more acceptable computer for the kids to own.

Perhaps phones might have all have had intel devices in them and still be big and fat if it wasn't for us lol!

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Re: Fond memories of Acorn

I definitely remember the Krisalis release of Lemmings for the Arc. Many hours were lost to that game.

I still have it somewhere.... unfortunately it won't run on the Pi.

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Anonymous Coward

Some aspects are still superior to Windows

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Anonymous Coward

You can never really beat a ROM based OS for boot up time :)

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That's because those machines were from a time before Microsoft's monopoly damaged computing and set it back 5 - 10 yrs.

An Amiga 1200 (from 1991) compared to a windows PC from 1996

The Amiga ran at 14Mhz and had a 2MB RAM, the Windows PC I had ran at 166 Mhz and had 32MB RAM

- The Amiga booted up faster (seconds for a HDD boot into workbench)

- The Amiga was more responsive desktop

- The Amiga was more a more stable desktop (only games ever cause crashes...)

- The Amiga has sound that didn't stutter ALL THE GOD DAMN TIME

- The Amiga's graphics although lacked the 3D capabilities seems far faster - and didn't stutter ALL THE GOD DAMN TIME - at 1996 I saw nothing as impressive as 'state of the art'

- Everything cost far more in Windows than the Amiga, there were loads of software on the Amiga that just didn't exist for Windows (i.e music production.) and equivalents that did cost often 2 - 10 X the amount (for less reliable software)

Going from the Amiga 1200 -> Win 95 was like a step into the Dark ages.

Thank god for Linux.

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> You can never really beat a ROM based OS for boot up time :)

The Amiga 1200 booted from a HDD, it booted in about 5 seconds.

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...and all this was in an age where optimisation meant changing the program so it ran faster, not buying newer, faster hardware. Newer versions of software also tended to come with software optimisations and new features, not just bloat that ran slower on the same hardware but ran roughly the same speed on much faster new hardware.

It was an art form back then tweaking your system, usually to make it faster, for example to boot in less than 5 seconds. I remember getting a system to the desktop (graphical shell) in under 2 seconds; and this was a fully usable desktop, not the sham tweak from Windows XP onwards that may display a desktop relatively quickly but you still have to wait another 30 seconds for it to be usable. I don't especially miss the tweaking of systems to make them run faster, and definitely don't miss the IRQ table and memory allocation juggling that came with DOS, but considering the sheer processing power available just on a basic PC, it's disappointing just how slow they are.

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amiga 1200

8 meg ram upgrade for Amiga 1200=$300.00

50 MZH 68030 upgrade card for Amiga 1200=$187.00

SCSI controller for external hard drive=$80.00

Add all that to your 1200 and it was a decent little machine, but not a cheap one

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Bronze badge

RISC OS, which bore little resemblance

"RISC OS, which bore little resemblance to what students would see and use at work when they left school."

Absolute rubbish.Windows 95 bore far more resemblance to RISC OS than to windows 3.1.

The kids who were moved from RISC OS to Windows 3.1 would have encountered Windows 95 when they left school.

(And apparently the official launch of RISC OS for the Raspberry Pi is this weekend).

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: RISC OS, which bore little resemblance

"Absolute rubbish"

I knew this would rile ROS fans, but y'know that's how Bill called it. ADFS::HardDisc4.$ compares to C:\ how? ;-)

C.

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FAIL

Re: RISC OS, which bore little resemblance

And C:\, D:\, etc compares to / how?

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Re: I knew this would rile ROS fans

YOU should know better, if you had said bore little resemblance to the machines businesses WERE using at the time, that couldn't have been disputed.

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Re: RISC OS, which bore little resemblance

Well, I never had to get all techy on Acorns, as they were in my junior school's IT room... However I remember it being straight forward enough for all us 12 year-olds to do DTP and word processing on them, and on the customary last-lesson-of-term free play, we would marvel at the games.

At home, I was having to mess around with IRQ numbers, Autoexec.bat, config.sys, extended, expanded etc, to run games on a PC with beepy sound and so-so graphics. Using it for homework meant an ASCII-based GUI called MS Works, and it just seemed very unpolished.

With the senior school came Mac LCIIIs (IIRC) and despite most assignments being completed on them, we rarely saw signs of slow down. Hours of fun making Macromedia Director animations, too. Our own quota of network storage, and a laser printer. I think the transition was fairly smooth for most pupils, despite the disappearance of two mouse buttons.

