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RISC OS rights rumble becomes war of words

System builders suspend shipments

Aftershocks from the falling-out between RISC OS 4 owner Castle Technology and the operating system's developer and provider, RISCOS, are shaking other players in the Acorn ecosystem.

Stuart Tyrrell Developments (STD) this week refused to take further orders for with A6 and A75 RISC OS-based systems citing "notice of a legal dispute between two third-parties".

And VirtualAcorn said it had halted deliveries of its VirtualRiscPC and will only accept orders from buyers willing to put up with an unknown shipment date. Again, "a third-party dispute", was cited as the motivation behind the move.

That 'dispute' is now revealed to be the battle between Castle and RISCOS. Castle acquired the RISC OS from set-top box maker Pace in 2003. Yesterday, it said it had terminated RISCOS' licence to sell the operating system.

In a statement, Castle claimed RISCOS had not only breached the terms of that licence, but had been "wilful and persistent" in its failure to remedy that alleged breach.

"For nearly 12 months Castle has been trying to resolve these issues, but has met with nothing but delaying tactics, intransigence and belligerence from the management of RISCOS," Castle CEO Jack Lillingston alleged.

In the beginning

RISCOS was formed in March 1999 just before the Acorn Group - the remanant of one of the pioneers of home and educational microcomputing in the UK - was broken apart. Merchant bank Morgan Stanley Dean Witter acquired it's the group then sold off the bits.

RISCOS was given the rights to develop and market RISC OS 4 for desktop use (as opposed to set-top box use, presumably) by Acorn chip development subsidiary Element 14, but it did not own the code itself - Pace got that as part of Acorn's set-top box business. RISCOS was granted the right to sub-license the OS.

Both STD and VirtualAcorn are both RISCOS sub-licensees. Castle's moves have effectively left them in the cold. Castle said it was "committed to supporting third-party licensees of RISC OS", but unable to issue the likes of STD and VirtualAcorn with new licences.

Castle itself offers Risc OS 4-based kit, so it's in direct competition with STD and VirtualAcorn. In its statement, the company said that would not prevent it from licensing RISC OS 4 to such rivals. Indeed, its Iyonix RISC OS PC has been the subject claims made by RISCOS that Castle is using Risc OS beyond the terms of its license. In essence, RISCOS believes Pace's own Risc OS 4 licence doesn't cover the uses to which Castle has put the software - ie. used it in a desktop not a set-top.

For its part, RISCOS said it "totally refutes all allegations now made by Castle Technology". It maintains that it has always adhered by the terms laid down in its original licence from Element 14.

The company said it hopes Castle will continue to "discuss the situation to enable an equitable and amicable resolution to be reached for the good of all parties".

Castle's statement suggests that that may be wishful thinking on RISCOS' part.

The RISC OS was developed back in the 1980s for Acorn's Archimedes microcomputer, which was based on a processor built by then Acorn subsidiary ARM. ARM was, of course, later spun off and has gone on to create a success chip design and licensing business.

Element 14, Acorn's DSP operation, which became an independent entity after the April 1999 break-up, was taken over by chip maker Broadcom a couple of years ago.

RISC OS 4, like the Amiga OS, still has its adherents, too few to make an impression on the wider IT world, but enough to keep a small ecosystem of system builders and software developers in business. Some folk might argue that the end should have come ages ago, but let's hope the fight between Castle and RISCOS doesn't result in such an outcome. ®

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