RISC OS gets the open source bug, finally!

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Two decades since Acorn Computers packed its bags, RISC OS has become fully open source. This move marks a big step forward for the community as a whole by getting rid of the license restrictions that has limited parts of the operating system’s development in some form or another since Acorn parted ways with it back in 1998.

In a nutshell

RISC OS Developments Ltd, formed last year by R-Comp’s Andrew Rawnsley and Orpheus Internet’s Richard Brown, has acquired Castle Technology along with RISC OS itself – marking an end to the shared source initiative that allowed RISC OS Open Ltd. to develop RISC OS, with Castle Technology retaining ownership of the operating system.

It has since been announced that RISC OS 5 will be re-licensed as open source effectively immediately – allowing for RISC OS Open to continue development without any restrictions.

ROOL co-founder Steve Revill’s thoughts on the news:

This re-licensing represents the achievement of the primary goal RISC OS Open originally set out to achieve. It is a key milestone for an important part of British computing history and the fulfillment of my long-held personal ambition to enable anyone to use RISC OS freely and contribute openly to its future.

How we got here

It’s been a bumpy and quite long-winded road to get to where we are now.

The Acorn break-up in 1998 ended up with Pace (who later merged with Arris) taking ownership of RISC OS who wanted to use it for its range of set-top boxes and other embedded systems. The desktop version of RISC OS was licensed out to RISC OS Ltd. who developed RISC OS 4 and eventually 6 (but not 5). Their version of the OS was then supplied with the various post-Acorn 26-bit computers that emerged on the RISC OS market in the late 90s and early 2000s – namely the RiscStation ARM7500, MicroDigital Mico and the Acorn RiscPC and A7000 line that Castle Technology continued producing.

Castle later emerged with RISC OS 5, a 32-bit version of RISC OS that would be future proof for newer ARM processors hitting the market. Castle claimed it had the rights to release and develop this version of the OS based on an agreement they’d secured during the Acorn-Pace transition. RISC OS 5 was released with the Intel XScale based Iyonix PC in 2002.

After much debate and controversy between RISC OS Ltd. and Castle as well as the community itself, Castle ended up acquiring RISC OS 5 from Pace while RISC OS Ltd. could continue developing its own 26-bit flavor.

2006 saw Castle announce that the source code would be opened up to the public under a ‘shared source’ license, meaning you could basically use and improve it as you wanted for non-commercial purposes. It is thought this decision was made because production of the Iyonix PC was coming to an end and the size of the RISC OS market at the time wasn’t big enough to make another fully-fledged commercial system viable.

Despite some development from RISC OS Ltd. (now 3QD Developments), their variant (RO 4 & 6) has now pretty much completely halted and is only compatible for legacy 26-bit hardware (pre-Iyonix).

The shared source license allowed for the birth of RISC OS Open who’ve taken RISC OS 5 from strength to strength ever since, including porting RISC OS 5 to a number of new platforms, including the hugely successful Raspberry Pi, which RISC OS has been fortunate to have been riding wave with since the beginning, in turn opening up the OS to a huge market of potential users, something that I wouldn’t have dreamt of back in 2004/2005.

If the last decade is anything to go by, the next decade with RISC OS as an open source operating system is bound to be an exciting one.

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