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Nano PI Fire 3, part two

July 18, 2018 Leave a comment

If you missed the first installment of this test, please click here to catch up. In this installment we are just going to dive straight into general use and get a feel for what can and cannot be done.

Solving the power problem

pi-powerLike mentioned in the previous article, a normal mobile charger (5 volt, 2 amps) is not enough to support the nano-pi. Since I have misplaced my original PI power-supply with 5 volt / 3 amps I decided to cheat. So I plugged the power USB into my PC which will deliver as much juice as the device needs. I don’t have time to wait for a new PSU to arrive so this will have to do.

But for the record (and underlined) a proper PSU with at least 2.5 amps is essential to using this board. I suggest you order the official Raspberry PI 3b power-supply. But if you should find one with 3 amps that would be even better.

Web performance

The question on everyone’s mind (or at least mine) is: how does the Nano-PI fire 3 perform when rendering cutting edge, hardcore HTML5? Is this little device a potential candidate for running “The Smart Desktop” (a.k.a Amibian.js for those of you coming from the retro-computing scene)?

Like I suspected earlier, X (the Linux windowing framework) doesn’t have drivers that deliver hardware acceleration at all.

shot_desktop-1024x819-2-1024x819

Lubuntu is a sexy desktop no doubt there, but it’s overkill for this device

This is quite easy to test: when selecting a rectangle on the Lubuntu desktop and moving the mouse-cursor around (holding down the left mouse button at the same time) if it lags terribly, that is a clear indicator that no acceleration exists.

And I was right on the money because there is no acceleration what so ever for the Linux distribution. It struggles hopelessly to keep up with the mouse-pointer as you move it around with an active selection; something that would be silky smooth had the GPU been tasked with the job.

But, hardware acceleration is not just about the desktop. It’s not some flag you enable and it magically effect everything, but rather several API’s at either the kernel-level or immediate driver level (modules the kernel loads), each affecting different aspects of a system.

So while the desktop “2d blitting” is clearly cpu driven, other aspects of the system can still be accelerated (although that would be weird and rare. But considering how Asus messed up the Tinkerboard I guess anything goes these days).

Asking Chrome for the hard facts

I fired up Google Chrome (which is the default browser thank god) and entered the magic url:

chrome://gpu

This is a built-in page that avails a detailed report of what Chrome learns about the current system, right down to specific GPU features used by OpenGL.

As expected, there was NO acceleration what so ever. So I was quite surprised that it managed to run Amibian.js at all. Even without hardware acceleration it outperformed the Raspberry PI 3b+ by a factor of 4 (at the very least) and my particle demo ran at a whopping 8 fps (frames per second). The original Rasperry PI could barely manage 2 fps. So the Nano-PI Fire is leagues ahead of the PI in terms of raw cpu power, which is brilliant for headless servers or computational tasks.

FriendlyCore vs Lubuntu? QT for the win

Now here is a funny thing. So far I have used the Lubuntu standard Linux image, and performance has been interesting to say the least. No hardware acceleration, impressive cpu results but still – what good is a SBC Linux distro without fast graphics? Sure, if you just want a head-less file server or host services then you don’t need a beefy GPU. But here is the twist:

Turns out the makers of the board has a second, QT oriented distro called Friendly-core. And this image has OpenGL-ES support and all the missing acceleration lacking from Lubuntu.

I was pretty annoyed with how Asus gave users the run-around with Tinkerboard downloads, but they have thankfully cleaned up their act and listened to their customers. Friendly-elec might want to learn from Asus mistakes in this area.

Qtwebenginebrowser

QT has a rich history, but it’s being marginalized by node.js and Delphi these days

Alas, Friendly-core xenial 4.4 Arm64 image turned out to be a pure embedded development image. This is why the board has a debug port (which is probably awesome if you are into QT development). So this is for QT developers that want to use the board as a single-application system where they write the code on Windows or Linux, compile and it’s all transported to the board with live debugging back to the devtools they use. In other words: not very useful for non C/C++ QT developers.

Android Lolipop

2000px-Android_robot.svgI have only used Android on a pad and the odd Samsung Galaxy phone, so this should be interesting. I Downloaded the Lolipop disk image, burned it to the sd-card and booted up.

After 20 minutes with a blank screen i gave up.

I realize that some Android distros download packages ad-hoc and install directly from a repository, so it can take some time to get started; but 15-20 minutes with a black screen? The Android logo didn’t even show up — and that should be visible almost immediately regardless of network install or not.

This is really a great shame because I wanted to test some Delphi Firemonkey applications on it, to see how well it scales the more demanding GPU tasks. And yes i did try a different SD-Card to be sure it wasnt a disk error. Same result.

Back to Lubuntu

Having spent a considerable time trying to find a “wow” factor for this board, I have to just surrender to the fact that it’s just not there. . This is not a “PI” any more than the Tinkerboard is a PI. And appending “pi” to a product name will never change that.

I can imagine the Nano-PI Fire 3 being an awesome single-application board for QT C/C++ developers though. With a dedicated debug port making it a snap to transport, execute and do live debugging directly on the hardware — but for general DIY hacking, using it for native Android development with Delphi, or node.js development with Smart Mobile Studio – or just kicking back with emulators like Mame, UAE or whatever tickles your fancy — its just too rough around the edges. Which is really a shame!

So at the end of the day I re-installed Lubuntu and figure I just have to wait until Friendly-elec get their act together and issue proper drivers for the Mali GPU. So it’s $35 straight out the window — but I can live with that. It was a risk but at that price it’s not going to break the bank.

The positive thing

The Nano-PI Fire 3 is yet another SBC in a long list that fall short of its potential. Like many others they try to use the word “PI” to channel some of the Raspberry PI enthusiasm their way – but the quality of the actual system is not even close.

In fact, using PI in their product name is setting themselves up for a fall – because customers will quickly discover that this product is not a PI, which can cause some subconscious aversion and resentment.

37013365_10155541149775906_3122577366065348608_o

The Nano rendered Amibian.js running some very demanding demos 4 times as fast as the PI 3b, one can only speculate what the board could do with proper drivers for the GPU.

The only positive feature the Fire-3 clearly has to offer, is abundantly more cpu power. It is without a doubt twice as fast (if not 3 times as fast) as the Raspberry PI 3b. The fact that it can render highly demanding and complex HTML5 demos 4 times faster than the Raspberry PI 3b without hardware acceleration is impressive. This is a $35 board after all, which is the same price.

But without proper drivers for the mali, it’s a useless toy. Powerful and with great potential, but utterly useless for multimedia and everything that relies on fast 2D and 3D graphics. For UAE (Amiga emulation) you can pretty much forget it. Even if you can compile the latest UAE4Arm with SDL as its primary display framework – it wouldn’t work because SDL depends on the graphics drivers. So it’s back to square one.

But the CPU packs a punch that is without question.

Final verdict

Top the x86 UP board, left bottom a Raspberry PI 3, bottom right the ODroid XU4

There are a lot of stable and excellent options out there, take your time

I was planning to test UAE next but as I have outlined above: without drivers that properly expose and delegate the power of the mali, it would be a complete disaster. I’m not even sure it would build.

As such I will just leave this board as is. If it matures at some point that would be great, but my advice to people looking for a great SBC experience — get the new Raspberry PI 3b+ and enjoy learning and exploring there.

And if you are into Amibian.js or making high quality HTML5 kiosk / node.js based systems, then fork out the extra $10 and buy an ODroid XU4. If you pay $55 you can pick up the Asus Tinkerboard which is blistering fast and great value for money, despite its turbulent introduction.

Note: You cannot go wrong with the ODroid XU4. Its affordable, stable and fast. So for beginners it’s either the Raspberry PI 3b+ or the ODroid. These are the most mature in terms of software, drivers and stability.

Nano-pi Fire 3: The curse of Mali

July 5, 2018 1 comment

Being able to buy SBCs (single board computers) for as little as $35 has revolutionized computing as we know it. Since the release of the Raspberry PI 1b back in 2012, single board computers have gone from being something electrical engineers work with, to something everyone can learn to use. Today you don’t need a background in electrical engineering to build a sophisticated embedded system; you just need a positive spirit, willingness to learn and a suitable SBC starter-kit.

Single board computers

If you are interested in SBC’s for whatever reason, I am sure you have picked up a few pointers about what works and doesn’t. In these times of open forums and 24/7 internet, the response-time from customers are close to instantaneous; and both positive and negative feedback should never be taken lightly. It’s certainly harder to hide a poor product in 2018, so engineers thinking they can make a quick buck selling sloppy-tech should think twice.

Fire3_02-900x630I have no idea how many boards have been released since 2016, but some 20+ new boards feels like a reasonable number. Which under normal circumstances would be awesome, because competition can be healthy. It can stimulate manufacturers to deliver better quality, higher performance and to use eco-friendly resources.

But it can also backfire and result in terrible quality and an unhealthy focus on profit.

The Mali SoC

The MALI graphics chipset is a name you see often in connection with SBC’s. If you read up on the Mali SoC it sounds fantastic. All that power, open architecture, partner support – surely this design should rock right? If only that were true. My experience with this chipset, which spans a variety of boards, is anything but fantastic. It’s actually a common factor in a growling list of boards that are unstable and unreliable.

I don’t have an axe to grind here, I have tried to remain optimistic and positive to every board that pass my desk. But Mali has become synonymous with awful performance and unreliable operation.

Out of the 14 odd boards I have tested since 2016, the 8 board that I count as useless all had the Mali chipset. This is quite remarkable considering Mali has an open driver architecture.

Open is not always best

If you have been into IOT for a few years you may recall the avalanche of critique that hit the Raspberry PI foundation for their choice of shipping with the Broadcom SoC? Broadcom has been a closed system with proprietary drivers written by the vendor exclusively, which made a lot of open-source advocates furious [at the time].

Raspberry_Pi_3_LargeYou know what? Going with the Broadcom chipset is the best bloody move the PI foundation ever did; I don’t think I have ever owned a SBC or embedded platform as stable as the PI, and the graphics performance you get for $35 is simply outstanding. Had they listened to their critics and used Mali on the Raspberry PI 2b, it would have been a disaster. The IOT revolution might never have occurred even.

The whole point of the Mali open driver architecture, is that developers should have easy access to documentation and examples – so they can quickly implement drivers and release their product. I don’t know what has gone wrong here, but either developers are so lazy that they just copy and paste code without properly testing it – or there are fundamental errors in the hardware itself.

To date the only board that works well with a Mali chipset, out of all the boards I have bought and tested, is the ODroid XU4. Which leads me to conclude that something has gone terribly wrong with the art of making drivers. This really should not be an issue in 2018, but the number of bankrupt mali boards tell another story.

Nano-PI Fire 3

When reading the specs on the Nano-pi fire 3 I was impressed with just how much firepower they managed to squeeze into such a tiny form-factor. Naturally I was sceptical due to the Mali, which so far only have ODroid going for it. But considering the $35 price it was worth the risk. Worst case I can recycle it as a headless server or something.

And the board is impressive! Let there be no doubt about the potential of this little thing, because from an engineering point of view its mind-blowing how much technology $35 buys you in 2018.

Fire3_en_03

I don’t want to sound like a grumpy old coder, but when you have been around as many SBC’s as I have, you tend to hold back on the enthusiasm. I got all worked-up over the Asus Tinkerboard for example (read part 1 and part 2 here), and despite the absolutely knock-out specs, the mali drivers and shabby kernel work crippled an otherwise spectacular board. I still find it inconceivable how Asus, a well-respected global technology partner, could have allowed a product to ship with drivers not even worthy of public domain. And while they have updated and made improvements it’s still not anywhere near what the board could do with the right drivers.

The experience of the Nano-PI so far has been the same as many of the other boards; especially those made and sold straight from smaller, Asian manufacturers:

  • Finding the right disk-image to download is unnecessarily cumbersome
  • Display drivers lack hardware acceleration
  • Poor help forums
  • “Wiki” style documentation
  • A large Linux distro that max out the system

More juice

The first thing you are going to notice with the Nano-pi is how important the power supply is. The nano ships with only one usb socket (one!) so a usb hub is the first thing you need. When you add a mouse and keyboard to that equation you have already maxed out a normal 5v 2a mobile power supply.

I noticed this after having problems booting properly when a mouse and keyboard was plugged in. I first thought it was the SD card, but no matter what card I tried – it still wouldn’t boot. It was only when I unplugged the mouse and keyboard that I could log in. Or should we say, cant log in because you don’t have a keyboard attached (sigh).

Now in most cases a Raspberry PI would run fine on 5v 2a, at least for ordinary desktop work; But the nano will be in serious trouble if you don’t give it more juice. So your first purchase should be a proper 5 volt 3 amp PSU. This is also recommended for the original Raspberry PI, but in my experience you can do quite a lot before you max out a PI.

Bluetooth

A redeeming factor for the lack of USB ports and power scaling, is that the board has Bluetooth built-in. So once you have paired and connected a BT keyboard things will be easier to work with. Personally I like keyboard and mouse to be wired. I hate having to change batteries or be disconnected at random (which always happens when you least need it). So the lack of USB ports and power delegation is negative for me, but objectively I can live with it as a trade-off for more CPU power.

Lack of accelerated graphics

It’s not hard to check if X uses the gpu or not. Select a large region of the desktop (holding the left mouse button down obviously) and watch in terror as it sluggishly tries to catch up with the cursor, repainting every cached co-ordinate. Had the GPU been used properly you wouldn’t even see the repaint of the rectangle, it would be smooth and instantaneous.

SD-card reader

I’m sorry but the sd-card reader on this puppy is the slowest I have ever used. I have never tested a device that boots so slow, and even something simple like starting chrome takes ages.

I tested with a cheap SD-card but also a more expensive class 10 card. I’m really trying to find something cool to write about, but it’s hard when boot times is worse than Raspberry PI 1b back in 2012.

1 gigabyte of ram

One thing that I absolutely hate in some of these cheap boards, is how they imagine Ubuntu to be a stamp of approval. The Raspberry PI foundation nailed it by creating a slim, optimized and blistering fast Debian distro. This is important because users don’t buy alternative boards just to throw that extra power away on Ubuntu, they buy these boards to get more cpu and gpu power (read: better value for money) for the same price.

Lubuntu is hopelessly obese for the hardware, as is the case with other cheap SBC’s as well. Something like Pixel is much more interesting. You have a slim, efficient and optimized foundation to build on (or strip down). Ubuntu is quite frankly overkill and eats up all the extra power the board supposedly delivers.

When it comes to ram, 1 gigabyte is a bit too small for desktop use. The reason I say this is because it ships with Ubuntu, why would you ship with Ubuntu unless the desktop was the focus? Which again begs the question: why create a desktop Linux device with 1 gigabyte of memory?

The nano-pi would rock with a slim distro, and hopefully someone will bake a more suitable disk-image for it.

Verdict so far

I still have a lot to test so giving you a final verdict right now would be unfair.

But I must be honest and say that I’m not that happy about this board. It’s not that the hardware is particularly awful (although the mali drivers renders it almost pointless), it’s just that it serves no point.

In order to turn this SBC into a reasonable device you have to buy parts that brings the price up to what you would pay for a ODroid XU4. And to be honest I would much rather have an ODroid XU4 than four nano-pi boards. You have plenty of USB ports, good power scaling (ODroid will start just fine on a normal charger), Bluetooth and pretty much everything you need.

For those rare projects where a single USB is enough, although I cannot for the life of me think of one right now, then sure, it may be cost-effective in quanta. But for homebrew servers, gaming rigs and/or your first SBC experience – I think you will be happier with an original Raspberry PI 3b+, a ODroid XU4 or even the Tinkerboard.

Modus operandi

Having said all that .. there is also something to say about modus-operandi. Different boards are designed for different systems. It may very well be that this system is designed to run Android as it’s primary system. So while they provide a Linux image, that may in fact only be a “bonus” distro. We shall soon see as I will test Android next.

Next up, how does it fare with the multi-threaded uae4arm? Stay tuned for more!

The Amiga ARM project

April 19, 2018 5 comments

This has been quite the turbulent week. Without getting into all the details, a post that I made with thoughts and ideas for an Amiga inspired OS for ARM escaped the safe confines of our group, Amiga Disrupt, and took on a life of its own.
This led to a few critical posts being issued publicly, which all boiled down to a misunderstanding. Thankfully this has been resolved and things are back to normal.

The question on everyone’s lips now seem to be: did Jon mean what he said or was it just venting frustration? I thought I made my points clear in my previous post, but sadly Commodore USA formulated a title open for interpretation (which is understandable considering the mayhem at the time). So let’s go thrugh the ropes and put this to rest.

Am I making an ARM based Amiga inspired OS?

Hopefully I don’t have to. My initial post, the one posted to the Amiga Disrupt comment section (and mistaken for a project release note), had a couple of very clear criteria attached:

If nothing has been done to improve the Amiga situation [with regards to ARM or x86] by the time I finish Amibian.js (*), I will take matters into my own hand and create my own alternative.

(*) As you probably know, Amibian.js is a cloud implementation of Amiga OS, designed to bring Amiga to the browser. It is powered by a node.js application server; a server that can be hosted either locally (on the same machine as the html5 client) or remotely. It runs fine on popular embedded devices such as Tinkerboard and ODroid, and when run in a full-screen browser with no X or Windows desktop behind it – it is practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

We have customers who use our prototype to deliver cloud based learning for educational institutions. Shipping ready to use hardware units with pre-baked Amibian.js installed is perfect for schools, libraries, museums, routers and various kiosk projects.

smart_desktop

Amibian.js, here running Quake 3 at 60 fps in your browser

Note: This project started years before FriendOS, so we are not a clone of their work.

Obviously this is a large task for one person, but I have written the whole system in Smart Mobile Studio, which is a product our company started some 7 years ago, and that now has a team of six people behind it. In short it takes object pascal code such as Delphi and Freepascal, and compiles this to JavaScript. Suitable for both the browser and NodeJS. It gives you a full IDE with form designer, drag & drop visual components and a wast and rich RTL (run-time library) which naturally saves me a lot of time. So this gives me an edge over other companies working with similar technology. So while it’s a huge task, it’s leveraged considerably by the toolchain I made for it.

So am I making a native OS for ARM or x86? The short answer: I will if the situation havent dramatically improved by the time Amibian.js is finished.

Instead of wasting years trying to implement everything from scratch, Pascal Papara took the Linux kernel and ran with it. So Aeros boots by virtue of the Linux Kernel, but jumps straight into Aros once the drivers has loaded

If you are thinking “so what, who the hell do you think you are?” then perhaps you should take a closer look at my work and history.

I am an ex Quartex member, which was one of the most infamous hacking cartels in europe. I have 30 years of software development behind me, having worked as a professional developer since the age of 17. I have a history of taking on “impossible” projects and finding ways to deliver them. Smart Mobile Studio itself was deemed impossible by most Delphi developers; It was close to heresy, triggering an avalanche of criticism for even entertaining the idea that object pascal could be compiled to JavaScript. Let alone thrive on JSVM (JavaScript Virtual Machine).

assembler

Amibian.js runs javascript, but also bytecodes. Here showing the assembler prototype

You can imagine the uproar when our generated JavaScript code (compiled from object pascal) actually bested native code. I must admit we didn’t expect that at all, but it changed the way Delphi and object pascal developers looked at the world – for the better I might add.

What I am good at, is taking ordinary off the shelves parts and assembling them in new and exciting ways. Often ways the original authors never intended; in order to produce something unique. My faith is not in myself, but in the ability and innate capacity of human beings to find solutions. The biggest obstacle to progress is ultimately pride and fear of losing face. Something my Buddhist training beat our of me ages ago.

So this is not an ego trip, it’s simply a coder that is completely fed-up with the perpetual mismanagement that has held Amiga OS in captivity for two decades.

Amiga OS is a formula, and formulas are bulletproof

People love different aspects of the same thing – and the Amiga is no different. For some the Amiga is the games. Others love it for its excellent sound capabilities, while some love it for the ease of coding (the 68k is the most friendly cpu ever invented in my book). And perhaps all of us love the Amiga for the memories we have. A harmless yet valuable nostalgia of better times.

image3

Amiga OS 3.1 pimped up, running on Amibian [native] Raspberry PI 3b

But for me the love was always the OS itself. The architecture of Amiga OS is so elegant and dare I say, pure, compared to other systems. And I’m comparing against both legacy and contemporary systems here. Microsoft Windows (WinAPI) comes close, but the sheer brilliance of Amiga OS is yet to be rivaled.

We are talking about a design that delivers a multimedia driven, window based desktop 10 years before the competition. A desktop that would thrive in as little as 512 kb of ram, with fast and reliable pre-emptive multitasking.

I don’t think people realize or understand the true value of Amiga OS. It’s not in the games (although games is definitively a huge part of the experience), the hardware or the programs. The reason people have been fighting bitterly over Amiga OS for a lifetime, is because the operating system architecture or “formula” is unmatched to this very day.