By this point, at home, I must have had a 386 SX... Windows was optional... I still had to reboot after connecting a peripheral... but later Doom and Carmageddon would cheer me up!

Acorns and Apples then were much more like the Windows PCs I use now.

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Thumb Up

Re: RISC OS, which bore little resemblance

"I knew this would rile ROS fans, but y'know that's how Bill called it. ADFS::HardDisc4.$ compares to C:\ how?"

But how often do you actually need to type in ADFS::HardDisc4.$.? Virtually never, though you can if you want to. If you need a full pathname you can just shift-drag the icon.

Oh, and RISC OS keeps the file type separately from the file name.

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Re: RISC OS, which bore little resemblance

Re Acorn file paths.

IIRC

Instead of names like HardDisc4

:0, :1 etc. could be used for floppy disks.

:4, :5 etc. could also be used for hard drive devices as I recall, as well as the device names or name of the individual floppy disk. If you didn't have a needed named floppy in the drive, then you'd be prompted to insert it.

But you could also use <Obey$Dir> for the path of your app just clicked on, and just go down from there for your own resources in your app folder.

All easy peasy actually.

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Happy

Idiosyncratic?

How can you call RISC OS idiosyncratic? It's intuitive. Drag and drop filing is so much easier than having to navigate Windows's or MacOS's filing systems. It had the icon bar long before both Microsoft and Apple pinched the idea. It has the ability to put windows to the back, and to have focus on a window without automatically bringing it to the front thereby covering up the other windows you wanted to see. In short, RISC OS is so much more user-friendly that it's worth putting up with a few drawbacks like the absence of a fully-featured web browser.

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Re: Idiosyncratic?

I think that at that time (until Windows 95 was launched), Windows was the red-headed stepchild of WIMP interfaces. RiscOS, Acorn, Atari, and Mac had similar, and by similar I mean usable, GUIs. The three-button mouse was RiscOS's little innovation at that time which is now considered normal.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Idiosyncratic?

I think X terminals always had three buttons on the mouse.

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Unhappy

Re: Idiosyncratic?

I'd forgot about that. Perhaps I blacked it out for a reason.

I held my nose long enough to open a terminal window and maximise it.

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Linux

CISC/RISC example

Well the IBM z/Architecture kind of validates the notion that CISC can indeed be better for throughput depending on scenario...

Tux for Linux on System z

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Facepalm

Win CE

So Win8RT just another name for Win CE

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FAIL

Re: Win CE

No. Here's the situation as I understand it:

WinRT is the new set of APIs available (largely) to new "Windows Store Apps" (TIFKAM) but also in some cases to desktop apps. This is as compared to Win32. The new API is exposed via a new framework that is based on (something like) COM with .Net metadata, allowing easy access from C++, .Net and javascript.

Windows RT (the operating system) is pretty much just the ARM build of Windows 8, with various features turned off (and a confusing name).

Note that Windows Phone 7 & 7.5 were (I believe) built on top of Windows CE, but Windows Phone 8 is built largely on Windows 8 code (e.g. the kernel, networking stack, some of the UI stack, etc). That means this new round of OS updates (including the ability to build "proper Windows" on ARM) may be what finally gets rid of Win CE.

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Re: Win CE

From a marketing perspective. Yes, CE has run on ARM for years and it has more in common with Windows NT (2000, XP, Vista, 7, 8) family than Win on Dos (3.x, 9x, ME) family.

But CE resource / process limits are static, hard coded for tiny RAM and ROM. Win NT (Win 8) is dynamic allocation more suited to the ARM in Smart phones that has more physical resource than a 2001 x86 Laptop!

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Anonymous Coward

RISC vs. CISC is a canard in this discussion, really.

$DEITY knows the competition has used sometimes outright ludicrous marketing claims. As those go, this one was relatively benign. In fact, it was, and is, mostly true as long as you read "x86" for "CISC", ie that which they were up against in that market.

Even if x86 has a RISC-type core underneath. It still means they have a layer of CISC on top, and that layering itself adds complexity. The point of RISC is exactly to spurn complexity, something a CISC-over-RISC design doesn't quite do. Handily defeats, one might say. Meaning you might as well not have mooted that argument.

