Now, before anything else, I should make clear that this is *not* an attempt at advocacy: I'm not trying to argue that RISC OS is in a good state, and certainly not that users of other OSes should switch over (or back). All I'm aiming to do is talk about some areas where RISC OS seems to me to be getting a bit better. And there are more of these than might be obvious, at least if reading Usenet is your guide to the health of the platform.
First off, reading and editing of industry-standard document files is much better now than it was in Acorn's heyday. Take PDFs, one of the most important standards in both printing and on the internet. A few years ago the options for manipulating complex PDF files were limited. Now, most of the PDFs I download are readable in RISC OS. I use either !PDF, a free viewer which is quick on my A9 and generally gives good results. This won't read everything out there, but if it fails, I fire up the excellent GView from Martin Wuerthner, which is also free (but if you find it useful, please donate to support this important app). This has coped with all sorts of things I've thrown at it. It is slow, to be sure, but certainly not ridiculously so on modern hardware.
In addition to this, there's RiScript, a commercial application for reading and editing PDFs, and increasingly comprehensive PDF export from EasiWriter and ArtWorks (the latter is due for further improvement with the imminent release of 2.7). Now, I daresay there are lots of things one can't do with PDFs on RISC OS, and I wouldn't want to suggest matters are perfect. But the point is that this situation is much advanced from where used to be, and promises to develop further.
PDFs are one example of better document reading, but there are others. Word file import and export is now very nicely done in EasiWriter, which benefits from constant development. The freeware application ViewXLS can read Excel files, and the commercial spreadsheet Schema is being augmented to cope with these better too. Though large holes remain, the RISC OS community seems to have grasped the idea that support for industry-standard file formats is a good idea: we can cautiously hope that this trend will continue, and some gaps (such as PowerPoint) will be filled in due course.
Right back in Acorn's heyday, printing was a bit of a pain. Supporting third-party hardware was tough even when RISC OS computers were relatively common in the UK, and once the brand disappeared and resources dwindled, the range of supported printers got smaller. But now, thanks to the magic of the open-source community (and, more importantly for us, the skills of Martin Wuerthner), things look a lot brighter. Using Gutenprint, a port of the printing system used by many Linux set-ups, dozens of modern printers are now supported, with the expectation that many more will be added as the legions of spotty-faced bedroom developers around the world add drivers and documentation. It's not exactly a perfect system (again, it's slow on current hardware), but just think where we'd be without it. It's an excellent initiative, deserving of the support of every RISC OS user.
And for those who network their machine to a Windows PC, there's also the ingenious UniPrint from R-Comp, which (among other things) allows printing using the PC's drivers instead of the increasingly out-of-date Acorn set. Of course, this does depend on having access to a PC in the first place, but it adds a way of printing where no other may exist. Not everyone's cup of tea, I'm sure, but there's no doubt many users find it invaluable.
Let's also celebrate other gradual improvements which seem to get drowned out from time to time: a major update to APDL's Ancestor family tree program, continued Messenger Pro development, ongoing StrongED work (with an update to version 4.68 hopefully around the corner), DigitalCD improvements, and work on CDVDBurn. These are important applications, meeting users' needs, gradually adding features and filling in gaps. And besides these there are a host of smaller, usually free utilities which get released all the time: a trawl of csa.announce over the past few days brings up half a dozen small apps, none earth-shaking in themselves, but all in response to a genuine niche requirement.
Most of the above are commercial projects, or RISC OS-exclusive open-source applications. But perhaps the most exciting and hopeful work being done at the moment is in the field of cross-platform open-source. Although not obvious to everyone, over the past few years an enormous amount of effort has been devoted to getting the GNU compiler collection (GCC) to work on RISC OS. Recently, it's even been possible to compile RISC OS applications on other platforms using GCCSDK. This is a truly momentous accomplishment, which many other minority platforms must envy. If it doesn't seem so significant to you, consider that without GCC and its related projects we would have no NetSurf, no Firefox, no Gutenprint, no Unix ports, and no real prospect of getting the media player we need. The developers of much of this get little thanks (and occasionally criticism) – I often wish there was more appreciation and understanding of how important this work is.
OK, I'll stop now
By this point, even the most ardent advocate of RISC OS is likely to be getting a little sceptical: surely things aren't as rosy as the above picture suggests? And of course they aren't: our OS has a lot of major challenges, and I truly have no idea whether we'll even be around this time next year. But I make no apology for celebrating some of the hard work that is producing fruit – it's good for the soul to recognise what is functioning well, even if it contributes in only a small way. I wouldn't blame anyone for moving on to other OSes with more features and software, but I do think there is some fun to be had with RISC OS, and we're not quite dead yet.