Can you imagine what a system that thrives under 512 KB would do to the desktop market? Or even better, what it could bring to the table for embedded and server technology?

And this is where my frustration soars up. Even though we have OS 4.1, we have been forced to idly stand by and watch, as mistake after mistake is being made. opportunities that are ripe for the taking (some of them literally placed on the doorstep of Hyperion), have been thrown by the wayside time and time again.

And they are not alone. Aros and Morphos has likewise missed a lot of opportunities. Both opportunities to generate income and secure development as well as embracing new technology. Although I must stress that I sympatize with Aros since they lack any official funding. Morphos is doing much better using a normal, commerical license.

Frustration, the mother of invention

When the Raspberry PI was first released I jumped of joy. Finally a SBC (single board computer) with enough power to run a light version of Amiga OS 4.1, with a price tag that everyone can live with. I rushed over to Hyperion to see if they had issued a statement about the PI, but nothing could be found. The AEON site was likewise empty.

The PI version 2 came and went, still no sign that Hyperion would capitalize on the situation. I expected them to issue a “Amiga OS 4.1 light” edition for ARM, which would put them on the map and help them establish a user base. Without a user base and fresh blood there is no chance in hell of selling next generation machines in large enough quantities to justify future development. But once again, opportunity after oppertunity came and went.

Sexy, fast and modern: Amiga OS 4.1

Sexy, fast and modern: Amiga OS 4.1 would do wonders on ARM

Faster and better suited SBC’s started to turn up in droves: The ODroid, Beaglebone black, The Tinkerboard, The Banana PI – and many, many others. When the SnapDragon IV CPU’s shipped on a $120 SBC, which is the same processor used by Samsung Galaxy 6S, I was sure Hyperion would wake up and bring Amiga OS to the masses. But not a word.

Instead we were told to wait for the Amiga x5000 which is based on PPC. I have no problem with PPC, it’s a great platform and packs a serious punch. But since PPC no longer sell to mainstream computer companies like it used to, the price penalty would be nothing short of astronomical. There is also the question of longevity and being able to maintain a PPC based system for the forseeable future. Where exactly is PPC in 15 years?

Note: One of the reasons PPC was selected has to do with coding infrastructure. PPC has an established standard, something ARM lacked at the time (this was first established for ARM in 2014). PPC also has an established set of development platforms that you can build on, with libraries and pre-fab modules (pre fabricated modules, think components that you can use to quickly build what you need) that have been polished for two decades now. A developer who knows PPC from the Amiga days will naturally feel more at home with PPC. But sadly PPC is the past and modern development takes place almost exclusively on ARM and x86. Even x86 is said to have an expiration date now.

The only group that genuinely tried to bring Amiga OS to ARM has been the Aros team. They got their system compiled, implemented some rudimentary drivers (information on this has been thin to say the least) and had it booting natively on the Raspberry PI 3b. Sadly they lacked a USB stack (remember I mentioned pre-fab modules above? Well, this is a typical example. PPC devtools ship with modules like this out of the box) so things like mouse, keyboard and external peripherals wouldn’t work.

3

Aeros, the fastest Amiga you will ever play with. Running on the Raspberry PI 3b

And like always, which is the curse of Amiga, “something came up”, and the whole Raspberry PI / ARM initiative was left for dead. The details around this is sketchy, but the lead developer had a personal issue that forced him to set a new direction in life. And for some reason the other Aros developers have just continued with x86, even though a polished ARM version could have made them some money, and helped finance future development. It’s the same story, again and again.

But then something amazing happened! Out of the blue came Pascal Papara with a new take on Aros, namely AEROS. This is a distro after my own heart. Instead of wasting years trying to implement everything from scratch, Pascal took the Linux kernel and ran with it. So Aeros boots by virtue of the Linux Kernel, but jumps straight into Aros once the drivers has loaded. And the result? It is the fastest desktop you will ever experience on ARM. Seriously, it runs so fast and smooth on the Raspberry PI that you could easily mistake it for a $450 Intel i3.

Sadly Pascal has been more or less alone about this development. And truth be told he has molded it to suit his own needs rather than the consumer. Since his work includes a game machine and some Linux services, the whole Linux system is exposed to the Aros desktop. This is a huge mistake.

Using the Linux kernel to capitalize on the thousands of man hours invested in that, not to mention the linux driver database which is massive, is a great idea. It’s also the first thing that came into my mind when contemplating the issue.

But when running Aros on top of this, the Linux aspect of the system should be abstracted away. Much like what Apple did with Unix. You should hardly notice that Linux is there unless you open a shell and start to investigate. The Amiga filesystem should be the only filesystem you see when accessing things from the desktop, and a nice preferences option for showing / hiding mounted Linux drives.

My plans for an ARM based Amiga inspired OS

Building an OS is not a task for the faint of heart. Yes there is a lot of embedded / pre-fab based systems to pick from out there, but you also have to be sensible. You are not going to code a better kernel than Linus Torvalds, so instead of wasting years trying to catch up with something you cannot possibly catch up with – just grab the kernel and make it work for us.

The Linux kernel solves things such as process contexts, “userland” vs “kernel space” (giving the kernel the power to kill a task and reclaim resources), multitasking / threading, thread priorities, critical sections, mutexes and global event objects; it gives us IPC (inter process communication), disk IO, established and rock solid sound and graphics frameworks; and last but perhaps most important: free access to the millions of drivers in the Linux repository.

Screenshot

Early Amibian.js login dialog

You would have to be certified insane to ignore the Linux Kernel, thinking you will somehow be the guy (or group) that can teach Linus Torvalds a lesson. This is a man who has been writing kernel’s for 20+ years, and he does nothing else. He is surrounded by a proverbial army of developers that code, test, refactor and strive to deliver optimal performance, safety and quality assurance. So sorry if I push your buttons here, but you would be a moron to take him on. Instead, absorb the kernel and gain access to the benefits it has given Linux (technically the kernel is “Linux”, the rest is GNU – but you get what I mean).

With the Linux kernel as a foundation, as much as 50% of the work involved in writing our OS is finished already. You don’t have to invent a driver API. You dont have to invent a new executable format (or write your own ELF parser if you stick with the Linux executable). You can use established compilers like GCC / Clang and Freepascal. And you can even cherry pick some low-level packages for your own native API (like SDL, OpenGL and things that would take years to finish).

But while we want to build our house on rock, we don’t want it to be yet another Linux distro. So with the kernel in place and a significant part of our work done for us, that is also where the similarities end.

The end product is Amiga OS, which means that we need compatibility with the original Amiga rom libraries (read: api). Had we started from scratch that would have been a tremendous effort, which is also why Aros is so important. Because Aros gives us a blueprint of how they have implemented these API’s.

But our main source of inspiration is not Aros, but Amithlon. What we want to do is naturally to pipe as much as we can from the Amiga API’s back to the Linux kernel. Things like device detection, memory allocation, file IO, pipes, networking — our library files will be more thin wrappers that expose Amiga compatible calls; methods that calls the Linux Kernel to do the job. So our Amiga library files will be proxy objects whenever possible.

AmithlonQEmu

Amithlon, decades ahead of it’s time

The hard work is when we get to the window manager, or Intuition. Here we can’t cheat by pushing things back to Linux. We don’t want to install X either (although we can render our system into the X framebuffer if we like), so we have to code a window manager. This is not as simple as it sounds, because our system must operate with multiple cores, be multi threaded by design and tap into the grand scheme of things. Things like messages (which is used by applications to respond to input) must be established, and all the event codes from the original Amiga OS must be replicated.

So this work wont be easy, but with the Linux kernel as a foundation – the hardest task of all is taken care of. The magic of a kernel is that of process management and task switching. This is about as hard-core as you can get. Without that you can almost forget the rest. But since we base our system on the Linux kernel, we can focus 100% on the real task – namely to deliver a modern Amiga experience, one that is platform independent (read: conforms to standard Linux and can thus be recompiled and run anywhere Linux can run), preserves as much of the initial formula as possible – and can be successfully maintained far into the future.

By pushing as much of our work as possible into user-space (the process space where ordinary programs run, the kernel runs outside this space and is thus unaffected when a program crashes) and adhering to the Linux kernel beneath the bonnet, we have created a system that can be re-compiled anywhere Linux is. And it can be done so without any change to our codebase. Linux takes care of things like drivers, OpenGL, Sound — and presents to us a clean API that is identical on every platform. It doesn’t matter if it’s ARM, PPC, 68k, x86 or MIPS. As long as we follow the standards we are home free.

Last words

I hope all of this clears up the confusion that has surrounded the subject this week. Again, the misunderstanding that led to some unfortunate posts has been resolved. So there is no negativity, no drama and we are all on the same page.

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Early Amibian.js prototype, running 68k in the browser via uae.js optimized

Just remember that I have set some restrictions for my involvement here. I sincerely hope Hyperion and the Aros development group can focus on ARM, because the community needs this. While the Raspberry PI might seem too small a form-factor to run Aros, projects like Aeros have proven just how effective the Amiga formula is. I’m sure Hyperion could find a powerful ARM SOC in the price range of $120 and sell a complete package with profit for around $200.

What the Amiga community needs now, is not expensive hardware. The userbase has to be expanded horizontally across platforms. Amiga OS / Aros has much to offer the embedded market which today is dominated by overly complex Linux libraries. The Amiga can grow laterally as a more user-friendly alternative, much like Android did for the mobile market. Once the platform is growing and established – then custom hardware could be introduced. But right now that is not what we need.

I also hope that the Aros team drops whatever they are working on, fork Pascal Paparas codebase, and spend a few weeks polishing the system. Abstract away the Linux foundation like Apple have done, get those sexy 32 bit OS4 icons (Note: The icons used by Amiga OS 4 is available for free download from the designer’s website) and a nice theme that looks similar to OS 4 (but not too similar). Get Lazarus (the freepascal IDE) going and ship the system with a ready to use Pascal, C/C++ and Basic development environments. Bring back the fun in computing! The code is already there, use it!

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Aeros interfaces directly with linux, I would propose a less direct approach

Just take something simple, like a compatible browser. It’s actually not that simple, both for reasons of complexity and how memory is handled by PPC. With a Linux foundation things like Chromium Embedded could be inked into the Amiga side of things and we would have a native, fast, established and up-to-date browser.

At the same time, since we have API level compatability, people can recompile their Aros and Morphos applications and they would run more or less unchanged.

I really hope that my little protest here, if nothing else, helps people realize that there are viable options readily at hand. Commodore is not coming back, and the only future this platform has – is the one we make. So people have to ask themselves how much they want a future.

If the OS gains momentum then there will be grounds for investors to look at custom hardware. They can then choose off the shelves parts that are inexpensive to cover the normal functionality you expect in a modern computer – which more resources can go into custom hardware that sets the system apart. But we cant start there. It has to be built up brick by brich, standing on the shoulders of giants.

OK, rant over 🙂

Why buy a Vampire accelerator?

August 24, 2017 2 comments

With the Amiga about to re-enter the consumer market, a lot of us “old timers” are busy knocking dust of our old machines. And I love my old machines even though they are technically useless by modern standards. But these machines have a lot of inspiration in them, especially if you write code. And yes there is a fair bit of nostalgia involved in this, there is no point in lying about any of this.

I mean, your mobile phone is probably 100 times faster than a vintage Amiga. But like you will discover with the new machines that are about to hit the market, there is more to this computer than you think. But vintage Amiga? Sadly they lack the power to anything useful [in the “modern” sense].

Enter the vampire

The Vampire is a product that started shipping about a year ago. It’s a FPGA based accelerator, and it’s quite frankly turning the retro scene on its head! Technically it’s a board that you just latch onto the CPU socket of your classical Amiga; it then takes over the whole machine and replace the CPU and chipset with its versions of these. Versions that are naturally a hell of a lot faster!

vanpireThe result is that the good old Amiga is suddenly beefy enough to play Doom, Quake, MP3 files and MPG video (click here to read the datasheet). In short: this little board gives your old Amiga machine a jolt of new life.

Emulation vs. FPGA

Im not going to get into the argument about FPGA not being “real”, because that’s not what FPGA is about. Nor am I negative to classical hardware – because I own a ton of old Amiga gear myself. But I will get in your face when it comes to buying a Vampire.

Before we continue I just want to mention that there are two models of the vampire. There is the add-on board I have just mentioned which is again divided into different models for various Amiga versions (A600, A500 so far). The second model is a completely stand-alone vampire motherboard that wont even need a classic Amiga to work. It will be, for all means and purposes, a stand alone SBC (single board computer) that you just hook up power, video, storage and mouse – and off you go!

This latter version, the stand-alone, is a project I firmly believe in. The old boards have been out of production since 1993 and are getting harder to come by. And just like people they will eventually break down and stop working. There is also price to consider because getting your 20-year-old A500 fixed is not easy. First of all you need a specialist that knows how to fix these old things, and he will also need parts to work with. Since parts are no longer in production and homebrew can only go so far, well – a brand new motherboard that is compatible in every way sounds like a good idea.

There is also the fact that FPGA can reach absurd speeds. It has been mentioned that if the Vampire used a more expensive FPGA modules, 68k based Amiga’s could compete with modern processors (Source: https://www.generationamiga.com/2017/08/06/arria-10-based-vampire-could-reach-600mhz/). Can you imagine a 68k Amiga running side by side with the latest Intel processors? Sounds like a lot of fun if you ask me !

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Amiga 1000, in my view the best looking Amiga ever produced

But then there is emulation. Proper emulation, which for Amiga users can only mean one thing: UAE in all its magnificent diversity and incarnations.

Nothing beats firing up a real Amiga, but you know what? It has been greatly exaggerated. I recently bought a sexy A1000 which is the first model that was ever made. This is the original Amiga, made way back before Commodore started to mess around with it. It cost me a small fortune to get – but hey, it was my first ever Amiga so I wanted to own one again.

But does it feel better than my Raspberry PI 3b powered A500? Nope. In fact I have only fired up the A1000 twice since I bought it, because having to wait for disks to load is just tedious (not to mention that you can’t get new, working floppy disks anymore). Seriously. I Love the machine to bits but it’s just damn tedious to work on in 2017. It belongs to the 80s and no-one can ever take away its glory or it’s role in computer history. That achievement stands forever.

High Quality Emulation

If you have followed my blog and Amiga escapades, you know that my PI 3b based Amiga, overclocked to the hilt, yields roughly 3.2 times the speed of an Amiga 4000/040. This was at one point the flagship Commodore computer. The Amiga 4000’s were used in movie production, music production, 3d rendering and heavy-duty computing all over the world. And the 35€ Raspberry PI gives you 3.2 times the power via the UAE4Arm emulator. I don’t care what the vampire does, the PI will give it the beating of its life.

Compiling anything, even older stuff that is a joke by today standard, is painful on the Raspberry PI. Here showing my retro-fitted A500 PI with sexy led keyboard. It will soon get a makeover with an UP board :)

My retrofitted Raspberry PI 3b Amiga. Serious emulation at high speed allowing for software development and even the latest Freepascal 3.x compiler

Then suddenly, out of the blue, Asus comes along with the Tinkerboard. A board that I hated when it first came out (read part-1 here, part-2 here) due to its shabby drivers. The boards have been collecting dust on my office shelf for six months or so – and it was blind luck that i downloaded and tested a new disk image. If you missed that part you can read the full article here.

And I’m glad I did because man – the Tinkerboard makes the Raspberry PI 3b look like a toy! Asus has also adjusted the price lately. It was initially priced at 75€, but in Norway right now it retails for about 620 NKR – or 62€. So yes, it’s about twice the price of the PI – but it also gives you twice the memory, twice the graphics performance, twice the IO performance and a CPU that is a pleasure to work with.

The Raspberry PI 3b can’t be overclocked to the extent the model 1 and 2 could. You can over-volt it and tweak the GPU and memory and make it run faster. But people don’t call that “overclock” in the true sense of the word, because that means the CPU is set to run at speeds beyond the manufacturing specifications. So with the PI 3b there is relatively little you can do to make it run faster. You can speed it up a little bit, but that’s it. The Tinkerboard can be overclocked to the hilt.

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The A1222 motherboard is just around the corner [conceptual art]

Out of the box it runs at 1.5 Ghz, but if you add a heatsink, fan (important) and a 3A PSU – you can overclock it to 2.6 Ghz. And like the PI you can also tweak memory and gpu. So the Tinkerboard will happily run 3 times faster than the PI. If you add a USB3 harddisk you will also beef up IO speeds by 100 megabyte a second – which makes a huge difference. Linux does memory paging and it slows down everything if you just use the SD card.

In short: if you fork out 70€ you get a SBC that runs rings around both the vampire and the Raspberry PI 3b. If we take height for some Linux services and drivers that have to run in the background, 3.2 x 3 = 9.6. Lets round that off to 9 since there will be performance hits by the background services. But still — 70€ for an Amiga that runs 9 times faster than A4000 @ MC68040 cpu ? That should blow your mind!

I’m sorry but there has to be something wrong with you if that doesn’t get your juices flowing. I rarely game on my classic Amiga setup. I’m a coder – but with this kind of firepower you can run some of the biggest and best Amiga titles ever made – and the Tinkerboard wont even break a sweat!

You can’t afford to be a fundamentalist

There are some real nutbags in the Amiga community. I think we all agree that having the real deal is a great experience, but the prices we see these days are borderline insane. I had to fork out around 500€  to get my A1000 shipped from Belgium to Norway. Had tax been added on the original price, I would have looked at something in the 700€ range. Still – 500€ for a 20-year-old computer that can hardly run Workbench 1.2? Unless you add the word “collector” here you are in fact barking mad!

If you are looking to get an Amiga for “old times sakes”, or perhaps you have an A500 and wonder if you should fork out for the Vampire? Will it be worth the 300€ pricetag? Unless you use your Amiga on a daily basis I can’t imagine what you need a vampire for. The stand-alone motherboard I can understand, that is a great idea – but the accelerator? 300€?

I mean you can pay 70€ and get the fastest Amiga that ever existed. Not a bit faster, not something on second place – no – THE FASTEST Amiga that has ever existed. If you think playing MP3 and MPG media files is cool with the vampire, then you are in for a treat here because the same software will work. You can safely download the latest patches and updates to various media players on the classic Amiga, and they will run just fine on UAE4Arm. But this time they will run a hell of a lot faster than the Vampire.

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My old broken A500 turned into an ass-kicking, battle hardened ARM monster

You really can’t be a fundamentalist in 2017 when it comes to vintage computers. And why would you want to? With so much cool stuff happening in the scene, why would you want to limit your Amiga experience to a single model? Aros is doing awesome stuff these days, you have the x5000 out and the A1222 just around the corner. Morphos is stable and good on the G5 PPC — there has never been a time when there were so many options for Amiga enthusiasts! Not even during the golden days between 1989-1994 were there so many exciting developments.

I love the classic Amiga machines. I think the Vampire stand-alone model is fantastic and if they ramp up the fpga to a faster model, they have in fact re-created a viable computer platform. A 68080 fpga based CPU that can go head to head with x86? That is quite an achievement – and I support that whole heartedly.

But having to fork out this amount of cash just to enjoy a modern Amiga experience is a bit silly. You can actually right now go out and buy a $35 Raspberry PI and enjoy far better results than the Vampire is able to deliver. How that can be negative? I have no idea, nor will I ever understand that kind of thinking. How do any of these people expect the Amiga community to grow and get new, young members if the average price of a 20-year-old machine costs 500€? Which incidentally is 50€ more than a brand new A1222 PPC machine capable of running OS 4.

And with the Tinkerboard you can get 9 times the speed of an A4000? How can that not give you goosebumps!

People talk about Java and Virtual-Machines like its black magic. Well UAE gives you a virtual CPU and chipset that makes mince-meat of both Java and C#. It also comes with one of the largest software libraries in the world. I find it inconceivable that no-one sees the potential in that technology beyond game playing – but when you become violent or nasty over hardware, then I guess that explains quite a bit.

I say, use whatever you can to enjoy your Amiga. And if your perfect Amiga is a PI or a Tinkerboard (or ODroid) – who cares!

I for one will not put more money into legacy hardware. I’m happy that I have the A1000, but that’s where it stops for me. I am looking forward to the latest Amiga x5000 PPC and cant wait to get coding on that – but unless the Appollo crew upgrades to a faster FPGA I see little reason to buy anything. I would gladly pay 500 – 1000 € for something that can kick modern computers in the behind. And I imagine a lot of 68k users would be willing to do that as well. But right now PPC is a much better option since it gives you both 68k and the new OS 4 platform in one price. And for affordable Amiga computing, emulation is now of such quality that you wont really notice the difference.