The problem with acorn wasn't with their marketing slogans, but the dominance of redmond and its marketeering. And of course its chum intel, whose segmented CPUs didn't win out because of their nice and elegant architectures. How is itanic doing these days, or am I not allowed to ask that?

In fact, that very success with wintendo could be called something of a curse in disguise. For comparison, apple has switched chip architectures in their desktops twice now, while maintaining reasonable backward compatability. So I expect them to understand how to keep their independence, meaning that should a better architecture float by for the mobile market, they can switch over there too. This means that ARM will have to continue to deliver more than intel had to redmond. In addition, apple has enough know-how to keep the pressure on.

On the other hand, redmond didn't quite manage anything close to that. winnt on alpha, anyone? Instead their offerings seemed designed to require upgrades, driving sales for intel, and by neatly hooking into that cycle, themselves, on the desktop. In "mobile", they did do wince, and so on, and it supports multiple architectures, but it's clunky to write for in a way entirely different yet curiously similar to their other software offerings. But I suspect that may not help them.

It's certainly audacious to try and unify mobile and desktop, but where they've antagonised the desktop with the user interface, they may have scuttled their mobile efforts before they have good and well started by sheer greed. That is, the differently-branded arm variant requires the device to be cryptographically dedicated to them for all eternity, and all you will most likely get is a few choice bits of software they want you to have, when the competition will happily let you tinker. It may turn out to be another zune because of that.

And sticking with intel isn't really an option as long as they fail to get that mips per watt thing sorted. Which they may not be able to do at all, should it turn out the "architecture" simply has become too bloated to compete. Turning parts of the chip off will only help you so much, however cleverly done.

Not that I particularly want them to improve. The two of them have hoarded end user computing for long enough that I don't particularly mind them scuttling themselves. Now if only android could stop hogging so many cycles....

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Unhappy

Re: RISC vs. CISC is a canard in this discussion, really.

"On the other hand, redmond didn't quite manage anything close to that. winnt on alpha, anyone? Instead their offerings seemed designed to require upgrades, driving sales for intel,"

When you realise that MS "friends" are *hardware* suppliers who make money whey you buy more/higher spec'd bits of kit.

Consider what a Win98 PC *did* back then in *user* terms.

What does it do *now* from the *user* PoV?

You've got to be pretty "creative" to waste that big a speed up and capacity increase in the OS.

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Missing the point about RISC

The most important point about RISC isn't arguments about instructions per second, but reduced die size. The original ARM-2 had 30,000 transistors, roughly the same as the 8-bit 6502. That makes it (a) cheap (b) low power (c) easily testable and (d) easily integrated.

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Re: 30000 transistors, roughly the same as 6502

Not roughly the same but roughly ten times as much. "The MOS Technology 6502 is a 8 µm process technology chip with 3510 transistors and a die size of 21 mm²"

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Anonymous Coward

Die size and cost per unit

While I am not familiar with the processors you guys are discussing, I do find this article - which, IMHO is otherwise very good - lacking in that it failed to discuss die size and unit cost to manufacture.

A discussion on the other relative technical merits (instruction set, heat/efficiency, etc) is all well and good, but at the end of the day I think it could be argued that ARM's success over the last ~20 years was primarily driven by the fact that that a licensee could pump ARM chips out at a fraction of the cost of a chip from Intel. The ability to customize, the efficiency - those are crucial factors as well, no doubt... but without that low marginal cost, they wouldn't have had the same success in the embedded market, and possibly wouldn't have survived to see the rise of the smartphones, tablets, and what appears to be a round 2 vs. Wintel brewing.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Missing the point about RISC

Both MIPS and SuperH, the two architecture rivals mentioned are also RISC machines. SuperHs were only made by Hitachi (later Reneasas), but MIPS designs were licensed to all and sundry. They predade ARM in desktops too. Why is ARM prevailing over MIPS? MIPS had hardware floating point early on and a 64-bit core available two decades ago. (One could argue they are actually nicer to code assembly on than ARM, but that's bordering on heresy.) I think it must ultimately boil down to licensing costs, or else ARM have just been really lucky.

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Re: 30000 transistors, roughly the same as 6502

wrong cpu to compare with

the idea is to compare transistor count of z80 or 68000 . 6502 was 'riscy' in itself..

Bit confusing to make the claim that 'risc takes more instructions' by talking about loading and storing, when ARM has far more registers so doesn't need to be moving in and out of memory all the time.

In fact, looking at most code, ARM is often shorter than x86.