And I love coding 68k assembler on my Amibian emulator setup. There is nothing quite like it 🙂

The Tinkerboard Strikes Back

August 20, 2017 Leave a comment

For those that follow my blog you probably remember the somewhat devastating rating I gave the Tinkerboard earlier this year (click here for part 1, and here for part 2). It was quite sad having to give such a poor rating to what is ultimately a fine piece of hardware. I had high hopes for it – in fact I bought two of the boards because I figured there was no way it could suck with that those specs. But suck it did and while the muscle was there, the drivers were in such a state that it never emerged for the user. It was released prematurely, and I think most people that bought it agrees on this.

asus

The initial release was less than bad, it was horrible

Since my initial review those months ago good things have happened. Asus seem to have listened to the “poonami” of negative feedback and adapted their website accordingly. Unlike the first time I visited when you literally had to dig into recursive menus (which was less than intuitive in this case) just to download the software – the disk images are now available at the bottom of the product page. So thumbs up for that (!)

They have also made the GPIO programming API a lot easier to get; downloading it is reduced to a “one liner” for C developers, which is the way it should be. And they have likewise provided wrappers for other languages, like ever popular python and scratch.

I am a bit disappointed that they don’t provide freepascal units. A lot of developers use object pascal on these board after all, because Object Pascal gives you a better balance between productivity and depth. Pascal is easier to learn (it was designed for that after all) but avoids some of the pitfalls of C/C++ while retaining all the good things. Porting over C headers is fairly easy for a good pascal programmer – but it would be cool of Asus remember that there are more languages in the world than C and python.

All of this aside: the most important change of all is what Asus has done with the drivers! They have finally put together drivers that shows off the capabilities of the hardware and unleash the speed we all hoped for when the board was first announced. And man does it show! My previous experience with the Tinkerboard was horrible; it was the text-book example of a how not to release a product (the whole release has been odd; Asus is a huge, multi-national corporation. Yet their release had basement 3 man band written all over it).

So this is fantastic news! Finally the Tinkerboard delivers and can be used for real life projects!

Smart IOT

At The Smart Company we both create and use our core product, Smart Mobile Studio, to deliver third-party solutions. As the name implies Smart is a software development system initially made for mobile applications; but it quickly grew into a much larger toolchain and is exceptionally good for making embedded applications. With embedded applications I mean things that run on kiosk systems, cash machines and stuff like that; basically anything with a touch-screen that does something.

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The Smart desktop gives you a good starting point for embedded work

One of the examples that ship with Smart Pascal is a fully working desktop embedded environment. Smart compiles for both ordinary browsers (JavaScript environments with a traditional HTML5 display) but also for node.js, which is JavaScript unbound by the strict rules of a browser. Developers typically use node.js to write highly scalable server software, but you are naturally not limited to that. Netflix is written 100% in Node.js, so we are talking serious firepower here.

Our embedded environment is called The Smart Desktop (also known as Amibian.js) and gives you a ready-made node.js back-end that couples with a HTML5 front-end. This is a ready to use environment that you can deploy your own applications through. Things like storage, a nice looking UI, user logon and credentials and much, much more is all implemented for you. You don’t have to use it of course, you can write your own system from scratch if you like. We created “Amibian” to demonstrate just how powerful Smart Pascal can be in the right hands.

With this in mind – my main concern when testing SBC’s (single board computers) is obviously web performance. By default JavaScript is a single core event-driven runtime system; you can spawn threads of course but its done somewhat different from how you would work in Delphi or C++.  JavaScript is designed to be system friendly and a gentle giant if you like, which has turned out to be a good thing – because the way JS schedules execution makes it ideal for clustering!

Most people find it hard to believe that JavaScript can outperform native code, but the JavaScript runtimes of today is almost a whole eco system in themselves. With JIT compilers and LLVM optimization — it’s a whole new ballgame.

Making a scale

To give you a better context to see where the Tinkerboard is on a scale, I decided to set up a couple of simple tests. Nothing fancy, just running the same web applications and see how each of them perform on different boards. So I used the same 3 candidates as before, namely the Raspberry PI 3b, the Hardkernel ODroid XU4 and last but not least: the Asus Tinkerboard.

I setup the following applications to compile with the desktop system, meaning that they were compiled with the Smart project. We got plenty of web applications but for this I wanted to pack the most demanding apps in our library:

  • Skid-Row intro remake using the CODEF library
  • Quake 3 asm.js build
  • Plex

OK let’s go through them and see where the chips land!

The Raspberry PI 3b

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Bassoon ran well, its not that demanding

The Raspberry PI was aweful (click here for a video). There is no doubt that native applications like UAE4Arm runs extremely well on the PI (which contains hand optimized assembler, not exactly a fair fight)- but when it comes to modern HTML5 the PI doesn’t stand a chance. You could perhaps use a Raspberry PI 3b for simple applications which are not graphic and cpu intensive, but you can forget about anything remotely taxing.

It ran Bassoon reasonably fast, but all in all you really don’t want a raspberry when doing high quality IOT, unless its headless code and node.js perhaps. Frameworks like Johnny #5 gives you a ton of GPIO features out of the box – in fact you can target 40 embedded systems without any change to your code. But for large, high quality web front-ends, the PI just wont cut it.

  • Skid-Row: 1 frame per second or less
  • Quake: Can’t even start, just forget it
  • Plex: Starts but it lags so much you can’t watch anything

But hey, I never expected $35 to give me a kick ass ARM experience anyways. There are 1000 things the PI does very well, but HTML is not one of them.

ODroid XU4

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The ODroid packs a lot of power!

The ODroid being faster than the Raspberry PI is nothing new, but I was surprised at how much power this board delivers. I never expected it to give me a Linux experience close to that of a x86 PC; I mean we are talking about a 45€ SBC here. And it’s only 10€ more than the Raspberry PI, which is a toy at best. But the ODroid XU4 delivers a good Linux desktop; And it’s well worth the extra 10€ when compared to the PI.

Personally I don’t understand why people keep buying PI’s when there is so much better options on the market now. At least not if web technology is involved. A small server or emulator sure, but not HTML5 and browsers. The PI just cant handle it.

  • Skid-Row: 4-5 frames per second
  • Quake: Runs at very enjoyable speed (!)
  • Plex: Runs well but you may want to pick SD or 720p to avoid lags

What really shocked me was that ODroid XU4 can run Quake.js! The PI can’t even start that because it’s so demanding. It is one of the largest and most resource hungry asm.js projects out there – but ODroid XU4 did a fantastic job.

Now it’s not a silky smooth experience, I would guess something along the lines of 17-20 fps. But you know what? Thats pretty good for a $45 board.

I have owned far worse x86 PC’s in my day.

The Tinkerboard

Before i powered up the board I was reluctant to push it too far, because I thought it would fail me once again. I did hope that something had been done by Asus to rectify the situation though, because Asus really should have done a better job before releasing it. It’s now been roughly 6 months since I bought it, and roughly 8 months since it was released here in Europe. It would have been better for them to have waited with the release. I was not alone about butchering the whole board, its been a source of frustration for those that bought it. 75€ is not much, but no-one likes to throw money out the window like that.

Long story short: I downloaded the latest Ubuntu image and burned that to an SD card (I actually first downloaded the Debian Jessie image they have, but sadly you have to do a bit of work to turn that into a desktop system – so I decided to go for Ubuntu instead). If the drivers are in order I have a feeling the Jessie image will be even faster – Ubuntu has always been a high-quality distribution, but it’s also one of the most demanding. One might even say it’s become bloated. But it does deliver a near Microsoft Windows like experience which has served the Linux community well.

But the Tinkerboard really delivers! (click here for the video) Asus have cleaned up their act and implemented the drivers properly, and you can feel that the moment the desktop comes into view. With the PI you are always fighting with lagging performance. When you start a program the whole system freezes for a while, when you quit a program the system freezes – hell when you move the mouse around the system bloody freezes! Well that is not the case with the Tinkerboard that’s for sure. The tinkerboard feels more like running vanilla Ubuntu on a normal x86 PC to be honest.

  • Skid-Row: 10-15 frames per second
  • Quake: Full screen 32bit graphics, runs like hell
  • Plex: Plays back fullscreen HD, just awesome!

All I can say is this: if you are going to do any bit of embedded coding, regardless if you are using Smart Mobile Studio or some other devkit — this is the board to get (!)

Like already mentioned it does cost almost twice as much as the PI, but that extra 30€ buys you loads of extra power. It opens up so many avenues of code and you can explore software far more complex than both the PI and ODroid combined. With the tinkerboard you can finally deliver a state of the art product built with off the shelves web components. It’s in a league of its own.

The ‘tinker’ rocks at last

When I first bought the tinker i felt cheated. It was so frustrating because the specs were so good and the terrible performance just came down to sloppy work and Asus releasing it prematurely for cash (lets face it, they tapped into the lucrative market established by the PI foundation). By looking at the specs you knew it had the firepower to deliver so much, but it was held back by ridicules drivers.

There is still a lot that can be done to make the Tinkerboard run even faster. Like I mentioned Ubuntu is not the racecar of distributions out there. Ubuntu is fat, there is no other way of saying it. So if someone took the time to create a minimalistic Jessie image, recompile every piece with maximum llvm optimization and as few running services as possible — the tinkerboard would positively fly!

So do I recommend it? I am thrilled to say that yes, I can finally recommend the tinkerboard! It is by far the coolest board in my collection now. In fact it’s so good that I’m donating one to my daughter. She is presently using an iMac which is overkill for her needs at age 10. Now I can make a super simple menu with Netflix and Youtube, buy a nice touch-screen display and wall mount it in her room.

Well done Asus!

Where is PowerPC today?

August 5, 2017 6 comments
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Phase 5 PowerUP board prototype

Anyone who messed around with computers back in the 90s will remember PowerPC. This was the only real alternative for Intel’s complete dominance with the x86 CPU’s and believe me when I say the battle was fierce! Behind the PowerPC you had companies like IBM and Motorola, companies that both had (or have) an axe to grind with Intel. At the time the market was split in half – with Intel controlling the business PC segment – while Motorola and IBM represented the home computer market.

The moment we entered the 1990s it became clear that Intel and Microsoft was not going to stay on their side of the fence so to speak. For Motorola in particular this was a death match in the true sense of the word, because the loss of both Apple and Commodore represented billions in revenue.

What could you buy in 1993?

The early 90’s were bitter-sweet for both Commodore and Apple. Faster and affordable PC’s was already a reality and as a consequence – both Amiga machines and Mac’s were struggling to keep up.

The Amiga 1200 still represented a good buy. It had a massive library of software, both for entertainment and serious work. But it was never really suited for demanding office applications. It did wonders in video and multimedia development, and of course games and entertainment – but the jump in price between A1200 and A4000 became harder and harder to justify. You could get a well equipped Mac with professional tools at that range.

Apple on the other hand was never really an entertainment company. Their primary market was professional graphics, desktop publishing and music production (Photoshop, Pro-tools, Logic etc. were exclusive Mac products). When it came to expansions and ports they were more interested in connecting customers to industrial printers, midi devices and high-volume storage. Mac was always a machine for the upper class, people with money to burn; The Amiga dominated the middle-class. It was a family type computer.

But Apple was not a company in hiding, neither from Commodore or the Wintel threat. So in 1993 they introduced the Macintosh Quadra series to the consumer market. Unlike their other models this was aimed at home users and students, meaning that it was affordable, powerful and could be used for both homework and professional applications. It was a direct threat to upper middle-class that could afford the big box Amiga machines.

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The 68k Macintosh Quadra came out in October of 1993

But no matter how brilliant these machines were, there was no hiding the fact that when it came to raw power – the PC was not taking any prisoners. It was graphically superior in every way and Intel started doubling the CPU speed exponentially year by year; Just like Moore’s law had predicted.

With the 486-DX2 looming on the horizon, it was game over for the old and faithful processors. The Motorola 68k family had been there since the late 70’s, it was practically an institution, but it was facing enemies on all fronts and simply could not stand in the way of evolution.

The PowerPC architecture

If you are in your 20’s you wont remember this, but back in the late 80’s early 90’s, the battle between computer vendors was indeed fierce. You have to take into consideration that Microsoft and Intel did a real number on IBM. Microsoft stabbed IBM in the back and launched Windows as a direct competitor for IBM’s OS2. When I write “stabbed in the back” I mean that literally because Microsoft was initially hired to create parts of OS/2. It was the typical lawsuit mess, not unlike Microsoft and Sun later, where people would pick sides and argue who the culprit really was.

As you can imagine IBM was both bitter and angry at Microsoft for stealing the home PC market in such a shameful way. They were supposed to help IBM and be their ally, but turned out to be their most fierce competitor. IBM had also created a situation where the PC was licensed to everyone (hence the term “ibm clone”) – meaning that any company could create parts for it and there was little IBM could do to control the market like they were used to. They would naturally get revenue from these companies in the form of royalties (and would later retire 99% of all their products. Why work when they get billions for doing nothing?), but at the time they were still in the game.

Motorola was in a bad situation themselves, with the 68k line of processors clearly incapable of facing the much faster x86 CPU’s. Something new had to be created to ensure their market share.

The result of this “marriage of necessity” was the PowerPC line of processors.

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The Apple “Candy” Mac’s made PPC and computing sexy

Apple jumped on the idea. It was the only real alternative to x86. And you have to remember that – had Apple gone to x86 at that point, they would basically have fed the forces that wanted them dead. You could hardly make out where Microsoft started and Intel ended during the early 90s.

I’m going to spare you the whole fall and rebirth of Apple. Needless to say Apple came to the point where their branch of PowerPC processors caused more problems than they had benefits. The type of PowerPC processors Apple used generated an absurd amount of heat, and it was turning into a real problem. We see this in their later models, like the dual cpu G5 PowerMac where 40% of the cabinet is dedicated purely to cooling.

And yes, Commodore kicked the bucket back in 1994 so they never finished their new models. Which is a damn shame because unlike Apple they went with a dedicated RISC processor. These models did not suffer the heating problems the PPC’s used by Apple had to deal with.

Note: PPC and RISC are two sides of the same coin. PPC processors are RISC based, but naturally there exists hundreds of different implementations. To avoid a ton of arguments around this topic I treat PPC as something different from PA-RISC which Commodore was playing with in their Hombre “skunkworks” projects.

You can read all about Apple’s strain of PowePC processors here, and PA-RISC here.

PPC in modern computers?

I am going to be perfectly honest. When I heard that the new Amiga machines were based on PowerPC my reaction was less than polite. I mean who the hell would use PowerPC in our day and age? Surely Apple’s spectacular failure would stand as a warning for all time? I was flabbergasted to say the least.

the_red_one_498240f858553The Amiga One came out and I didn’t even give it the time of day. The Sam440 motherboards came out, I couldn’t care less. It would have been nice to own one, but the price at the time and the lack of software was just to disproportionate to make sense.

And now there is the Amiga x5000 and a smaller, more affordable A1222 (a.k.a “Tabour”) model just around the corner. And they are both equipped with a PPC CPU. There are just two logical conclusions you can make when faced with this: either the maker of these products is nuttier than a snicker’s bar, or there is something the general public doesn’t know.

What the general public doesn’t know has turned out to be quite a lot. While you would think PPC was dead and buried, the reality of PPC is not that simple. Turns out there is not just one PPC family (or branch) but several. The one that Apple used back in the day (and that MorphOS for some odd reason support) represents just one branch of the PPC tree if you like. I had no idea this was the case.

The first thing you are going to notice is that the CPU in the new Amiga’s doesn’t have the absurd cooling problems the old Mac’s suffered. There are no 20cm cooling ribs and you don’t need 2 fans on Ritalin to prevent a cpu meltdown; and you also don’t need a custom aluminium case to keep it cool (everyone thinks the “Mac Pro” cases were just to make them look cool. Turned out it was more literal, it was to turn the inside into a fridge).

In other words, the branch of PPC that we have known so far, the one marketed as “PowerPC” by Apple, Phase5 and everyone back in the 90’s is indeed dead and buried. But that was just one branch, one implementation of what is known as PPC.

Remember when ARM died?

When I started to dig into the whole PPC topic I could not help but think about the Arm processor. It’s almost spooky to reflect on how much we, the consumer, blindly accept as fact. Just think about it: You were told that PowerPC was the bomb, so you ended up buying that. Then you were told that PowerPC was crap and that x86 was the bomb, so you mentally buried PowerPC and bought x86 instead. The consumer market is the proverbial cheep farm where most of us just blindly accept whatever advertising tell us.

This was also the case with Arm. Remember a company called Acorn? It was a great british company that invented, among other things, the Arm core. I remember reading articles about Acorn when I was a kid. I even sold my Amiga for a while and messed around with an Acorn Archimedes. A momentary lapse of sanity, I know; I quickly got rid of it and bought back my Amiga. But I did learn a lot from messing around in RISC OS.

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The Acorn Archimedes, a brilliant RISC based machine that sadly didnt make it

My point is, everyone was told that Arm was dead back in the 80’s. The Acorn computers used a pure RISC processor at the time (again, PPC is a RISC based CPU but I treat them as separate since the designs are miles apart), but it was no secret that they were hoping to equip their future Acorn machines with this new and magic Arm thing. And reading about the power and speed of Arm was very exciting indeed. Sadly such a computer never saw the light of day back in the 80’s. Acorn went bust and the market rolled over Acorn much like it would Commodore later.

The point im trying to make is that, everyone was told that Arm died with Acorn. And once that idea was planted in the general public, it became a self-fulfilling prophecy. Arm was dead. End of story. It doesn’t matter that Acorn had set up a separate company that was unaffected by the bankrupcy. Once the public deem something as dead, it just vanish from the face of the earth.

Fast forward to our time and Arm is no longer dead, quite the opposite! It’s presently eating its way into just about every piece of electronics you can think of. In many ways Arm is what made the IOT revolution possible. The whole Raspberry PI phenomenon would quite frankly never have happened without Arm. The low price coupled with the fantastic performance -not to mention that these cpu’s rarely need cooling (unless you overclock the hell out of them) has made Arm the most successful CPU ever made.

The PPC market share

With Arm’s so-called death and re-birth in mind, let’s turn our eyes to PPC and look at where it is today. PPC has suffered pretty much the same fate as Arm once did. Once a branch of the tech is defined “dead” by media and spin-doctors, regardless if the PPC is actually a cluster of designs not a single design or “chip”, the general public blindly follows – and mentally bury the whole subject.

And yes I admit it, I am guilty of this myself. In my mind there was no distinction between PPC and PowerPC. Which is a bit like not knowing the difference between Rock & Roll as a genre, and KISS the rock band. If we look at this through a parallel what we have done is basically to ban all rock bands, regardless of where they are from, because one band once gave a lousy concert.

And that is where we are at. PPC has become invisible in the consumer market, even though it’s there. Which is understandable considering the commercial mechanisms at work here, but is really PPC dead? This should be a simple question. And commercial mechanisms not withstanding the answer is a solid NO. PPC is not dead at all. We have just parked it in a mental limbo. Out of sight, out of mind and all that.

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Playstation 3, Nintendo WII U and Playstation VR all use Freescale PPC

PPC today has a strong foothold in industrial computing. The oil sector is one market that use PPC SBC’s extensively (read: single board computers). You will find them in valve controllers, pump and drill systems and pretty much any systems that require a high degree of reliability.

You will also be surprised to learn that cheap PPC SBC’s enjoy the same low energy requirements people adopt Arm over (3.3 – 5.0 V). And naturally, the more powerful the chip – the more juice it needs.

The reason that PPC is popular and still being used with great success is first of all reliability. This reliability is not just physical hardware but also software. PPC gives you two RTOS’s (real-time operating system) to choose from. Each of them comes with a software development toolchain that rivals whatever Visual Studio has to offer. So you get a good-looking IDE, a modern and up to date compiler, the ability to debug “live” on the boards – and also real-time signal processing protocols. The list of software modules you can pick from is massive.

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QNX RTOS desktop, This is a module you can embed in your own products

The last part of that paragraph, namely real-time signal processing, is extremely important. Can you imagine having an oil valve with 40.000 cubic tons of pressure failing, but the regulator that is supposed to compensate doesn’t get the signal because Linux or Windows was busy with something else? It get’s pretty nutty at that level.

The second market can be found with set-top boxes, game consoles and tv signal decoders. While this market is no doubt under attack from cheap Arm devices – PPC still has a solid grip here due to their reliability. PPC as an embedded platform has roughly two decades head start over Arm when it comes to software development. That is a lifetime in computing terms.

When developers look at technology for a product they are prototyping, the hardware is just one part of the equation. Being able to easily write software for the platform, perform live debugging of code on the boards, and maintain products over decades rather than consumer based 1-3 year warranties; it’s just a completely different ballgame. Technology like external satellite-dish parts runs for decades without maintenance. And there are good reasons why you dont see x86 or Arm here.

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Playstattion 3 and the new PSX VR box both have a Freescale PPC cpu

As mentioned earlier, the PPC branch used today is not the same branch that people remember. I cannot stress this enough, because mixing these is like mistaking Intel for AMD. They may have many of the same features but ultimately they are completely different architectures.

The “PowerPC” label we know from back in the day was used to promote the branch that Apple used. Amiga accelerators also used that line of processors for their PowerUP boards. And anyone who ever stuffed a PowerUP board in their A1200 probably remember the cooling issues. I bought one of the more affordable PowerUP boards for my A1200, and to this day I associate the whole episode as a fiasco. It was haunted by instability, sudden crashes and IO problems – all of it connected to overheating.

But PPC today as delivered by Freescale Semiconductors (bought by NXP back in 2015) are different. They don’t suffer the heat problem of their remote and extinct cousins, have low power requirements and are incredibly reliable. Not to mention leagues more powerful than anything Apple, Phase 5 or Commodore ever got their hands on.

Is Freescale for the Amiga a total blunder?

Had you asked me a few days back chances are I would said yes. I have known for a while that Freescale was used in the oil sector, but I did not take into consideration the strength of the development tools and the important role an RTOS system holds in a critical production environment.

I must also admit that I had no idea that my Playstation and Nintendo consoles were PPC based. Playstation 4 doesn’t use PPC on its motherboard, but if you buy the fantastic and sexy VR add-on package, you get a second module that is again – a PPC based product.

It also turns out that IBM’s high-end mainframes, those Amazon and Microsoft use to build the bedrock for cloud computing are likewise PPC based. So once again we see that PPC is indeed there and it’s playing an important role in our lives – but most people don’t see it. So all of this is a matter of perspective.

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The Nintendo WII U uses a Freescale PPC cpu, not exactly a below-par gaming system

But the Amiga x5000 or A1222 will not be controlling a high-pressure valve or serving half a million users (hopefully); so does this affect the consumer at all? Does any of this hold any value to you or me? What on earth would real-time feedback mean for a hobby user that just want to play some games, watch a movie or code demos?

The answer is: it could have a profound benefit, but it needs to be developed and evolved first.

Musicians could benefit greatly from the superior signal processing features, but as of writing I have yet to find any mention of this in the Amiga NG SDK. So while the potential is there I doubt we will see it before the Amiga has sold in enough volume.

Fast and reliable signal dispatching in the architecture will also have a profound effect on IPC (inter process communication), allowing separate processes to talk with each other faster and more reliably than say, windows or Linux. Programmers typically use a mutex or a critical-section to protect memory while it’s being delivered to another process (note: painting in broad strokes here), this is a very costly mechanism under Windows and Linux. For instance, the reason UAE is still single threaded is because isolating the custom chips in separate threads and having them talk – turned out to be too slow. If PPC is able to deal with that faster, it also means that processes would communicate faster and more interesting software can be made. Even practical things like a web-server would greatly benefit from real-time message dispatching.

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There is no lack of vendors for PPC SBC’s online, here from Abaco Systems

So for us consumers, it all boils down to volume. The Freescale branch of PPC processors is not dead and will be around for years to come; they are sold by the millions every year to great variety of businesses; and while most of them operate outside the traditional consumer awareness, it does have a positive effect on pricing. The more a processor is sold the cheaper it becomes.

Most people feel that the Amiga x5000 is to expensive for a home computer and they blame that on the CPU. Forgetting that 50% of the sub total goes into making the motherboard and all the parts around the CPU. The CPU alone does not represent the price of a whole new platform. And that’s just the hardware! On top of this you have the job of re-writing a whole operating system from scratch, add features that have evolved between 1994 and 2017, and make it all sing together through custom written drivers.

So it’s not your average programming project to say the least.

But is it really too expensive? Perhaps. I bought an iMac 2 years back that was supposed to be my work machine. I work as a developer and use VMWare for almost all my coding. Turned out the i5 based beauty just didn’t have the ram. And fitting it with more ram (it came with 16 gigabytes, I need at least 32) would cost a lot more than a low-end PC. The sad part is that had I gone for a PC I could have treated myself to an i7 with 32 gigabyte ram for the same price.

I later bit the bullet and bought a 3500€ Intel i7 monster with 64 gigabytes of ram and the latest Nvidia graphics card. Let’s just say that the Amiga x5000 is reasonable in context with this. I basically have an iMac i have no use for, it just sits there collecting dust and is reduced to a music player.

Secondly we have to look at potential. The Mac and Windows machines now have their potential completely exposed. We know what these machines do and it’s not going to change any time soon.

The Amiga has a lot of hidden potential that has yet to be realized. The signal processing is just one of them. The most interesting is by far the Xena chip (XMOS) that allow developers to implement custom hardware in software. It might sound like FPGA but XMOS is a different technology. Here you write code using a custom C compiler that generates a special brand of opcodes. Your code is loaded onto a part of the chip (the chip is divided into X number of squares, each representing a piece of logic, or “custom chip” if you like) and will then act as a custom-chip.

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The Amiga x5000 in all her glory, notice the moderate cooling for the CPU

The XENA technology could really do wonders for the Amiga. Instead of relying on traditional library files that are executed by the main CPU, things like video decoding, graphical effecs, auxiliary 3D functionality and even emulation (!) can now be dealt-with by XENA and executed in parallel with the main CPU.

If anything is going to make or break the Amiga, it wont be the Freescale PPC processor – it will be the XENA chip and how they use it to benefit the consumer.

Just imagine running UAE almost solely on the XENA chip, emulating 68k applications at near native speed – without using the main CPU at all? Sounds pretty good! And this is a feature you wont find on a PC motherboard. Like always they will add it should it become popular, but right now it’s not even on the radar.

So I for one do believe that the next generation Amiga machines have a shot. The A1222 is probably going to be the defining factor. It will retail at an affordable price (around 450€) and will no doubt go head-to-head with both consoles and mid-range PC’s.

So like always it’s about volume, timing and infrastructure. Everything but the actual processor to be honest.

Last words

Its been a valuable experience to look around and read up on PPC. When I started my little investigation I had a dark picture in my head where the new Amiga machines were just a waste of time. I am happy to say that this is not true and the Freescale processors are indeed alive and kicking.

It was also interesting to see how widespread PPC technology really is. It’s not just a specialist platform, although that is absolutely where it’s strength is financially; it ships in everything from your home router to your tv-signal decoder or game system. So it does have a foot in the consumer market, but like I have outlined here – most consumers have parked it in a blind-spot and we associate the word “PowerPC” with the fiasco of Apple in the past. Which is a bit sad because it’s neither true or fair.

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Amiga OS 4.x is turning out to be a very capable system

I have no problem seeing a future where the Amiga becomes a viable commercial product again. I think there is some way to go before that happens, and the spear-head is going to be the A1222 or a similar product.

But like I have underlined again and again – it all boils down to developers. A platform is only as good as the software you can run on it, and Hyperion should really throw themselves into porting games and creativity software. They need to build up critical mass and ship the A1222 with a ton of titles.

For my personal needs I will be more than happy just owning the x5000. It doesn’t need to be a massive commercial success, because Amiga is in my blood and I will always enjoy using it. And yes it is a bit expensive and I’m not in the habit of buying machines like this left and right. But I can safely say that this is a machine that I will be enjoying for many, many years into the future – regardless of what others may feel about it.

I would suggest that Hyperion lower their prices to somewhere around 1000€ if possible. Right now they need to think volume rather than profit, and hopefully Hyperion will start making the OS compatible with Arm. Again my thoughts go to volume and that IOT and embedded systems need an alternative to Linux and Windows 10 embedded.

But right now I’m itching to start developing for it – and I’m not alone 🙂

Amiga OS 4, object pascal and everything

August 2, 2017 2 comments

Those that read my blog knows that I’m a huge fan of the Commodore Amiga machines. This was a line of computers that took the world by storm around 1985 and held its ground until 1993. Sadly the company had to file for bankruptcy after a series of absurd financial escapades by its management.

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The original team before it fell prey to mismanagement

The death of Commodore is one of the great tragedies in computing history. There is no doubt that Commodore represented a much-needed alternative to Microsoft and Apple – and the death of Commodore meant innovation of technology took a turn for the worse.

Large books have been written on this subject, as well as great documentaries and movies – so I’m not going to dig further into the drama here. Ars Technica has a range of articles covering the whole story, so if you want to understand how the market got the way it is today, head over and read up on the story.

On a personal level I find the classic Amiga machines a source of great inspiration even now. Despite Commodore dying in the 90’s, today 30 years after the fact I still stumble over amazing source-code on this awesome computer; There are a few things in Amiga OS that “hint” to its true age, but ultimately the system has aged with amazing elegance and grace. It just blows people away when they realize that the Amiga desktop hit the market in 1984 – and much of what we regard as a modern desktop experience is actually inherited from the Amiga.

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Amiga OS is highly customizable. Here showing OS 3.9 [the last of the classic OS versions]

As I type this the Amiga is going through a form of revival. It’s actually remarkable to be a part of this because the scope of such an endeavour is monumental. But even more impressive is just how many people are involved. It’s not like some tiny “computer cult” where a bunch of misfits hang out in sad corners of the internet. Nope, we are talking about thousands of educated and technical people who still use their Amiga computers on a daily basis.

For instance: the realization of the new Amiga models have cost £ 1.2 million, so there are serious players involved in this.

The user-base is varied of course, it’s not all developers and engineers. You have gamers who love to kick back with some high quality retro-gaming. You have graphics designers who pixel large masterpieces (an almost lost art in this day and age). And you have musicians who write awesome tracks; then use that to spice up otherwise flat and dull PC based tracks.

What is even more awesome is the coding. Even the latest Freepascal has been ported, so if you were expecting people hand punching hex-codes you will be disappointed. While the Amiga is old in technical terms, it was so far ahead of the competition that people are surprised just how capable the classic systems are.

And yes, people code games, demos and utility programs for the classical Amiga systems even today. I just installed a Dropbox cloud driver on my system and it works brilliantly.

The brand new Amiga

Classic Amiga machines are awesome, but this post is not about the old models; it’s about the new models that are coming out now. Yes, you read right: next generation Amiga computers that have finally become a reality. Having waited for 22 years I am thrilled to say that I just ordered a brand new Amiga 5000! (and cant wait to install Freepascal and start coding).

It’s also quite affordable. The x5000 model (which is the power system) retails at around €1650, which is roughly half the price I paid for my Intel i7, Nvidia GeForce GTX 970 workstation. And the potential as a developer is enormous.

Just think about the onslaught of Delphi code I can port over, and how instrumental my software can become by getting in early. Say what you will about Freepascal but it tends to be the second compiler to hit a platform after GCC. And with Freepascal in place a Delphi developer can do some serious magic!

20431276_643626252509574_7473564293748990830_nRight. So the first Amiga  is the power model, the Amiga 5000. This can be ordered today. It cost the same as a good PC (1600€ range depending on import tax and vat). This is far less than I paid for my crap iMac (that I never use anymore).

The power model is best suited for people who do professional work on the machine. Software development doesn’t necessarily need all the firepower the x5000 brings, but more demanding tasks like 3d rendering or media composition will.

The next model is the A1222 which is due out around x-mas 2017 /slash/ first quarter

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The A1222 “Tabour”

2018. You would perhaps expect a mid-range model, something retailing at around €800 or there abouts – but the A1222 is without a doubt a low-end model.

It should retail for roughly €450. I think this is a great idea because AEON (who makes hardware) have different needs from Hyperion (who makes the new Amiga OS [more about that further into the article]). AEON needs to get enough units out to secure the foundation – while Hyperion needs vertical market penetration (read: become popular and also hit other hardware platforms as well). These factors are mutually exclusive, just like they are for Windows and OS X. Which is probably why Apple refuse to sell OS X without a mac, or they could end up competing with themselves.

A brave new Amiga OS

But there is more to this “revival” than just hardware. Many would even say that hardware is the least interesting about the next generation systems, and that the true value at this point in time is the new and sexy operating system. Because what the world needs now more than hardware (in my opinion) is a lightweight alternative to Linux and Windows. A lean, powerful, easy to use, highly customizable operating system that will happily boot on a $35 Raspberry PI 3b, or a $2500 Intel i7 monster. Something that makes computing fun, affordable and most of all: portable!

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My setup of Amiga OS 4, with FPC and Storm C/C++

And with lean I have to stress that the original Amiga operating system, the classic 3.x system that was developed all the way to the end – was initially created to thrive in as little as 512kb. At most I had 2 megabytes of ram in my Amiga 1200 and that was ample space to write and run large programs, play the latest games and enjoy the rich, colorful and user-friendly desktop environment. We have to remember that Amiga had a multi-tasking, window based OS a decade before Microsoft.

Naturally the next-generation systems is built to deal with the realities of 2017 and beyond, but incredibly enough the OS will run just fine with as little as 256 megabytes. Not even Windows embedded can boot up on that. Linux comes close with distributions like Puppy and DSL, but Amiga OS 4 gives you a lot more functionality out of the box.

What way to go?

OK so we have new hardware, but what about the software? Are the new Amiga’s supposed to run some ancient version of Amiga OS? Of-course not! The people behind the new hardware have teamed up with a second company, Hyperion, that has believe it or not, done a full re-implementation of Amiga OS! And naturally they have taken the opportunity to get rid of annoying behavior – and adding behavior people expect in 2017 (like double-clicking on a window header to maximize it, easy access to menus and much more). Visually Amiga OS 4  is absolutely gorgeous. Just stunning to look at.

Now there are many different theories and ideas about where a new Amiga should go. Sadly it’s not just as simple as “hey let’s make a new amiga“; the old system is literally boiled in patent and legislation issues. It is close to an investors worst nightmare since ownership is so fragmented. Back when Commodore died, different parts of the Amiga was sold to different companies and individuals. The main reason we havent seen a new Amiga until now – is because the owners have been fighting between themselves. The Amiga as we know it has been caught in limbo for close to two decades.

My stance on the whole subject is that Trevor Dickenson, the man behind the next generation Amiga systems, has done the only reasonable thing a sane human being can when faced with a proverbial patent kebab: the old hardware is magical for us that grew up on it – but by todays standard they are obsolete dinosaurs. The same can be said about the Amiga OS 3.9. So Trevor has gone for a full re-implementation and hardware.

The other predominant idea is more GNU/Linux in spirit, where people want Amiga OS to be platform independent (or at least written in a way that makes the code run on different hardware as long as some fundamental infrastructure exists). This actually resulted in a whole new OS being written, namely Aros, which is a community made Amiga OS clone. A project that has been perpetually maintained for 20 years now.

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Aros, a community re-implementation of Amiga OS for x86

While I think the guys behind Aros should be applauded, I do feel that AEON and Hyperion have produced something better. There are still kinks to work out on both systems – and don’t get me wrong: I am thrilled that Aros is available, I just enjoy OS 4 more than I do Aros. Which is my subjective opinion of course.

New markets

Right. With all this in mind, let us completely disregard the old Amiga, the commodore drama and instead focus on the new operatingsystem as a product. It doesn’t take long before a few thrilling opportunities present themselves.

The first that comes to my mind is how well suited OS 4 would be as an embedded platform. The problem with Linux is ultimately the same that haunts OS X and Windows, namely that size and complexity grows proportionally over time. I have seen Linux systems as small as 20 megabytes, but for running X based full screen applications, taking advantage of hardware accelerated graphics – you really need a bigger infrastructure. And the moment you start adding those packages – Linux puts on weight and dependencies fast!

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The embedded market is one place where Amiga OS would do wonders

With embedded systems im not just talking about head-less servers or single application devices. Take something simple like a ticket booth, an information kiosk or POS terminal. Most of these run either Windows embedded or some variation of Linux. Since both of these systems require a fair bit of infrastructure to function properly, the price of the hardware typically start at around 300€. Delphi and C++ based solutions, at least those that I have seen, end up using boards in the 300€ to $400€ range.

This price-tag is high considering the tasks you need to do in a POS terminal or ticket system. You usually have a touch enabled screen, a network connection, a local database that will cache information should the network be down – the rest is visual code for dealing with menus, options, identification and fault tolerance. If a visa terminal is included then a USB driver must also be factored in.

These tasks are not heavy in themselves. So in theory a smaller system if properly adapted for it could do the same if not better job – at a much better price.

More for less, the Amiga legacy

Amiga OS would be able to deliver the exact same experience as Windows and Linux – but running on more cost-effective hardware. Where modern Windows and Linux typically need at least 2 gigabyte of ram for a heavy-duty visual application, full network stack and database services – Amiga OS is happy to run in as little as 512 megabytes. Everything is relative of course, but running a heavy visual application with less than a gigabyte memory in 2017 is rare to say the least.

Already we have cut cost. Power ARM boards ships with 4 gigabytes of ram, powered by a snappy ARM v9 cpu – and medium boards ship with 1 or 2 gigabytes of ram and a less powerful cpu. The price difference is already a good 75€ on ram alone. And if the CPU is a step down, from ARM v9 to ARM v8, we can push it down by a good 120€. At least if you are ordering in bulk (say 100 units).

The exciting part is ultimately how well Amiga OS 4 scales. I have yet to try this since I don’t have access to the machine I have ordered yet – and sadly Amiga OS 4.1 is compiled purely for PPC. This might sound odd since everyone is moving to ARM, but there is still plenty of embedded systems based on PPC. But yes, I would urge our good friend Trevor Dickenson to establish a migration plan to ARM because it would kill two birds with one stone: upgrading the faithful Amiga community while entering into the embedded market at the same time. Since the same hardware is involved these two factors would stimulate the growth and adoption of the OS.

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The PPC platform gives you a lot of bang-for-the-buck in the A1222 model

But for sake of argument let’s say that Amiga OS 4 scales exceptionally well, meaning that it will happily run on ARM v8 with 1 gigabyte of ram. This would mean that it would run on systems like the Asus Tinkerboard that retails at 60€ inc. vat. This would naturally not be a high performance system like the A5000, but embedded is not about that – it’s about finding something that can run your application safely, efficiently and without problems.

So if the OS scales gracefully for ARM, we have brought the cost down from 300€ to 60€ for the hardware (I would round that up to 100€, something always comes up). If the customers software was Windows-based, a further 50€ can be subtracted from the software budget for bulk licensing. Again buying in bulk is the key.

Think different means different

Already I can hear my friends that are into Linux yell that this is rubbish and that Linux can be scaled down from 8 gigabytes to 20 megabytes if so needed. And yes that is true. But what my learned friends forget is that Linux is a PITA to work with if you havent spent a considerable amount of time learning it. It’s not a system you can just jump into and expect to have results the next day. Amiga OS has a much more friendly architecture and things that are often hard to do on Windows and Linux, is usually very simple to achieve on the Amiga.

Another fact my friends tend to forget is that the great majority of commercial embedded projects – are done using commercial software. Microsoft actually presented a paper on this when they released their IOT support package for the Raspberry PI. And based on personal experience I have to agree with this. In the past 20 years I have only seen 2 companies that use Linux as their primary OS both in products and in their offices. Everyone else uses Windows embedded for their products and day-to-day management.

So what you get are developers using traditional Windows development tools like Visual Studio or Delphi (although that is changing rapidly with node.js). And they might be outstanding programmers but Linux is still reserved for server administrators and the odd few that use it on hobby basis. We simply don’t have time to dig into esoteric “man pages” or explore the intricate secrets of the kernel.

The end result is that companies go with what they know. They get Windows embedded and use an expensive x86 board. So where they could have paid 100€ for a smaller SBC and used Amiga OS to deliver the exact same product — they are stuck with a 350€ baseline.

Be the change

The point of this little post has been to demonstrate that yes, the embedded market is more than open for alternatives. Linux is excellent for those that have the time to learn its many odd peculiarities, but over the past 20 years it has grown into a resource hungry beast. Which is ironic because it used to be Windows that was the bloated scapegoat. And to be honest Windows embedded is a joy to work with and much easier to shape to your exact needs – but the prices are ridicules and it wont perform well unless you throw at least 2 gigabyte on it (relative to the task of course, but in broad strokes that’s the ticket).

But wouldn’t it be nice with a clean, resource friendly and extremely fast alternative? One where auto-starting applications in exclusive mode was a “one liner” in the startup-sequence file? A file which is actually called “startup-sequence” rather than some esoteric “init.d” alias that is neither a folder or an archive but something reminiscent of the Windows registry? A system where libraries and the whole folder structure that makes up drivers, shell, desktop and service is intuitively named for what they are?

asus

Amiga OS could piggyback on the wave of low-cost ARM SBC’s that are flooding the market

You could learn how to use Amiga OS in 2 days tops; but it holds great depth so that you can grow with the system as your needs become more complex. But the general “how to” can be picked up in a couple of days. The architecture is so well-organized that even if you know nothing about settings, a folder named “prefs” doesn’t leave much room for misinterpretation.

But the best thing about AmigaOS is by far how elegant it has been architected. You know, when software is planned right it tends to refactor out things that would otherwise be an obstacle. It’s like a well oiled machinery where each part makes perfect sense and you don’t need a huge book to understand it.

From where I am standing, Amiga OS is ultimately the biggest asset the Hyperion and AEON have to offer. I love the new hardware that is coming out – but there is no doubt in my mind, and I know I am right about this, that the market these companies should focus on now is not PPC – but rather ARM and embedded systems.