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Boffin

Re: Missing the point about RISC

That makes [RISC processors] (a) cheap (b) low power (c) easily testable and (d) easily integrated.

Also, the simpler instruction set lends itself well to architecture-level optimizations (e.g. pipelines). That's why Intel went to the trouble of making their chips RISC-like on the inside even though they still show a CISC facade to the world outside.

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Anonymous Coward

missing the point entirely

Geez. It's not the RISC architecture that makes the ARM so brilliant, it's the low power consumption and that is due to the fact that they don't clock-sync all their operations.

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Re: Missing the point about RISC

MIPS got big by being the CPU of choice within Silicon Graphics, once a name to reckon with. A vast portion of the game console and PC video hardware that appeared in the 90s had a history in what SGI did in the 80s. Consequently this meant a lot of business for MIPS.

After SGI stopped being so influential and stopped driving innovation there was less interest in using MIPS processors in new designs. Competitors were pushing forward hard and taking away business. Especially in the emerging market for mobile devices. MIPS hadn't much focus on the needs of mobile compared to ARM and that cost them dearly in the long term. There were any number of MIPS Windows CE PDAs and such but by the turn of the century it was plain that ARM was the company to beat for mobile designs. MIPS didn't have as good a handle on power issues and its advanced features didn't matter much for mobile. In the non-x86 workstation market IBM and Motorola were advancing the PowerPC platform strongly.

After the Sony Playstation 2 it's hard to recall a major design win for MIPS. I suppose it may have come down to a lack of good leadership to seek out and develop the next market.

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Re: 30000 transistors, roughly the same as 6502

""The MOS Technology 6502 is a 8 µm process technology chip with 3510 transistors and a die size of 21 mm²""

IIRC that die size was *roughly* the same as the ARM1 core (No MMU or IO co processors).

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Re: Missing the point about RISC

"After the Sony Playstation 2 "

Isn't the PSP also a MIPS design?

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Boffin

ARM licensing business model

Back in the early 90's the ARM wasn't the only RISC micro available. What ARM did right was to recognize this and offer their solution with a low licensing cost and quality support, making it better and cheaper and lower risk to go with their licensed design than any other solution.

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Its Windows RT for ARM, NOT Windows 8

If a IT news website can't even get it right what hope does your average customer have.

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Silver badge

Some corrections

"but then require complex combinations of mouse buttons and dragging just to save a file. Its menu-driven, drag-n-drop-based user interface was alien to anyone used to Microsoft's Windows."

There speaks somebody who is familiar with Windows and doesn't really know RISC OS that well, else you would know...

* Saving is a different operation, yes, but the RISC OS API has its own good points such as two-dimensional scrolling at the same time, the ability to give input focus to a window that isn't topmost (that pop to top behaviour is annoying).

* Wanna compare boot speeds?

* Full proper anti-aliasing on-screen in the late '80s, none of this CoolType stuff.

* The Windows contemporary with RISC OS in the beginning was version 3.something which was all sorts of horrid. My eyes hurt looking at it, and I frequently found dropping to DOS quicker than the Windows klutzy API.

* Check your dates. RISC OS, 1987. Windows 3.0, May 1990. Before Windows took on ground, kids were being taught stuff like WordPerfect 5.1. FFS, my Acorn had a fully WYSIWYG DTP package and multitasking GUI. No comparison, really.

Shouldn't we be teaching how to use computers rather than how to use specific ones? The company I work for recently changed to Ubuntu and it was a headache for those "programmed" to use MS Office...

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Anonymous Coward

QEmu

QEmu runs on ARM and can emulate x86 and x86_64 amongst others. Won't this be available as a package for Windows RT in pretty short order once the devices start to appear?

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Anonymous Coward

Re: QEmu

Only if they can get it recompiled as a <not Metro> app and approved for the store. AFAIK there is no side-loading of apps allowed for RT (like iOS).

That said, I am curious what sort of performance hit software emulation for x86 would cause. Somewhat related: I heard a rumor that one of the server ARM ventures was getting hardware based x86 emulation. Interesting times we live in : )

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Re: QEmu

The ARM chips in the first generation of Windows RT devices, mainly Tegra 3 chips, is pretty pokey in sheer performance compared to current low-end x86 CPUs. I'd expect any major chunk of Windows x86 software running under emulation on a Tegra 3 to be painfully slow. It would complicate things a great deal without delivering much of use.