It would take an effort to port over the code from a PPC architecture to ARM, but having said that – PPC and ARM have much more in common than say, PPC and x86.

I also think the time is ripe for a solid power ARM board for desktop computers. While smaller boards gets most of the attention, like the Raspberry PI, the ODroid XU4 and the (S)Tinkerboard – once you move the baseline beyond 300€ you see some serious muscle. Boards like iMX6 OpenRex SBC Ultra packs a serious punch, and like expected it ships with 4 gigabyte of ram out of the box.

While it’s impossible to do a raw comparison between the A1222 and the iMX6 OpenRex, I would be surprised if the iMX6 delivered terrible performance compared to the A1222 chipset. I am also sure that if we beefed up the price to 700€, aimed at home computing rather than embedded – the ARM power boards involved would wipe the floor with PPC. There are a ton of factors at play here – a fast CPU doesn’t necessarily mean better graphics. A good GPU should make up at least 1/5 of the price.

Another cool factor regarding ARM is that the bios gives you a great deal of features you can incorporate into your product. All the ARM board I have gives you FAT32 support out of the box for instance, this is supported by the SoC itself and you don’t need to write filesystem drivers for it. Most boards also support Ext2 and Ext3 filesystems. This is recognized automatically on boot. The rich bios/mini kernel is what makes ARM so attractive to code for, because it takes away a lot of the boring, low-level tasks that took months to get right in the past.

Final words

This has been a long article, from the early years of Commodore – all the way up to the present day and beyond. I hope some of my ideas make sense – and I also hope that those who are involved in the making of the new Amiga perhaps pick up an idea or two from this material.

Either way I will support the Amiga with everything I got – but we need a couple of smart ideas and concrete plans on behalf of management. And in my view, Trevor is doing exactly what is needed.

While we can debate the choice of PPC, it’s ultimately a story with a long, long background to it. But thankfully nothing is carved in stone and the future of the Amiga 5000 and 1222 looks bright! I am literally counting the days until I get one!

Amibian.js on bitbucket

August 1, 2017 Leave a comment

The Smart Pascal driven desktop known as Amibian.js is available on bitbucket. It was hosted in a normal github repository earlier – so make sure you clone out from this one.

About Amibian.js

Amibian is a desktop environment written in Smart Pascal. It compiles to JavaScript and can be used through any modern HTML5 compliant browser. The project consists of both a client and server, both written in smart pascal. The server is executed by node.js (note: please install PM2 to have better control over scaling and task management: http://pm2.keymetrics.io/).

smartdeskAmibian.js is best suited for embedded projects, such as kiosk systems. It has been used in tutoring software for schools, custom routers and a wide range of different targets. It can easily be molded into a rich environment for SAD (single application devices) based software – but also made to act more as a real operating system:

  • Class driven filesystem, easy to target external services
    • Ram device-type
    • Browser cache device-type
    • ZIPfile device-type
    • Node.js device-type
  • Cross domain application hosting
    • Traditional IPC protocol between hosted application and desktop
    • Shared resources
      • css styling
      • glyphs and images
    • Event driven visual controls
  • Windowing manager makes it easy to implement custom applications
  • Support for fullscreen API

Amibian ships with UAE.js (based on the SAE.js codebase) making it possible to run Amiga software directly on the desktop surface.

The bitbucket repository is located here: https://bitbucket.org/hexmonks/client

 

Smart Pascal: Amibian vs. FriendOS

July 20, 2017 Leave a comment

This is not a new question, and despite my earlier post I still get hammered with these on a weekly basis – so lets dig into this subject and clean it up.

I fully understand that for non-developers suddenly having two Amiga like web desktops can be a bit confusing; especially since they superficially at least do many of the same things. But there is actually a lot of co-incidence surrounding all this, as well as evolution of the general topic. People who work with a topic will naturally come up with the same ideas from time to time.

But ok, lets dig into this and clear away any confusion

You know about FriendOS right? It looks a lot like Amibian

20100925-Designer

Custom native web servers has been a part of Delphi for ages, so it’s not that exciting for us

“A lot” is probably stretching it. But ok:  FriendOS is a custom server system with a sexy desktop front-end written in HTML5. So you have a server that is custom written to interact with the browser in a special way. This might sound like a revolution to non-developers but it’s actually an established technology; its been a part of Delphi and C++ builder for at least 12 years now (Intraweb being the best example, Raudus another). So if you are wondering why im not dazzled, it’s because this has been there for a while.

The whole point of Amibian.js is to demonstrate a different path; to get away from the native back-end and to make the whole system portable and platform independent. So in that regard the systems are diametrically different.

maxresdefault

Custom web servers that talk to your web-app is old news. Delphi developers have done this for a decade at least and it’s not really interesting at this point. Node.js holds much greater promise.

What FriendOS has done that is unique, and that I think is super cool – is to couple their server with RDP (remote desktop protocol) and some nice video streaming for smooth video chat. Again these are off the shelves parts that anyone can add once you have a native back-end, it’s not really hard to code but time-consuming; especially when you are potentially dealing with large number of users spawning threads all over the place. I think Friend-Labs have done an exceptional good job here.

When you combine these features it creates the impression of an operating system like environment. And this is perfectly fine for ordinary users. It all depends on your needs and what exactly you use the computer for.

And just to set the war-mongers straight: FriendOS is not going up against Amibian. it’s going up against ChromeOS, Nayu and and a ton of similar systems; all of them with deep pockets and an established software portfolio. We focus on software development. Not even in the same ballpark.

To be perfectly frank: I see no real purpose for a web desktop except when connected to a context. There has to be an advantage beyond isolating web functions in one place. You need something special that your system does better than others, or different than others. Amibian has been about UAE.js and to run retro games in a familiar environment. And thus create a base that Amiga lovers can build on and play with. Again based on our prefab for customers that make embedded systems and use our compiler and RTL for that.

If you have a hardware product like a NAS, a ticket system or a retro-game machine and want to have a nice web front-end for it: then it makes sense. But there is absolutely nothing in both our systems that you can’t whip-up using Intraweb or Raudus in a few weeks. If you have the luxury of a native back-end, then adding Active Directory support is a matter of dropping a component. You can even share printers and USB devices over the wire if you like, this has been available to Delphi and c++ developers for ages. The “new” factor here, which FriendOS does very well i might add, is connectivity.

This might sound like criticism but it’s really not. It’s honesty and facts. They are going to need some serious cash to take on Google, Samsung, LG and various other players that have been doing similar things for a long time (or about to jump on the same concepts) — Amibian.js is for Amiga fans and people who use Smart Pascal to write embedded applications. We don’t see anything to compete with because Amibian is a prefab connected to a programming language. FriendOS is a unification system.

A programming language doesnt have the aspirations of a communication company. So the whole “oh who is best” or “are you the same” is just wrong.

Ok you say it’s not competing, but why not?

To understand Amibian.js you first need to understand Smart Pascal (see Wikipedia article on Smart Pascal). Smart Pascal (smartmobilestudio.com) is a software development studio for writing software using web technology rather than native machine-code. It allows you to create whatever you like, from games to servers, or kiosk software to the next Facebook clone.

Our focus is on enabling our customers to quickly program robust mobile applications, servers, kiosk software, games or large JavaScript projects; products that would otherwise be hard to manage if all you have is vanilla JavaScript. I mean why spend 2 years coding something when you can do it in 2 months using Smart? So a web desktop is just ridicules when you understand how large our codebase is and the scope of the product.

smart

Under Smart Pascal what people know as Amibian.js is just a project type. There is no competition between FriendOS and Amibian because a web desktop represents a ridicules small piece of our examples; it’s literally mistaking the car for the factory. Amibian is not our product, it is a small demo and prefab (pre fabricated system that others can download and build on) project that people use to save time. So under Smart, creating your own web desktop is a piece of cake, it’s a click, and then you can brand it, expand it and do whatever you like with it. Just like you would any project you create in Visual Studio, Delphi or C++ builder.

So we are not in competition with FriendOS because we create and deliver development tools. Our customers use Smart Pascal to create web environments both large and small, and naturally we deliver what they need. You could easily create a FriendOS clone in Smart if you got the skill, but again – that is but a tiny particle in our codebase.

Really? Amibian.js is just a project under Smart Pascal?

Indeed. Our product delivers a full object-oriented pascal compiler, debugger and IDE. So you can write classes, use inheritance and enjoy all the perks of a high-level language — and then compile this to JavaScript.

You can target node.js, the browser and about 90+ embedded devices out of the box. The whole point of Smart Pascal is to avoid the PITA that is writing large applications in JavaScript. And we do this by giving you a classical programming language that was made especially for application authoring, and then compile that to JavaScript instead.

Screenshot

Amibian.js is just a tiny, tiny part of what Smart Pascal is all about

This is a massive undertaking that started back in 2009/2010 and involves a high-quality compiler, linker, debugger and code generator; a full IDE with a ton of capabilities and last but not least: a huge run-time library that allows you to work with the DOM (document object model, or HTML) and node.js from the vantage point of a programmer.

Most people approach web development as a designer. They write html and then style them using a stylesheet. They work with colors, aspects and pages. Which means people who traditionally write programs falls between two chairs: first they must learn about html and css, and secondly a language which is ill equipped for large scale applications (imagine writing adobe photoshop in nothing but JS. Sure it’s possible, but wouldnt you rather spend a month coding that than a year? In a language that actually makes sense?).

With Smart you approach web development like you do writing programs. You work with visual controls, change properties, write code in response to events. Even writing your own visual controls that you can re-use and inherit from later is both fun and easy. So rather than ending up with a huge was of spaghetti code, which sadly is the fate of most large-scale JavaScript projects — Smart lets you work like you are used to. In a language better suited for the task.

And yes, I was not kidding when I said this was a huge undertaking. The source code in our codebase is close to 2.5 gigabytes. And keep in mind that this is source-code and libraries. So it’s not something you slap together over the weekend.

20108543_10154652373945906_5493167218129195758_n

The Smart source-code is close to 2.5 gigabytes. It has taken years to complete

But why do Amibian and FriendOS both focus on the Amiga?

That is pure co-incidence. The guys over at Friend Labs started out on the Amiga just like we did. So when I updated our desktop project (previously called Quartex Media Desktop) the Amiga look and feel came natural to me.

commodoreI’m a huge retro-computing fan that loves the Amiga. When I sat down to rewrite our window manager I loved the way Amiga OS 4.x looked, so I decided to implement an UI inspired by that.

People have to remember that the Amiga was a huge success in Scandinavia, so finding developers that are in their late 30s or early 40s that didn’t own an Amiga is harder than you think.

So the fact that we all root our ideas back to the Amiga is both co-incidence and a mutual passion for a great platform. One that really should have survived the financial onslaught of fat CEO’s and thir minions in the board.

But Amibian does a lot of what FriendOS does?

Probably. JavaScript is multi-tasking by default so if loading external URL’s into window containers, doing live resize and other things is what you refer to then yes. But that is the nature of web programming. Its like creating a bucket if you want to carry water; it is a natural first step of an evolutionary pattern. It’s not like FriendOS is copying us I would imagine.

240_F_61497799_GnuUiuJliH9AyOJTeo6i3bS8JNN7wgr2

For the record Smart started back in 2010 and the media desktop came in with the first hotfix, so its been available years before Friend-Labs even existed. Creating a desktop has not been a huge part of what we do because mobile applications, building a rich and solid run-time-library with hundreds of classes for our customers – and making an IDE that is great to use, that is our primary job.

We didn’t even know FriendOS existed. Let alone that it was a Norwegian product.

But you posted that you worked for FriendOS earlier?

Yes I did, very briefly. I was offered a position and I worked there for a month. It was a chance to work side by side with legends like David John Pleasance, ex head of Commodore for europe; and also my childhood hero Francois Lionet, author of Amos Basic for the Amiga way back in the 80’s and 90s.

blastfromthepast

We never forget our childhood heroes

Sadly we had our wires crossed. I am an awesome object pascal developer, while the guys at Friend-Labs are awesome C developers. I work primarily on Windows while they work mostly on Linux. So in essence they hired a Delphi developer to work in a language he doesn’t know on a platform he havent used.

They simply took for granted that I worked in C/C++, while I took for granted that they used object pascal. Its an easy mistake to make and its not the first time; and probably not the last.

Needless to say the learning curve would be extremely high for any developer (learning a new operating-system and programming language at the same time as you are supposed to be productive).

When my girlfriend suddenly faced a life threatening illness the situation became worse. It was impossible for me to commute or leave her side for the unforeseeable future; so when you add the six months learning curve to this situation; six months of not being able to contribute on the level I am used to; well I am old enough to know how that ends. So I did what was best for everyone and resigned.

Besides, I am a damn good Delphi developer with standing invitation to many companies; so it made more sense to just take a step backwards. Which was not fun because I really enjoyed the short time I was there. But, it was not meant to be.

And that is basically all there is to it.

Ok. But if Smart is a development tool, will it support Friend-OS ?

This is something that I really want to do. But since The Smart Company is a proper company with stocks, shareholders and investors – it’s not a decision I can take on my own. It is something that must be debated by the board. But personally yeah, I would love that.

friend

As they grow, so does the need for proper development tools

One of the reasons I hope FriendOS succeeds is because it’s a win-win situation. The more they expand the more relevant Smart becomes. Say what you will about JavaScript but writing large and complex applications is not easy by any measure.

So the moment we introduce Smart Pascal for Friend, their users will be able to write large applications rapidly, with better time-to-market and consequent ROI. So it’s a win-win. If they succeed then we get a bigger market; If they don’t we havent lost anything.

This may sound extremely self-serving, but Friend-Labs have had the same chance as everyone else to invest in Smart; our investor plans have been available for quite some time, and we have to do what is best for our company.

But what about Amibian, was it just a short thing?

Not at all. It is put on hold for a few months while we release the next generation RTL. Which is probably the biggest update in the history of Smart Pascal. We have a very clear agenda ahead of us and Amibian.js is (as underlined) a very small part of what we do.

But Amibian is written using our next generation RTL, and without that our customers cant really do much with it. So it’s important to get the RTL out first and then work on the IDE to reflect its many new features. After that – Amibian.js development will continue.

The primary target for Amibian.js is embedded devices and kiosk systems, coupled with full-screen web applications and hardware front-ends (NAS and backup devices being great examples). So the desktop will run on affordable, off the shelves hardware starting at $40 and all the way up to the most powerful and expensive x86 boards on the market. Cheap solutions like Raspberry PI, ODroid XU4 and Tinkerboard will deliver what you today need a dedicated $120 x86 board to achieve.

kiosk-systems

Our desktop will run on many targets and is platform independent by design

This means that our deskop has a wildly different modus operandi. We will not require a constant connection to a remote server. Amibian will happily boot up on a single device, regardless of processor type.

Had we coded our backend using Delphi or C++ builder (native like FriendOS have done) we would have been finished months ago. And I could have caught up with FriendOS in a couple of months if I wanted to. But that is not in our agenda. We have written our server framework for node.js as we coded the desktop  – which means it’s platform and OS agnostic by design. If node.js runs, Amibian will run. It wont care if you are running on a $40 embedded board or the latest Intel i9 cpu.

Last words

I really hope this has helped and that the confusion between Amibian.js and our agenda, versus what Friend-Labs is doing, is now clearer.

Amibian666

From Norway with love

I wish Friend-Labs the very best and hope they are successful in their endeavour. They have worked very hard on the product and deserve that. And while I might come over as arrogant at times, im really not.

Web desktops have been around for a long time now (Asustor is my favorite) through Delphi and C++ builder and that is just facts. But that doesn’t mean you can’t put things together in new and interesting ways! Smart itself was first put together by existing technology. It was said to be impossible by many because JavaScript and object pascal are unthinkable companions. But it turned out to be a perfect match.

As for the future – personally I don’t believe in the web-desktop outside a specific context, something to give it purpose if you like. I believe for instance that Amibian.js will be awesome for Amiga users when its running on a $99 ARM laptop. Where the system boots straight into a full-screen desktop and where UAE.js is fully integrated into the core, making retro-gaming and running old programs close to seamless. That I can believe in.

But it would make no sense running Amibian or FriendOS in a browser on top of a Windows desktop or a full Ubuntu X session. Unless the virtual desktop functions as your corporate window with access to company mail, documents and essentially what every web-based intranet already does. So once again we end up with the fact that this has already been done. And unless you create a unique context for it, it just wont have any appeal. This is also why I havent pursued the same tech Friend-Labs have, because that’s not where the exciting stuff is happening.

But I will happily be proven wrong, because that means an even bigger market for us should we decide to support the platform.

Smart Pascal: stop sharing beta code

May 20, 2017 Leave a comment

I was a bit sad to hear that our RTL, despite the testing team being a very closed group of people, had made its way into the hands of others. People who then blog or comment that its unstable or that to many changes has been added.

When the phrase “early beta” and “our first sprint is to test the low-level functionality, like pointers, memory allocation and manipulation, streams, compression, codecs and type conversion” is clearly stated, then why on earth would someone start at the other end (the visual high level) which is due for changes weeks into the future?

Since this is doing the rounds I figured it is only fair that I clear up a few things:

An async run-time-library that should deliver identical behavior on 9 operating systems and a plethora of browsers, is not something you slap together over a weekend. Many of the solutions in SMS are the result of months of hard work; research and testing on both PC, Mac, various mobile devices and six different embedded boards.

I don’t know how many hours I have put into this project these past 6 years, but its more than I care to admit.

Obviously an early beta is not going to give you 100% compatibility. Especially not since the whole point of the first sprint was for our group to write, test and make sure the low-level methods are rock solid before we move on.

The second sprint is due soon, here we will look at databases, data binding, node.js and writing system level services (via the PM2 process manager).

The last sprint would focus on the visual, high level aspect of the RTL. Things like custom controls, layout, non visual components, event objects, messaging and user interface code.

I’m really gutted that we didn’t even make it through the first sprint before the code was shared. I have no idea who did this, and I frankly don’t care. But from now on I will only throw ball with people I trust and have a friendship with.

People doing reviews and publishing opinions on an upgrade that is presently 1/3 into the final release candidate – I just feel that is unfair.

Polyfills are not shims, and they are not dangerous

It was voiced that the new RTL loads in a couple of files that were considered dangerous by google. Actually that cannot be further from the truth.

But stop and think about this: why would I link to external JavaScript files for things like mutation-events and observers? If these things are available in browsers (which they have been for a long time) why would I need external files?

The answer is that these files are polyfills. And there is a huge difference between what is known as a shim, and a polyfill.

A polyfill is a small JavaScript library that checks if the browser supports the features you want. But if it doesn’t – then the polyfill will register its own code to compensate for the lack of a function or feature. In other words a polyfill is a full implementation (!)

So even if Google, Mozilla or Microsoft remove support for node-observers or mutation-events tomorrow, your application wont be affected by it. Because the polyfill libraries are just that: full library implementations with no dependencies.

In the early beta I shipped out both the observer and mutation-events library has referenced. This has already been changed, and unless you include SmartCL.Observer.pas or SmartCL.MutationEvents.pas – these will no longer be linked automatically. That was never the plan either.

Had one of you (I have come across 3 different places with comments and info on the RTL around the web) bothered to just ask me, I would have included you in the beta process and explained this.

The executables have become so large!

This is another statement I stumbled over: “The new RTL is huge and it generates large JavaScript binaries!”.

First of all you were using an early beta, which means things will be in flux while each level of the RTL is being tested, probed and verified. The pascal uses section in some units referece code they no longer use. Cleaning up that is due for sprint 3. But again in our first sprint focus was on memory, binary data, type conversion, streams, compression and various low-level stuff – not high level code!

As for size that is actually wrong: our namespacing and unit fragmentation is there for a reason. By dividing files into 3 namespaces, fragmenting large units with many classes into more files, our linker is able to trim away unused code more efficiently; as well as optimize your code beyond anything people have seen so far.

poptions

Rule of thumb: when you have finished writing your application, always switch on the optimization like you see above for the final build. So yes, you are expected to use packing, obfuscation etc. before deployment. Not just to protect your code, but also to make it load and run faster.

Since you will either use your applications on a mobile device, an embedded device or just online like a website (or desktop via nodewebkit compilation) – you can further speed up loading by activating gzip compression on the server. You will be surprised just how fast and small your applications are when you tune them correctly.

Practical example

The Smart Embedded and Cloud desktop consists of roughly 40+ unit files. Since this desktop can emulate older systems, like the 68k Amiga, Atari, Super Nintendo and much more (more about those later) I have made linking these in optional (read: you have to include the units in order to link the code in, UAE.Core.pas being the primary file).

smartdesk

Without the 68k emulation layer (and various other emulators, which is just added for fun and inspiration) and Aros ROM files (the bios file for the emulator), we are looking at code size in the ballpark of 4.7 megabyte. Which is nothing compared to high-end native solutions.