Microsoft has some experience with x86 emulation. You may recall they acquired Connectix, who were once the leader in PC emulation on 680x0 and PowerPC Macs, for their expertise in that areas and some related needs. Some of those personnel wrote the software for letting the PowerPC Xbox 360 run a big portion of the original x86 Xbox's game library.

So, I'm pretty sure they gave serious consideration and found it just wasn't going to be workable. The other big problem is one of the big reasons they introduced the new UI: battery life. It's the same reason Apple doesn't give iOS the OS X desktop. That kind of windowing, multi-tasking environment is a big power draw. Running Windows desktop apps under emulation, even if it was usably fast, would really kill the battery life on a Windows RT tablet.

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Unhappy

Re: QEmu

"QEmu runs on ARM and can emulate x86 and x86_64 amongst others. Won't this be available as a package for Windows RT in pretty short order once the devices start to appear?"

You can bet Redmond factored that into their OS design.

Making sure that it will be either a) Impossible. or b) *just* unreliable enough to discourage people (which when someone starts digging will turn out to be down to some API calls having been "mysteriously" tweaked for no apparent reason.

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Trollface

IA64

"Windows RT won't run software built for Intel's IA32 and IA64 family of processors"

IA64? Who's clamoring for Itanium compatibility on Windows RT?

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(Written by Reg staff) Silver badge

Re: IA64

Balls. Meant X86-64.

C.

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Reasons for decline

In my estimation, it was not the unfamiliarity of the OS that led to the failure of Acorn. It was a mixture of price (the cheapest RISC OS computer was much more expensive than the cheapest Wintel PC) and lack of software. While there were excellent applications for most tasks, there were applications on Windows and MacOS that had no decent equivalent on RISC OS -- the market would simply be too small. This led to a downwards spiral where developers would move from RISC OS to Windows to get more customers and this would reduce the uptake of RISC OS computers and so on.

In retrospect, Acorn should have done as Microsoft did: Licensed their OS so anyone could have made hardware using it. This would have given people who felt that Acorns prices were too high a cheaper entry and, possibly, kept the market large enough to attract software developers. Apple was able to survive on a non-license policy and high prices, but that was because they were dominant in a market that was willing and able to pay a premium: Graphics design and publishing. Acorns main market was education, a market that is neither willing nor able to pay premium. Their secondary market (hobbyists) has a segment that will and can pay premium, but this was not enough to keep Acorn alive. And after the death of Acorn, development of RISC OS was much too slow, and was hampered by ARMs shift in focus from performance to low power, which meant that ARM-based computers could no longer compete with x86 ditto.

As for ARM vs x86 instructions sets, ARM is in the CISCy end of RISC and x86 in the RISCy end of CISC, so you should not use them as defining instances of these terms. Rather, you should compare the instruction sets on their own merits. IMO, ARM assembly language is much easier to program than x86 ditto and also a lot easier to compile to. x86 code is slightly more compact, but with the Thumb extension ARM got the advantage here again. ARM suffered for a long time in not having a unified floating-point instruction set over all processors but, again, that problem is solved. Now the main failing of ARM is lack of a true 64-bit processor, but even that is coming soon. And in any case, the advantage of 64 bits is mainly that a single program can easily use more than 4GB of RAM, but that is (as yet) not a problem for personal users. Saying it will never be is, however, as silly as saying taht 640K is enough for everyone.

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Unhappy

Re: Reasons for decline

Short version.

Acorn had a captive deal with the BBC and wanted to retain that niche status.

IOW they wanted to be Apple.

They were not. Had they accepted their cash flow was *temporary* and leveraged it to move into the mass market they *could* have been a contender.

Where can I locate a Bill Gates shaped punching bag? There *has* to be a market for that.

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Risc OS 2.0 was blinding fast and pretty much all assembler.

Risc OS 3.0 started to get patched and less efficient.

Cannot imagine having a common source base will lead to optimum performance.

8Mhz ARM 2 / 1MB RAM. (A3000).

AFAIK whether something is RISC or CISC is only to do with the instruction set. (Makes no difference what happens internally).

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Makes no difference what happens internally

I believe with RISC, things are better signposted and lots of You Are Here maps so the magic pixies don't need to run around so much (generates less heat) and don't get annoyed so easily (saves a LOT of heat). It's a win-win for all.

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