If you include the 68k emulation layer, the end result is a 10 megabyte index.html file. Again this is small potatoes if you work with embedded systems or kiosk booths.

But since the new RTL design was created to be heavily optimized, far better than the older RTL ever was, the end result after compression is 467 kilobyte (!). When you compress the version that includes the 68k emulation layer – it optimizes down to 1.5 megabyte of code.

  • No 68k emulation layer = 4.7 megabyte uncompressed
  • No 68k emulation, compressed = 457 kilobyte (!)
  • 68k emulation added = 10.2 megabyte uncompressed
  • 68k emulation included, compressed = 1.5 megabyte
obfuscation

From 4.7 megabyte to 467 kilobyte

This level of compression and optimization was planned.  I have re-arranged the whole RTL in order to create the best possible circumstance for the compression and obfuscations modules – and I believe the results speaks for itself.

Is the new RTL larger? Indeed it is, with plenty of new classes, controls and libraries. The more features you want to enjoy, the more infrastructure must be in place. That is just how it is, regardless of language.

But you should also know that the new and longer inheritance chain has little or no impact on execution speed. This is what the compiler options “de-virtualization” and “smart linking” are all about. In most cases the code for TW3OwnedObject and TW3OwnedErrorObject are linked into TW3Component. Here is the inheritance chain as of writing:

  • TW3OwnedObject
    • TW3OwnedErrorObject
      • TW3Component
        • TW3TagObj
          • TW3TagContainer
            • TW3MovableControl
              • TW3CustomControl

Why did I change this? There are many reasons. First of all I wanted to make the RTL more compatible with Delphi, where names like TComponent and TCustomControl are known and understood by most. So when facing TW3Component or TW3CustomControl, most Delphi developers will intuitively know what these are all about. TW3Component is also the base class for non visual, drag & drop components.

  TW3OwnedErrorObject = class(TW3OwnedObject)
  private
    FLastError: string;
    FOptions:   TW3ErrorObjectOptions;
  protected
    property    ErrorOptions: TW3ErrorObjectOptions read FOptions;
    function    GetLastError: string;
    procedure   SetLastErrorF(const ErrorText: string;
                const Values: Array of const);
    procedure   SetLastError(const ErrorText: string); virtual;
    procedure   ClearLastError;
  public
    property    LastError: string read FLastError;
    constructor Create(const AOwner: TObject); override;
    destructor  Destroy; override;
  end;

There are also other benefits, like uniform error handling. While this might seem useless in an exception based language, there are places where an exception is not something you want to throw. Like in a system level service running under node.js.

In such cases you should catch whatever exception occures and call SetLastError() with the description. The caller will then check if something went wrong and can take measures.

Embedded, a different beast

One of the things Smart Pascal does exceptionally well is embedded platforms. Regardless of what you have been hired to do, be it a kiosk booth in a museum, a touch based vending machine, a parking payment terminal or just some awesome IOT project, Smart Pascal makes this childs play. And the reason its so easy to write powerful web applications is precisely due to the broad scope of our RTL.

Smart Pascal is not a tool for creating websites (well you can, but that’s not what it was designed for). It is a tool to write high quality, complex and feature rich applications.

The distinction between a “web application” and “website” may seem subtle at first, but it all boils down to depth. The Smart RTL now contains a huge amount of classes and third party libraries that simplify writing modern applications with depth.

Other frameworks that (for some reason) are very popular, like JQuery, JQuery UI and ExtJS lacks this depth. They look great, but thats it. I recently catched up with a project that had taken the developers a whole year to create in pure JS. It took me 3 weeks to finish what they spent over 12 months implementing. And that has to do with depth and proper inheritance – not that absurd prototype cloning JavaScript coders use.

To sum up: if you want to enjoy the same features and power in the browser as you do with Delphi or Lazarus on your desktop – then you cant expect Smart to produce binaries smaller than it’s native counterparts.

But more importantly, on embedded systems like the Raspberry PI, the UP x86 board or the new and sexy Tinkerboard — do you really think its going to matter if your application is 4, 8 or 10 megabyte? By now you should have realized that our compressor and obfuscator bakes that down to 460kb or 1.5 megabyte — both peanuts compared to similar system written in Java, C# or Delphi.

Ask and ye shall recieve

I dont really care who shared my RTL, but I am sad that it happened. Im not a difficult person when it comes to these things – all you have to do is ask.

Also remember that the RTL is a copyrighted product. It belongs to a registered financial entity (read: company) and is not subject for distribution.

FMX4Linux is coming, and we cant wait!

May 3, 2017 Leave a comment

When Embarcadero announced Linux support for their Tokyo release of Delphi, my soul literally left my body for a moment. Could it really be true? After all these years have Embarcadero done what many said would be impossible?

I must admit that people saying something is impossible has lost its sting for me. Over the past 3 years I have one of these impossible things on a weekly basis, yet people are just as shocked every single time. But this time – I was the one in a state of excitement.

As an outspoken (an understatement perhaps) active blogger, my skin has grown thick over the years. I also get to see a lot of cool tech long before it’s commercially available and mainstream – so it takes more for me to be swayed and dazzled. And you grow a healthy instinct for separating bullshit from true technical achievements too.

Tokyo

Delphi Tokyo is probably one of the finest Delphi editions to date

But yes, I admit it – this time Embarcadero surprised me in every positive way imaginable. If you follow my blog you know that I call it as I see it and hold little back. But this was a purely positive experience.

No I know what you are going to say; everyone knew about this right? Yeah me too. But my mind has been elsewhere lately with work and projects, so I didn’t catch the release buzz from the closed forums (well, “closed” is a matter of perspective, I have friends from Russia to the United States, and from china to the Sudan) and for the first time since the Borland days – Embarcadero got the drop on me.

I’m the kind of guy that runs on passion. Delphi, Smart Pascal and even object pascal as a general language is not just work for me – its something I love to use. I relax and enjoy myself when coding. So you can imagine my reaction when my boss sent me a message with “Download Tokyo and give me a report”. It was close to midnight but I was out of that bed faster than bacon on toast, ran into my home office wearing nothing but boxers and a Commodore t-shirt – and threw myself into Embarcadero Developer Network’s download section.

From hero to zero in 2 seconds

I think it was around 07:00 the next morning, one hour before I was due for work that the magic phrase “command line and system services [daemons] only” hit home. And yes I “kinda” knew that before – but maybe, just maybe Embarcadero had thrown in visual applications in the 11th hour. I even had a friendly bet with Jim McKeeth that a FMX UI solution would appear less than 24 hours after release (more about that later).

linuxproj

Now that is a beautiful thing

Either way, it was quite the anti-climax after all that work in VMWare installing Delphi from scratch, waiting, hoping and praying. First of all because I remember watching an in-depth technical review about Firemonkey by David Intersimone a few years back; the one where he describes the Firemonkey architecture in detail. Especially how the abstraction layer between the visual control framework and the actual os made it possible for FMX to quickly adapt to new environments. Firemonkey is a complex and highly adaptable framework, but its biggest strength is paradoxically enough its simplicity. A simplicity achieved through abstracting the UI from the rendering functionality. At least as much as possible, you still have to deal with OS level windowing, security and all of that – so it’s no walk in the park either.

In the presentation (sadly I don’t have a link to this one) David went to great lengths to explain that regardless of operating system, as long as someone implemented a driver class that exposed the set of features FMX needs – Firemonkey would run as long as the compiler supported the instruction set. Visual engines could be DirectX, OpenGL, Cairo or whatever makes sense on that particular platform. As long as the “bridge class” talking with the operating system is there – Firemonkey can run on a toaster if so be.

So Firemonkey has the same abstraction concept that we use in the VJL (Visual JavaScript Component Library) for Smart Pascal (differences not withstanding). If it’s Windows you are running on, DirectX is used; If it’s OS X then Apple’s implementation of OpenGL runs the show – and if you are on Linux you can pick between OpenGL and Cairo. I must admit I havent looked too closely at Cairo, but I know it was designed to make advanced composition and UI rendering more efficient.

Why it Tokyo didn’t ship with visual application support is beyond me, but considering the timing of what happened next, I have made my own conclusions. It doesnt really matter to be honest – the point is we got it and it rocks!

FMX4Linux to the rescue!

Remember the wager I mentioned with Jim McKeeth? It wasnt a serious wager, I just commented and said “a Linux FMX solution will appear within 24hrs, you can bet on it” and added a smiley. I had no idea who or how, I just knew it’s going to turn up.

Because one thing that is a sure bet – it’s that the Delphi community is a group made up of highly resourceful, inventive and clever people. And I was pretty sure that it wouldn’t take many hours before someone came up with a patch or framework to fill the void. And right I was. Less than 24 hours later and it was fact rather than conjecture.

fmxlinux

This is just a must have. There is no debate.

So less than 24 hours after Delphi Tokyo hit the shelves. Eugene Kryukov and Alexey Sharagin presented “FMX for Linux”. Giving you both the missing rendering back-end that talks to the system – and some kind of “widget mapping” (as far as I can understand, I wont pretend to know how they did it) that renders your UI according to GTK. So it’s not just a simple “patch”, theme or class that calls a handful of external routines; it’s a full visual implementation of FMX for Linux. Impressive? Oh yeah, and then some!

Let us explore!

Over the next few days I will be giving you an in-depth look at how this system works. I’m also going to test drive Html Components and see if we can get that running under Linux as well. Since FMX for Linux is still in development we have to take height for that – but being able to target Ubuntu is pretty cool! And Remobjects, glorious Remobjects SDK, if that works out of the box I will dance the jig and upload it to YouTube, I swear to cow!

Remobjects_linux

Linux is about to feel the full onslaught of object pascal

There is little doubt what the next Smart Pascal IDE will be based on, and when you combine FMX for Linux, HTML components, Remobjects SDK and TMS into one – you got serious firepower to play with that will give even the most hardened C/C++ QT developer reason to be scared. And that is before the onslaught of Data Abstract and Remobjects C# native compiler.

Oh man next weekend is going to be the best ever!

Let’s not forget ARM targets

asus

The “PI killer” has arrived!

On a second note we will also be looking at the my latest embedded toys – namely the Asus Tinkerboard. I just got two of them in the mail today. Its going to be exciting to see how it fares against the Raspberry PI, ODroid XU4 and the Intel Atom based UP board.

We will also be testing how these two cards can be clustered together using node.js to work as one – and see how that impacts performance for our node.js based Smart Desktop project. These are exciting times indeed!

To make things even more interesting I will be pitching the Tinkerboard against the ODroid XU4 (original version, not the pussy passive save the environment unicorn they push now) against both the x86 UP v1 and Raspberry 3b. Although I think the Raspberry PI is in for the beating of its life when the ODroid and Tinker is overclocked to blood lust mode!

smartdesk

The Smart desktop has a powerful node.js back-end that packs a punch

So, when LLVM optimized JavaScript runs Mc68040 machine-code at 4 times the speed of a high-end Amiga 4000, I will be content.

So let’s do another “that’s impossible” shall we 🙂

Smart-Pascal: A brave new world, 2022 is here

April 29, 2017 6 comments

Trying to explain what Smart Mobile Studio does and the impact it can have on your development cycle is very hard. The market is rampant with superficial frameworks that promises you the world, and investors have been taken for a ride by hyped up, one-click “app makers” more than once.

I can imagine that being an investor is a bit like panning for gold. Things that glitter the most often turn out to be worthless – yet fortunes may hide beneath unpolished and rugged surfaces.

Software will disrupt most traditional industries in the next 5-10 years.
Uber is just a software tool, they don’t own any cars, yet they are now the
biggest taxi company in the world. -Source: R.M.Goldman, Ph.d

So I had enough. Instead of trying to tell people what I can do, I decided I’m going to show them instead. As the american’s say: “talk is cheap”. And a working demonstration is worth a thousand words.

Care to back that up with something?

A couple of weeks ago I published a video on YouTube of our Smart Pascal based desktop booting up in VMWare. The Amiga forums went off the chart!

vmware

For those that havent followed my blog or know nothing about the desktop I’m talking about, here is a short summary of the events so far:


Smart Mobile Studio is a compiler that takes pascal, like that made popular in Delphi or Lazarus, and compiles it JavaScript instead of machine-code.

This product has shipped with an example of a desktop for years (called “Quartex media desktop”). It was intended as an example of how you could write a front-end for kiosk machines and embedded devices. Systems that could use a touch screen as the interface between customer and software.

You have probably seen those info booths in museums, universities and libraries? Or the ticket machines in subways, train-stations or even your local car-wash? All of those are embedded systems. And up until recently these have been small and expensive computers for running Windows applications in full-screen. Applications which in turn talk to a server or local database.

Smart Mobile Studio is able to deliver the exact same (and more) for a fraction of the price. A company in Oslo replaced their $300 per-board unit – with off the shelves $35 Raspberry Pi mini-computers. They then used Smart Pascal to write their client software and ran it in a fullscreen-browser. The Linux distribution was changed to boot straight into Firefox in full-screen. No Linux desktop, just a web display.

The result? They were able to cut production cost by $265 per unit.


Right, back to the desktop. I mentioned the Amiga community. This is a community of coders and gamers that grew up with the old Commodore machines back in the 80s and 90s. A new Amiga is now on the way (just took 20+ years) – and the look and feel of the new operating-system, Amiga OS 4.1, is the look and feel I have used in The Smart Desktop environment. First of all because I grew up on these machines myself, and secondly because the architecture of that system was extremely cost-effective. We are talking about a system that delivered pre-emptive multitasking in as little as 512Kb of memory (!). So this is my “ode to OS 4” if you will.

And the desktop has caused quite a stir both in the Delphi community, cloud community and retro community alike. Why? Because it shows some of the potential cloud technology can give you. Potential that has been under their nose all this time.

And even more important: it demonstrate how productive you can be in Smart Pascal. The operating system itself, both visual and non-visual parts, was put together in my spare time over 3 weeks. Had I been able to work on it daily (as a normal job) I would have knocked it out in a week.

A desktop as a project type

All programming languages have project types. If you open up Delphi and click “new” you are greeted with a rich menu of different projects you can make. From low-level DLL files to desktop applications or database servers. Delphi has it all.

delphistuff

Delphi offers a wide range of projects types you can create

The same is true for visual studio. You click “new solution” and can pick from a wide range of different projects. Web projects, servers, desktop applications and services.

Smart Pascal is the only system where you click “new project” and there is a type called “Smart desktop” and “Smart desktop application”. In other words, the power to create a full desktop is now an integrated part of Smart Pascal.

And the desktop is unique to you. You get to shape it, brand it and make it your own!

Let us take a practical example

Imagine a developer given the task to move the company’s aging invoice and credit system from the Windows desktop – to a purely web-based environment.

legacy2The application itself is large and complex, littered with legacy code and “quick fixes” going back decades. Updating such a project is itself a monumental task – but having to first implement concepts like what a window is, tasks, user space, cloud storage, security endpoints, look and feel, back-end services and database connectivity; all of that before you even begin porting the invoice system itself ? The cost is astronomical.

And it happens every single day!

In Smart Pascal, the same developer would begin by clicking “new project” and selecting “Smart desktop”. This gives him a complete desktop environment that is unique to his project and company.

A desktop that he or she can shape, adjust, alter and adapt according to the need of his employer. Things like file-type recognition, storage, getting that database – all of these things are taken care of already. The developer can focus on his task, namely to deliver a modern implementation of their invoice and credit software – not waste months trying to force JavaScript frameworks do things they simply lack the depth to deliver.

Once the desktop has the look and feel in order, he would have to make a simple choice:

  • Should the whole desktop represent the invoice system or ..
  • Should the invoice system be implemented as a secondary application running on the desktop?

If it’s a large and dedicated system where the users have no need for other programs running, then implementing the invoice system inside the desktop itself is the way to go.

If however the customer would like to expand the system later, perhaps add team management, third-party web-services or open-office like productivity (a unified intranet if you like) – then the second option makes more sense.

On the brink of a revolution

The developer of 2022 is not limited to the desktop. He is not restricted to a particular operating system or chip-set. Fact is, cloud has already reduced these to a matter of preference. There is no strategic advantage of using Windows over Linux when it comes to cloud software.

Where a traditional developer write and implement a solution for a particular system (for instance Microsoft Windows, Apple OS X or Linux) – cloud developers deliver whole eco systems; constellations of software constructed from many parts, both micro-services developed in-house but also services from others; like Amazon or Azure.

All these parts co-operate and can be combined through established end-point standards, much like how components are used in Delphi or Visual Studio today.

smartdesk

The Smart Desktop, codename “Amibian.js”

Access to products written in Smart is through the browser, or sometimes through a “paper thin” native host (Cordova Phonegap, Delphi and C/C++) that expose system level functionality. These hosts wrap your application in a native, executable container ready for Appstore or Google Play.

Now the visual content is typically the same, and is only adapted for a particular device. The real work is divided between the client (which is now very much capable) and your server back-end.

So people still write code in 2022, but the software behaves differently and is designed to function as a group (cluster). And this requires a shift in the way we think.

asmjs

Above: One of my asm.js prototype compilers. Lets just say it runs fast!

Scaling a solution from processing 100 invoices a minute to handling 100.000 invoices a minute – is no longer a matter of code, but of architecture. This is where the traditional, native only approach to software comes up short, while more flexible approaches like node.js is infinitely more capable.

What has emerged up until now is just the tip of the ice-berg.

Over the next five to eight years, everything is going to change. And the changes will be irrevocable and permanent.

Running your Smart Pascal server as a system-level daemon is very easy once you know what to look for :)

The Smart Desktop back-end running as a system service on a Raspberry PI

As the Americans say, talk is cheap – and I’m done talking. I will do this with you, or without you. Either way it’s happening.

Nightly-build of the desktop can be tested here: http://quartexhq.myasustor.com/

Smart Pascal + WebOS = true

April 15, 2017 Leave a comment

LG-WebOSIf you own a television (and who doesn’t) chances are you own an LG model. The LG brand has been on the market since before recorded history (or so it feels) and have been a major player for decades.

What is little known though, is that LG also owns and finance a unique operating system. This is not uncommon these days, most NAS and cloud vendors have their own system (there are roughly 20 cloud based systems on the market that I know of). The only way to make a Smart TV (sigh) is to add a computer to it. And if you buy a television today chances are it contains a small embedded board running some custom-made operating system designed to do just that.

Every vendor has their own system, and those that don’t usually end up forking Android and adapt that to their needs.

Luna WebOS

LG’s system is called WebOS. This may sound like yet another html eye candy front end, but hear me out because this OS is not what it seems.

VirtualBox_Developers LuneOS emulator appliance 20151006131924-stable-038-253_15_04_2017_16_01_43

Except for some font issues (see disk label) Smart loaded fine under WebOS

Remember Palm OS? If you are between 35 and 45 you should remember that before Apple utterly demolished the mobile-phone market with their iPhone, one of the most popular brands was Palm. Their core product being “Palm Pilot”, a kind of digital filo-fax (personal organizer) and mobile phone rolled into one.

WebOS is based on what used to be called Palm-OS, but it has been completely revamped, given a sexy new user interface (looks a lot like android to be honest!) and brought into the present age. And best of all: its 100% free! It runs on a plethora of systems, from x86 to Raspberry PI to Mips. It is used in televisions, terminals and set-top-boxes around the world – and is quite popular amongst engineers.

Check it out their new portal here; there is also plenty of links to pre-built images if you look around there: https://pivotce.com/

JavaScript application stack

One of the coolest features in my view, is that their applications are primarily made by JavaScript. The OS itself is native of course, but they have discovered that JavaScript and HTML5 is an excellent way to build applications. Applications that is easy to control, sandboxed and safe yet incredibly powerful and capable.

VirtualBox_Developers LuneOS emulator appliance 20151006131924-stable-038-253_15_04_2017_16_00_46

Smart Desktop booting Quake 3 in Luna OS

Well, today I sent them an Email requesting their SDK. I know they use Enyo.js as their primary and suggested framework – but that is no problem for Smart Mobile Studio. A better question is: can Luna handle our codebase?

When I loaded up Quake 3 in pure Asm.JS the TV crashed with a spectacular access violation. So they are probably not used to the level of hardcore coding Smart developers represent. But yeah, Quake III is about as advanced as it gets – and it pushes any browser to the outer limits of what is possible.

Once I get the SDK, docs and a few examples – I will begin adding support for it as quickly as possible. Which means you get a new project type especially for the platform + API units (typically stored under $RTL\Apis folder).

Why is this cool?

Because with support for Luna / WebOS, you as a Delphi or Smart developer can offer your services to companies that use WebOS or Luna (the open source version) in their devices. The list of companies is substantial – and they are well established companies. And as you have no doubt noticed, hardware engineers doesn’t always make the best software engineers. So this opens up plenty of opportunities for a good object pascal / Smart developer.

17948597_10154372538120906_1912877833_o

Luna has an Android like quality over it – except its more smooth to use

Remember – other developers will use vanilla JavaScript. You have the onslaught of the VJL and the might of our libraries at your disposal. You can produce in days what others use weeks on achieving.

These are exciting days! I’ll keep you posted on our progress!

Smart Pascal, the next generation

April 15, 2017 1 comment

I want to take the time to talk a bit about the future, because like all production companies we are all working towards lesser and greater goals. If you don’t have a goal then you are in trouble; Thankfully our goals have been very clear from the beginning. Although I must admit that our way there has been.. “colorful” at times.

When we started back in 2010 we didn’t really know what would become of our plans. We only knew that this was important; there was a sense of urgency and “we have to build this” in the air; I think everyone involved felt that this was the case, without any rational explanation as to why. Like all products of passion it can consume you in a way – and you work day and night on turning an idea into something real. From the intangible to the tangible.

transitions_callback

It seems like yesterday, but it was 5 years ago!

By the end of 2011 / early 2012, Eric and myself had pretty much proven that this could be done. At the time there were more than enough nay-sayers and I think both of us got flamed quite often for daring to think different. People would scoff at me and say I was insane to even contemplate that object pascal could ever be implemented for something as insignificant and mediocre as JavaScript. This was my first meeting with a sub-culture of the Delphi and C++ community, a constellation I have gone head-to-head with on many occasions. But they have never managed to shake my resolve as much as inch.

 

 

When we released version 1.0 in 2012 some ideas about what could be possible started to form. Jørn defined plans for a system we later dubbed “Smart net”. In essence it would be something you logged onto from the IDE – allowing you to store your projects in the cloud, compile in the cloud (connected with Adobe build services) and essentially move parts of your eco-system to the cloud. Keep in mind this was when people still associated cloud with “storage”; they had not yet seen things like Uber or Netflix or played Quake 3 at 160 frames per second, courtesy of asm.js in their browser.

The second part would be a website where you could do the same, including a live editor, access to the compiler and also the ability to buy and sell components, solutions and products. But for that we needed a desktop environment (which is where the Quartex Media Desktop came in later).

cool

The first version of the Media Desktop, small but powerful. Here running in touch-screen mode with classical mobile device layout (full screen forms).

Well, we have hit many bumps along the road since then. But I must be honest and say, some of our detours have also been the most valuable. Had it not been for the often absurd (to the person looking in) research and demo escapades I did, the RTL wouldn’t be half as powerful as it is today. It would deliver the basics, perhaps piggyback on Ext.js or some lame, run of the mill framework – and that would be that. Boring, flat and limited.

What we really wanted to deliver was a platform. Not just a website, but a rich environment for creating, delivering and enjoying web and cloud based applications. And without much fanfare – that is ultimately what the Smart Desktop and it’s sexy node.js back-end is all about is all about.

We have many project types in the pipeline, but the Smart Desktop type is by far the most interesting and powerful. And its 100% under your control. You can create both the desktop itself as a project – and also applications that should run on that desktop as separate projects.

This is perfectly suited for NAS design (network active storage devices can usually be accessed through a web portal on the device), embedded boards, intranets and even intranets for that matter.

You get to enjoy all the perks of a multi-user desktop, one capable of both remote desktop access, telnet access, sharing files and media, playing music and video (we even compiled the mp4 codec from C to JavaScript so you can play mp4 movies without the need for a server backend).

The Smart Desktop

The Smart Desktop project is not just for fun and games. We have big plans for it. And once its solid and complete (we are closing in on 46% done), my next side project will not be more emulators or demos – it will be to move our compiler(s) to Amazon, and write the IDE itself from scratch in Smart Pascal.

smart desktop

The Smart Desktop – A full desktop in the true sense of the word

And yeah, we have plans for EmScripten as well – which takes C/C++ and compiles it into asm.js. It will take a herculean effort to merge our RTL with their sandboxed infrastructure – but the benefits are too great to ignore.

As a bonus you get to run native 68k applications (read: Amiga applications) via emulation. While I realize this will be mostly interesting for people that grew up with that machine – it is still a testament to the power of Smart and how much you can do if you really put your mind to it.

Naturally, the native IDE wont vanish. We have a few new directions we are investigating here – but native will absolutely not go anywhere. But cloud, the desktop system we are creating, is starting to become what we set out to make five years ago (has it been half a decade already? Tempus fugit!). As you all know it was initially designed as an example of how you could write full-screen applications for Raspberry PI and similar embedded devices. But now its a full platform in its own right – with a Linux core and node.js heart, there really is very little you cannot do here.

scsc

The Smart Pascal compiler is one of our tools that is ready for cloud-i-fication

Being able to login to the Smart company servers, fire up the IDE and just code – no matter if you are: be it Spain, Italy, Egypt, China or good old USA — is a pretty awesome thing!

Clicking compile and the server does the grunt work and you can test your apps live in a virtual window; switch between device layouts and targets — then hit “publish” and it goes to Cordova (or Delphi) and voila – you get a message back when binaries for 9 mobile devices is ready for deployment. One click to publish your applications on Appstore, Google play and Microsoft marketplace.

Object pascal works

People may have brushed off object pascal (and from experience those people have a very narrow view of what object pascal is all about), but when they see what Smart delivers, which in itself is written in Delphi, powered by Delphi and should be in every Delphi developer’s toolbox — i think it should draw attention to both Delphi as a product, object pascal as a language – and smart as a solution.

With Smart it doesn’t matter what computer you use. You can sit at home with the new A1222 PPC Amiga, or a kick-ass Intel i7 beast that chew virtual machines for breakfast. If your computer can handle a modern website, then you can learn object pascal and work directly in the cloud.

desktop_embedded

The Smart Desktop running on cheap embedded hardware. The results are fantastic and the financial savings of using Smart Pascal on the kiosk client is $400 per unit in this case

Heck you can work off a $60 ODroid XU4, it has more than enough horsepower to drive the latest chrome or Firefox engines. All the compilation takes place on the server anyways. And if you want a Delphi vessel rather than phonegap (so that it’s a Delphi application that opens up a web-view in full-screen and expose features to your smart code) then you will be happy to know that this is being investigated.

More targets

There are a lot of systems out there in the world, some of which did not exist just a couple of years ago. FriendOS is a cloud based operating system we really want to support, so we are eager to get cracking on their SDK when that comes out. Being able to target FriendOS from Smart is valuable, because some of the stuff you can do in SMS with just a bit of code – would take weeks to hand write in JavaScript. So you get a productive edge unlike anything else – which is good to have when a new market opens.

As far as Delphi is concerned there are smaller systems that Embarcadero may not be interested in, for example the many embedded systems that have come out lately. If Embarcadero tried to target them all – it would be a never-ending cat and mouse game. It seems like almost every month there is a new board on the market. So I fully understand why Embarcadero sticks to the most established vendors.

ov-4f-img

Smart technology allows you to cover all your bases regardless of device

But for you, the programmer, these smaller boards can repsent thousands of dollars worth of saving. Perhaps you are building a kiosk system and need to have a good-looking user interface that is not carved in stone, touch capabilities, low-latency full-duplex communication with a server; not much you can do about that if Delphi doesnt target it. And Delphi is a work horse so it demands a lot more cpu than a low-budget ARM SoC can deliver. But web-tech can thrive in these low-end environments. So again we see that Smart can compliment and be a valuable addition to Delphi. It helps you as a Delphi developer to act on opportunities that would otherwise pass you by.

So in the above scenario you can double down. You can use Smart for the user-interface on a low power, low-cost SoC (system on a chip) kiosk — and Delphi on the server.

It all depends on what you are interfacing with. If you have a full Delphi backend (which I presume you have) then writing the interface server in Delphi obviously makes more sense.

If you don’t have any back-end then, depending on your needs or future plans, it could be wise to investigate if node.js is right for you. If it’s not – go with what you know. You can make use of Smart’s capabilities either way to deliver cost-effective, good-looking device front-ends of mobile apps. Its valuable tool in your Delphi toolbox.

Better infrastructure and rooting

So far our support for various systems has been in the form of APIs or “wrapper units”. This is good if you are a low-level coder like myself, but if you are coming directly from Delphi without any background in web technology – you wouldn’t even know where to start.

So starting with the next IDE update each platform we support will not just have low-level wrapper units, but project types and units written and adapted by human beings. This means extra work for us – but that is the way it has to be.

As of writing the following projects can be created:

  • HTML5 mobile applications
  • HTML5 mobile console applications
  • Node.js console applications
  • node.js server applications
  • node.js service applications (requires PM2)
  • Web worker project (deprecated, web-workers can now be created anywhere)

We also have support for the following operating systems:

  • Chrome OS
  • Mozilla OS
  • Samsung Tizen OS

The following API’s have shipped with Smart since version 1.2:

  • Khronos browser extensions
  • Firefox spesific API
  • NodeWebkit
  • Phonegap
    • Phonegap provides native access to roughly 9 operating systems. It is however cumbersome to work with and beta-test if you are unfamiliar with the “tools of the trade” in the JavaScript world.
  • Whatwg
  • WAC Apis

Future goals

The first thing we need to do is to update and re-generate ALL header files (or pascal units that interface with the JavaScript libraries) and make what we already have polished, available, documented and ready for enterprise level use.

kiosk-systems

Why pay $400 to power your kiosk when $99 and Smart can do a better job?

Secondly, project types must be established where they make sense. Not all frameworks are suitable for full project isolation, but act more like utility libraries (like jQuery or similar training-wheels). And as much as possible of the RTL made platform independent and organized following our namespace scheme.

But there are also other operating systems we want to support:

  • Norwegian made Friend OS, which is a business oriented cloud desktop
  • Node.js OS is very exciting
  • LG WebOS, and their Enyo application framework
  • Asustor DLM web operating system is also a highly attractive system to support
  • OpenNAS has a very powerful JavaScript application framework
  • Segate Nas OS 4 likewise use JavaScript for visual, universal applications
  • Microsoft Universal Platform allows you to create truly portable, native speed JavaScript applications
  • QNap QTS web operating system [now at version 4.2]

All of these are separate from our own NAS and embedded device system: Smart Desktop, which uses node.js as a backend and will run on anything as long as node and a modern browser is present.

Final words

I hope you guys have enjoyed my little trip down memory lane, and also the plans we have for the future. Personally I am super excited about moving the IDE to the cloud and making Smart available 24/7 globally – so that everyone can use it to design, implement and build software for the future right now.

Smart Pascal Builder (or whatever nickname we give it) is probably the first of its kind in the world. There are a ton of “write code on the web” pages out there, but so far there is not a single hard-core development studio like I have in mind here.

So hold on, because the future is just around the corner 😉

Smart Pascal: Busting browser storage limits

April 2, 2017 Leave a comment

Sessionstorage is the name for a browser’s in-memory only storage. Meaning that it’s essentially a ram-disk that is just deleted when you navigate away from the website or close the browser.

Sessionstorage has also been deprecated, so you should avoid using it and go for Localstorage, or just use a raw, untyped uint8 array instead.

Or should you?

Ensuring 64 megabytes minimum

Browsers do not behave identically across devices. Try to get a concurrent reading of something as simple as drawing sprites, and you will quickly notice that even the same device families (Android, iOS and Microsoft) can behave differently between versions – and even builds (revisions).

On embedded systems or thin clients with very little memory, allocating large chunks ot uint8 arrays is not going to work. One of my test thin-client machines has only 512 megabyte ram – and it would throw an exception if I tried to allocate more than 20 megabyte of continuous memory (again, as an array of uint8 bytes).

Using the dark side of the force

Screenshot

Offline means the system boots from a local cache disk

While testing Smart code on this little device, I noticed that quite large images loaded just fine. So where I was not allowed to allocate more than 20 megabytes, the browser would happily load in pictures taking up over 50 megabyte of pixel data?

It then struck me that the maximum limit of a picture, which is enforced by the DIB Api (at least on Windows desktop and embedded), is 4000 x 4000 pixels. Since each pixel is 32 bits (4 bytes, RGBA) that my friend is 64 megabytes right there!

I created a new class that inherits from the virtual-filesystem that Smart Pascal uses, created an off-screen image object in the constructor – and then made a simple but effective “bytes to scan line” calculation routine. So whenever the need for more data grew, it would first grow the picture so it could hold the data (and shrink it again) on demand.

Humble but meaningful

Now 64 megabytes might not seem like much in our day and age, but if you are on holiday and want to connect to your home NAS – 64 megabytes of available ram makes a huge difference. Remember that localstorage only allows between 5 and 10 megabytes.

I should mention that using an image as a buffer makes little sense on a full Windows PC, a Mac or a Linux box. These system will page memory to disk and you will most likely never encounter the 20 megabyte barrier I experienced on this low-end Dell thin client device. But considering that hotels, motels and b&b often have thin clients setup for their customers (read: you) – The Smart desktop has to take height for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Smart desktop: Amibian.js past, future and present

April 1, 2017 2 comments

Had someone told me 20 years ago that I would enter my 40’s enjoying JavaScript, my younger self would probably have beaten that someone over the head with a book on hardcore demo coding or something. So yeah, things have changed so much and we are right now in the middle of a paradigm shift that is taking us all to the next level – regardless if we agree or not.

Ask a person what he thinks about “cloud” and you rarely get an answer that resembles what cloud really is. Most will say “its a fancy way of dealing with storage”. Others will say its all about web-services – and others might say it’s about JavaScript.

memyselfandi

Old coders never die, we just get better

They are all right and wrong at the same time. Cloud is first of all the total abstraction of all parts that makes up a networked computer system. Storage, processing capacity, memory, operating system, services, programming language and even instruction set.

Where a programmer today works with libraries and classes to create programs that run on a desktop — dragging visual controls like edit-boxes and buttons into place using a form or window designer; a cloud developer builds whole infrastructures. He drags and drops whole servers into place, connects external and internal services.

Storage? Ok I need Dropbox, amazon, Google drive, Microsoft one disk, local disk – and he just drags that onto a module. Done. All of these services now have a common API that allows them to talk with each other. They become like dll files or classes, all built using the same mold – but with wildly different internals. It doesn’t matter as long as they deliver the functionality according to standard.

Processing power? Setup an Azure or Amazon account and if you got the cash, you can compute enough to pre-cacalculate the human brain if you like. It has all been turned into services — that you can link together like lego pieces.

Forget everything you think you know about web; that is but the visual rendering engine over the proverbial death-star of technology hidden beneath. People have only seen the tip of the ice berg.

Operating systems have been reduced to a preference. There is no longer any reason to pick Windows over Linux on the server. Microsoft knew years ago that this day would come. Back in the late 90s I remember reading an interview with Steve Balmer doing one of his black-ops meetings with Norwegian tech holders in Oslo; and he outlined software as a service when people were on 14.4 modems. He also mentioned that “we need a language that is universal” to make this a reality. You can guess why .net was stolen from Borland, not to mention their failed hostile takover of Java (or J#) which Anders Hejlsberg was hired to spear-head.

Amibian.js

Amibian.js is my, Gunnar and Thomas‘s effort to ensure that the Amiga is made portable and can be enjoyed in this new paradigm. It is not made to compete with anyone (as was suggested earlier), but rather to make sure Amiga gets some life into her again – and that people of this generation and the kids growing up now can get to enjoy the same exciting environment that we had.

Amibian666

From Scandinavia with love

The world is going JavaScript. Hardware now speaks JavaScript (!), your TV now speaks JavaScript – heck your digital watch probably runs JavaScript. And just to add insult to injury – asm.js now compiles JS code side-by-side with C/C++ in terms of speed. I think the browser has seen more man years of development time than any other piece of software out there – with the exception of GCC / Gnu Linux perhaps.

Amibian is also an example of a what you can do with Smart Pascal, which is a programming environment that compiles object pascal to JavaScript. One we (The Smart Company AS) made especially for this new paradigm. I knew this was coming years ago – and have been waiting for it. But that’s another story all together.

Future

Well, naturally the desktop system is written from scratch so it needs to be completed. We are at roughly 40% right now. But there is also work to be done on UAE.js (a mild fork of sae, scriptable Amiga emulator) in terms of speed and IO. We want the emulated Amiga side to interact with the modern web desktop – to be able to load and save files to whatever backend you are using.

 

Amibianstuff

For those about to rock; We salute you!

Well, it’s not that easy. UAE is like an organism, and introducing new organs into an existing creature is not easily done. UAE.js (or SAE) has omitted a huge chunk of the original code – which also includes the modified boot-code that adds support for external or “virtual” UAE drives (thanks to Frode Solheim of Fs-UAE for explaining the details of the parts here).

But, there are hacker ways. The dark side is a pathway to many abilities, some deemed unnatural. So if all else fails, i will kidnap the hardfile API and delegate the IO signals to the virtual filesystem on the server — in short, UAE.JS will think it’s booting from a hardfile in memory – when in reality it will get its data from node.js.

There are some challenges here. UAE (the original) is not async but ordinary, linear C code. JavaScript is async and may not return the data on exit of the method. So i suspect I will have to cache quite a lot. Perhaps as much as 1 megabyte backwards and forwards from the file-position. But getting data in there we will (and out), come hell or high water.

We can also drop a lot of sub code, like parts of the gayle interface. I found out this is the chip that deals with the IDE interface — so it has to be there, but it can also host memory expansions – but who the hell cares in 2017 in JavaScript about that. More than enough fun via standard chip/fast/rtg memory – so the odd bits can be removed.

So we got our work cut out for us. But hey.. there can only be one .. QUARTEX! And we bring you fire.

Ok. Lets do this!

Node and delphi in sweet harmony

March 31, 2017 Leave a comment

There are cases when you want to dip your toe into Delphi land. While I can’t think of anything in particular at the moment – it would be handy if you say, have some Delphi dll’s that you would like to re-use, so you don’t have to re-write the whole thing in Smart Pascal.

Enter FFI

There is this mind-blowing package over at NPM and if you don’t know it yet, you are going to love it. Its called FFI (foreign function interface) and essentially allows you to call functions from ordinary libraries (DLL, .SO and .DynLib’s). It is supported on both Windows, OS X and Linux. So yeah, now you can call Delphi from your Smart code!

So let’s say you have this awesome data backend written in Delphi and you don’t want to re-write 10 years of code. What you can do is simply create a DLL and expose a simplified API for the core functionality — and then call those from your Smart Pascal node.js server — which is just mind-bending awesome (excuse my language)!

You can also call functions exposed in the same process. So lets say you are calling node.js from your Delphi applications (or C++, or Freepascal or C# – whatever floats your boat) then you guessed it – you can now invoke methods from the “runner”.

There goes another weekend

I was going to relax this weekend but im busy compiling node.js from scratch (and you know how I feel about C++ from Linux, its like the worst date ever!) to something visual studio can eat – and then export it from that into Delphi. For some reason C++ builder goes off bonkers when I try to build it there. Which is so odd because it should be vanilla C/C++ (probably some gnu curiosity messing it up)

 

kick_ass

Create awesome full browser-desktop apps in Smart!

 

But once .DCU i-fied, how does a TNodeJS component sound? Already have TV8Engine – so yeah, interfacing with the mothership (read: Delphi) is important to us.

Anyways – if your brain didn’t just blow with the FFI info, then go and get all girly inside right now – because this bridges the gap so utterly between native and scalable, kick ass clustered JavaScript server-side!

https://www.npmjs.com/package/ffi

If you still wonder if this is powerful enough, check out the Smart based operating system that is currently kicking serious butt! It even runs 68k assembly programs (real Amiga applications) in a window! This is the core demo for the SMS update (it should have been out 2 weeks ago, I know – but its not me in charge of that bit!).

amibianrocks

An OS in smart? Sure, with a linux bootstrap ofcourse – but man does it run!

Oh and by the way, Smart Pascal now gives you access to more than 350.000 node.js packages. That is the biggest, bad-ass code-repo in existence. And you can then add typescript as well.

Ok let’s do this!

Amiga revival, Smart Pascal and growing up

March 11, 2017 1 comment

Maybe its just me but the Amiga is kinda having a revival these days? Seems to me like the number of people going back to the Amiga has just exploded the past couple of years. Much of that is no doubt thanks to my buddy Gunnar Kristjannsen’s excellent work on the Amibian distro for Raspberry PI. Making a high-end Amiga experience that would have cost you thousands of dollars available at around $35.

amifuture

Looking forward to some cosy reading

While Gunnar’s great distro is no doubt a huge factor in this, I believe its more than just easy access. I think a lot of us that grew up with the system, who lived the Amiga daily from elementary school all the way to college – have come full circle. We spend our days coding on PC’s, Mac’s or making mobile software – but deep down inside, I think all of us are still in love with that magical machine; The Commodore Amiga.

I am honestly at a loss for words on this (and that’s a first, most days you can’t get me to shut the hell up). Why should a 30-year-old system attract me more, and still cause so much joy in my life – compared to the latest stuff? I mean, I got a fat ass I7 that growls when you start it with 64 gigabyte ram, SSD and all the extras; I got macs all over the house, the latest consoles – and enough embedded boards to start my own arcade if I so desired.

Yet at the end of the day, when the kids are in bed and GF firmly planted in front of her favorite tv show, fathers are down in basements all around europe. Not watching porn, not practising black magic or trying to transform led into gold, nope: coding in assembler on a mc68k processor running at a whopping 7Mhz and loving every minute of it!

Today the madness held no bounds and forced me, out of sheer perverted joy, to order 4 copies of Amiga Future magazine (yes there are still magazines for the Amiga, believe it or not), a few posters, a mousemat and (drumroll) the ever sexy A1222. Actually that was a lie, I ordered that weeks ago, Trevor Dickenson over at A-EON hooked me up so im getting it as soon as it comes off the assembly line. And for those that don’t know, the A1222 is the new affordable Amiga that is released today. It’s not a remake of the older models, but a brand new thing. I havent been this giddy about a piece of silicon since I fell into a double-d cup at a beach in Spain last year.

Smart Pascal

It made sense to unite my two great computing passions, namely the object pascal language and Amiga into one package. So whenever I have some spare time I work my ass off on the update for Smart Mobile Studio. And it’s getting probably the biggest “demo” ever shipped with a programming language.

What? Well, a remake of the Amiga operating system. But not just a simple css-styled shallow lookalike. You know me, I just had to go all the way. So I married the system with something called uae.js. Which is essentially the JavaScript version of the Amiga emulator. Its compiled with EmScripten – a post processor that takes LLVM compiled bitcode compiled with C/C++ and spits out Asm.js optimized code.

amidesk

You just cant kill it, Amiga is 4ever

So, Smart Pascal in one hand – C/C++ in the right hand. Its like being back in college all over again. Only thing missing now is that Wacom suddenly returns and Borland rise from the grave with another Turbo product. But yes, JavaScript is something I really enjoy. And being able to compile object pascal to JavaScript is even better.

The end result? Well since I don’t have too much time on my hands it’s roughly 31-32% done, and when we hit 50% is when UAE.js will be activated. So right now its a sexy cloud front end. It has a virtual filesystem that runs fine over localstorage, but it can also talk to node.js and access the real filesystem on your server.

But when UAE.js kicks in you will be able to run your favorite Amiga demos, applications and games in your browser. I am actually very excited about seeing the performance. It runs most demos OK (using the Aros rom-files). I imagine running things like blitzbasic, Amos basic and SAS-C/C++ should work fine. Or at least be within the “usable” range if you got a powerful PC to play with.

The V8 JavaScript engine in webkit is due for an overhaul next year – and while I can only speculate I’m guessing real-life compilation will be the addition. They already do some heavy JIT’ing but once you throw LLVM based actual compilation into the picture – large JS applications is going to fly side by side with native stuff. And that’s when cloud front-ends like ChromeOS and other FriendOS is going to take off.

My little remake is not that ambitious, but I do intend to make this an absolute kick-ass system as far as Amiga is concerned. And for Smart Pascal developers? Well, lets just say that this demo project has pushed the RTL for all it’s worth and helped fix bugs and expand the RTL in a way that makes it a real power-house!

Growing up

Do we ever really grow up? I’m not sure any more. I look at others and see some that have adopted this role, this image of how an adult should be like — but its more often than not tied into the whole A4 family thing or some superficial work profile. And since most Amiga fanatics are in their 40’s and 50’s (same age as Delphi hooligans, Turbo was released in 1983 same year as the Amiga came out), I guess this is when kids have grown up enough for people to go “wait a minute, what .. where is my Amiga!“.

But good things come to those who wait. If someone told me that I would one day work side by side with giants like David John Pleasance, Francois Lionet and the crew at FriendUp systems – I would never have believed them. A member of quartex in meetings with the head of Commodore? My teenage self would never have believed it. Both of these men, including all the tech guys at Commodore, Mark Sibly the guy behind BlitzBasic — these were my teenage heroes. And now I get to work with two of them. That is priceless.

As for growing up – if that means losing that spark, that trigger that when lost would render us incapable of enjoying things like the Amiga, reduced to a suit in a grey world of PCs – you know, then I’m happy to be exactly where I am. If you can go to work wearing an Amiga T-Shirt, tracker music on your iPod, a family you love at home, cool people to work with – I would call that a wrap.

And looking at the hundreds and thousands of people returning to the Amiga after 30 years in the desert – something tells me I wont be alone .. 😉

 

Smart Pascal: Arduino and 39 other boards

January 17, 2017 Leave a comment

Did you know that you can use Smart Mobile Studio to write your Arduino controller code? People think they need to dive into C, native Delphi or (shrug) Java to work with controller boards or embedded SoC’s, but fact is – Smart Pascal is easier to set up, cheaper and a hell of lot more productive than C.

Arduino getting you down? Why bother, whip out Smart Pascal and do some mild wrapping and kill 40 birds with one stone

Arduino getting you down? Why bother, whip out Smart Pascal and do some mild wrapping and kill 40 birds with one stone

What may come as a surprice to you though is that Smart allows you to write code for no less than 40 micro-controllers and embedded devices! Yes you read right, 40 different boards from the same codebase.

Johnny number five

jfiveNode.js is the new favorite automation platform in the world of hardware, and board’s both large and small either support JavaScript directly, or at the very least try to be JS friendly. And since Smart Mobile Studio support Node.js very well (and it’s about to get even better support), that should give you some ideas about the advantages here.

The magic library is called Johnny number five (JN5) and it gives you a more or less unified API for working with GPIO and a ton of sensors. And it’s completely free!

As of writing I havent gotten around to writing the wrapper code for JN5, but the library is so clean and well-defined that it’s something that should not take more than a day to port over. You can also take a shortcut via our Typescript importer and use our import tool.

Check out the API here: http://johnny-five.io/api/

Here is a list of the sensors JN5 supports:

  • Altimeter
  • Animation
  • Barometer
  • Button
  • Compass
  • ESC
  • ESCs
  • Expander
  • Fn
  • GPS
  • Gyro
  • Hygrometer
  • IMU
  • IR.Reflect.Array
  • Joystick
  • Keypad
  • LCD
  • Led
  • Led.Digits
  • Led.Matrix
  • Led.RGB
  • Leds
  • Light
  • Motion
  • Motor
  • Motors
  • Multi
  • Piezo
  • Pin
  • Proximity
  • Relay
  • Relays
  • Sensor
  • Servo
  • Servos
  • ShiftRegister
  • Stepper
  • Switch
  • Thermometer

And enjoy one of the many tutorials here: http://johnny-five.io/articles/

Up board, a perfect embedded board

December 23, 2016 2 comments

In my previous article about the UP single board computer, my primary focus was to use it purely for emulating a next generation PPC based Amiga, running Amiga OS 4.1 final edition. This is probably the hardest, most challenging task you can give a computer. Even by modern standards emulating a 68k and ppc based hybrid platform is a proverbial assault on the hardware.

Next generation Amiga, it works but the board is not powerful enough to deliver an enjoyable experience. Classic Amiga's however is the best you can imagine!

Next generation Amiga, it works but the board is not powerful enough to deliver an enjoyable experience. Classic Amiga’s however is the best you can imagine!

Just contemplate it for a second: if ppc emulation isnt formidable enough, the target of my emulation was a hybrid platform in the true sense of the word. You have the older Amiga chipset which is extremely complex. Attached to that (and working in symphony) is a ppc accelerator board designed to do the grunt work.

The UP single board computer came up short for that highly specialized task. But like I wrote, it missed the mark by just a handful of Hz. Had the CPU been just slightly more powerful (and a more suitable storage device), the UP board would have ace’ed it. Which would have been nothing short of miraculous! The fact that it was capable of running Amiga OS 4 at working speed to begin with is extremely impressive! Remember this is a tiny, single board computer retailing at $150 !

And the most amazing part? The CPU emulated the next generation Amiga running at a steady 60% cpu utilization. Not once did it spike up to 100%. So the Windows process scheduler held it back for obvious reasons.

Ok, but what about other tasks?

Just because you don’t have the power to knock out Mike Tyson doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a bad fighter. And the same can be said about technology and computers. The UP board came up a little short for next generation Amiga emulation, but so what? The PC I owned back in 2013 and had been using for Delphi development for 3 years couldn’t even start OS 4 of its life depended on it.

Truth be told, the UP board is the most exciting product I have owned for years. I was only this excited about something when I got my first Raspberry PI. I’m even more excited about the UP board because it’s infinitely more capable!

x86 UP board, same size as the PI3 but packing a hell of a punch!

x86 UP board, same size as the PI3 but packing a hell of a punch!

And when I get excited, you should to. I am privileged and blessed through my work to have access to all the latest gadgets. Be it embedded boards to the latest phones, tablets, graphics cards, operative systems — you name it, I got it or have access to it. But of all the awesome tech I have played with since 2010, the UP board is the most fun. It’s just perfect and has everything a professional software developer, retrogamer or product integrator could possibly want in a SoC.

Setting up the UP board

The first thing you want to do is get Windows 10 installed. If Linux is your thing then I can strongly recommend Ubuntu, it’s beautiful on the UP and runs like a dream.

But for this article I’ll be going with Windows 10, and the easiest way to get that installed, unless you have an external DVD drive and bootable disks is the following:

  1. Have a USB stick with at least 4 gigabyte
  2. Download Rufus
  3. Download the Windows 10 iso file from Microsoft
  4. Burn the Windows iso file to the USB stick
  5. Plug the USB stick into the UP board and fire it up

Rufus is a cool little program that allows you to burn ISO files to a USB stick and then make the stick bootable. This is not the same as (for example) Windows image writer, which just burns a disk image (*.img file) verbatim to whatever storage media you pick.

Once you have burnt the ISO to your usb stick, it’s just a matter of sticking it into one of the free usb-slots on the device and power it up. The normal Windows installer should show up as normal and you just follow the installation process. I’m guessing you have done this a few times in your life, so no need to outline that part.

Enable remote desktop

Once Windows is installed and registered, you want to give the computer a name that makes a little more sense. Windows comes up with these absurd identifiers based on whatever, like “UPx7621ab” and similar stuff.

I renamed my board to “UPBoard” and checked the “Allow remote connections”. I then added my admin account (the “select users” button) so I can login remotely. If you havent done this before then just google around and you’ll find out how:

You dont need to setup a full remote desktop (which is something new in Windows 10), you just need to enable remote access

You don’t need to set up a full remote desktop (which is something new in Windows 10), you just need to enable remote access

Once you have changed all that you need to reboot the device, so just do that. In the meantime go over to your work PC and download “Microsoft remote desktop preview” which is their new Remote desktop client. Yes, the good old remote desktop application that have shipped with Windows since the civil war is no longer there. So head over to Microsoft and grab the new one.

Connect to the Up-Board from your PC

OK, with that in place I guess it’s time to play! Fire up the remote-desktop application, add a new location, use the name “UPBoard” as the host, then add your login credentials. Click connect and voila! You now have remote access to your fancy new mini computer!

Click

Click “Add” to add your new remote connection

Then just double-click on the icon that says “UPBoard” in the fancy menu, and that’s it! With this in place you don’t even need a monitor or keyboard for the board, just get a nice case for it and plug it into the router. You can even leave it besides your router if you like.

Fast, responsive and one hell of a system to work with!

Fast, responsive and one hell of a system to work with!

As a developer I take it for granted that you know how to share out a drive or folder, so I’m not going to pussy feet you through that.

Getting the UP drivers

You really want the UP drivers, this means faster graphics and that Windows knows what it can and cannot do with the hardware. So head over to the UP website and download the drivers. Then just install them one by one.

Click here to visit the download page.

Developing on the board

I do most of my development through VMWare. Since I have to use various versions of Delphi, Xamarin studio, Visual studio and other things I can’t even spell – an ordinary PC just wont cut it. I think the smallest PC I have is a Intel i7 octa-core running at 4.1 GHz with 32 gigabyte memory and NVidia Geforce GTX 970. This is because I run 3 virtual environments at the same time (client, server and database).

But you don’t need specs like that to write Smart Pascal based node.js services or servers. That’s one of the great things about Smart Mobile Studio. A normal PC will do the trick. And the UP board is much smoother to work on than one of my old machines, that’s for damn sure.

$150 for a fully equipped workstation? Indeed! The UP-board performs brilliantly for Smart Mobile Studio development. So you can easily code, test and deploy on the board itself.

$150 for a fully equipped workstation? Indeed! The UP-board performs brilliantly for Smart Mobile Studio development. So you can easily code, test and deploy on the board itself.

When it comes to CPU use that’s really not a problem. I tried it with several custom applications, including the Smart pascal kiosk software. This has a node.js server running in the background providing content, while a webkit browser renders the front-end display. Amazingly the whole thing hardly registers. The system that usually runs at around 60% on the Raspberry PI, here clocks in at a measly 5% (!)

5% performance hit. Holy cow!

5% performance hit. Holy cow!

Nothing to say except awesome, I absolutely love this board!

EMMC, the only real bottleneck of the product

The only real bottleneck, a topic I exhausted in my previous post because it pissed me off like nothing else, is the storage device.

But it’s not really a big problem under Windows or Ubuntu. You do notice it when you download large files or decompress large archives. In order to get my developer tools over I just zipped them down and transferred it over. And while getting the data from A to B was simple enough – it was when I started unpacking the data I noticed how slow it was.

But here is the thing: on a dedicated product, these things don’t matter. If you are building your own games machine, your own router, or designing a new top of the line NAS destined for mass production – it doesn’t matter if unzipping 2 gigabytes of source code is slow. Because that’s not what your product will be doing anyway.

Your product, what you use the UP board to make, will ship with a custom program (or a series of programs) designed by you. They will be pre-installed on the machine as your customer buys it, and unless you are born in a cave – I hardly think you will be forcing your customers to download gigabytes of data and unpacking it. That would be a horrible design mistake regardless of product.

Classic Amiga emulation is flawless and perfect on the UP board. This is probably the best emulation experience I have ever had

Classic Amiga emulation is flawless and perfect on the UP board. This is probably the best emulation experience I have ever had

Let’s for sake of argument we say you want to use the board to create the coolest retrogaming machine ever invented. You wont be copying over all the roms every single time right? You will copy it over once, or even better – just download it directly since you have Windows or Ubuntu to play with. So again, the somewhat dull storage device is not going to be a problem for you.

And should you build a movie server or media streaming service, like Plex, then you are going to attach an external hard disk anyway and just use the internal storage for booting up. Once again, not a factor at all.

Factor in a drive

The red thread that you see in the 3 posts I have made about the UP board, is all about the storage device. I have bitched enough about their choice of EMMC storage I think, but instead of just bitching – I want to give you a tip: always factor in a fast USB 3.0 drive when planning a product or home appliance based on the UP single board computer. And that goes double if you plan on developing on the board itself (which it is more than capable of handling).

The CPU and graphics chipset is more than enough to drive Visual Studio, Mono, Delphi, Lazarus or Smart Mobile Studio – but do yourself a favour and reserve the buildt-in EMMC device for Windows only. Never, ever on pain of death install any software bigger than notepad on it because it will bug you for all eternity.

As such I cannot recommend that you buy the biggest model, because the only thing separating the biggest UP model from the second best, is more bloody EMMC storage. The model just below the best is equipped with same amount of ram (4 gigabytes) but only half the disk space. And I so regret not getting that instead. Those $20 would go a long way paying for a plastic casing instead.

Unless you want to run a fixed, single application and could use the extra space, it's $20 straight down the toilet.

Unless you want to run a fixed, single application and could use the extra space, it’s $20 straight down the toilet.

So word to the wise: always factor in a fast USB 3.0 external disk if you plan on using the UP board for anything disk intensive. And with disk intensive I also mean compiling code, because that typically plows through hundreds if not thousands of files. So yeah, the EMMC really sucks.

But you can also factor in a SATA drive. Turns out, if you visit the UP web store that you can buy a SATA shield board that turns one of your USB ports into a blistering fast SATA drive slot. It will set you back $85, but in return you get two USB ports and a SATA drive slot. This makes the UP board a suitable candidate for NAS production. Considering the horsepower you could easily surpass brands like Asustor (which just happens to be my favorite NAS devices).

It would also make the ultimate home streaming service, capable of streaming full HD without breaking a sweat!

Peripherals that make sense

One of the things I hate about the Raspberry PI community is that more often than not, they take for granted that everyone is an electrician or have a background in electronics. So when the moment comes that you want to broaden your horizon, you are faced with thousands of “add-on” products that you dont have a clue how works.

A good example is a remote control I ordered earlier. Seems like a fairly straight forward thing right? And the advert said “only 3 wires to solder, easy for beginners”. What I got was a smart looking remote, but the part that needs to be soldered have no clear markings of what exactly to solder. There are 8 pins to pick from, no “how to” manual — and this is just typical for the Raspberry community (it’s not the first time I have recieved stuff like this).

The UP webshop makes more sense. They dont have thousands of chips or gadgets, because you are expected to deal with things that run on USB and are supported by the operative system.

As such they sell you the most obvious parts:

  • 10″ touch screen
  • Sata drive shield
  • Plastic casing
  • Converters (USB 3 male/female etc.)
  • Wifi dongle
  • .. and so on

When it comes to remote control, which is really handy when coding kiosk software that eventually will be keyboard-less (so its the ultimate admin magic wand) take your pick. There are thousands of wireless USB remote control packages out there, and if they are compatible with Windows, they can be used with UP.

Also a hell of a lot easier to code for!

Personal verdict

This is by far the most exciting gadget I have seen in years. Much more exciting than the Sony Virtual Reality gogles for Playstation 4 (rev 2) that just came out. Dont think I was ever so disapointed as when I got that. Been waiting 20 years for VR to become a reality, only to realize you need a padded room if you want to move around.

So instead of buying the Playstation VR for XMas, get yourself 3 UP boards for the same price. I can guarantee that you will get much more joy from owning them than the Playstation Virtual Reality headset.

My personal verdict for the UP board is a shining 5 out of 6 stars!

No other board except the Raspberry PI 3 has ever gotten that kind of score on my website. Not even the iPad when that came out.

What about classic Emulation? How does that work?

How does it work? It is so smooth that im at a loss for words. Seriously, I dont even know where to begin describing how sweet this is.

Let me say it like t his: When I fire up Amiga Forever and run the pimped up 3.x “enhanced experience” (read: one pimped up Amiga 1200), start IBrowse and visit Amigaworld.net, the webpage renders just as fast as Chromium renders. Scrolling with the mouse-wheel is blistering faster and you actually dont notice any difference between using the emulated Amiga or Windows.

This setup is pure joy on Amibian on the Raspberry PI. On the UP board its bliss, bliss on tap, bliss on demand. A perfect emulation experience all the way through.

This setup is pure joy on Amibian on the Raspberry PI. On the UP board its bliss, bliss on tap, bliss on demand. A perfect emulation experience all the way through.

Images download and render near instantly, music is crisp and clear, not a flicker or jitter in sight. And the CPU has depth, thats the main difference between Raspberry PI and the UP board. Let me explain what I mean with that.

I downloaded the latest freepascal (version 3.1) which is the same version that I use on Linux and Windows to produce modern products. Now on the Raspberry PI whenever you attempt to compile anything substantial, the whole thing goes into a grinding halt. The Raspberry PI is excellent for superficial things, especially desktop and games where it can fall back on the GPU and custom chips to get the job done.

Compiling anything, even older stuff that is a joke by today standard, is painful on the Raspberry PI. Here showing my retro-fitted A500 PI with sexy led keyboard. It will soon get a makeover with an UP board :)

Compiling anything, even older stuff that is a joke by today standard, is painful on the Raspberry PI. Here showing my retro-fitted A500 PI with sexy led keyboard. It will soon get a makeover with an UP board 🙂

But compilation is pure CPU work and this is where the Raspberry PI cannot hide what it is. A slow, underpowered ARM system on a chip, posing as a real computer.

I compiled a small shell-utility i coded especially for the Amiga, called AmigaZipper. A very humble program with barely 8000 lines of code. When compiling on my UAE Amiga running on the PI, it took almost an hour to produce an executable binary.

How long did it take on the UP board? oh, 5 seconds give or take. So where the Raspberry looks great for superficial things it lacks grit. The UP board however has so much more power it can apply to a task, and plows through it like a warm knife through butter.

Classic Amiga runs along nicely, eating around 40% of the cpu running in 1920x1080x32 bpp. Even with the latest freepascal (3.1) compiling on the 68k it never broke 60%. Perfect. Just perfect!

Classic Amiga runs along nicely, eating around 40% of the cpu running in 1920x1080x32 bpp. Even with the latest freepascal (3.1) compiling on the 68k it never broke 60%. Perfect. Just perfect!

If you are serious about emulating Amiga up to OS 3.9, then this is absolutely the board to get! With the Raspberry foundation releasing Pixel for x86, we can only hope Gunnar Kristiansson creates Amibian for x86 as well — then all will be right with the world and the force will be in balance once again.

Merry Xmas!