This month's topics start with a couple of points raised regularly in readers letters. It also seems about time to remind you again, especially newer readers of 512 Forum, that if there's any particular aspect of the 512, DOS or software that you'd like me to deal with drop me a line via BEEBUG or Essential Software. I'll do what I can to oblige.
Obviously as time passes more and more long-term users of the 512 are likely to upgrade to later and faster systems, probably a PC or an Archimedes.
It's also probable that the majority of those users aren't likely to 'moth-ball' or scrap their old system; they sell it to someone else who becomes a new user. I've mentioned this process before of course, but it's continuous and is still affecting the contents of my mail. As an example there are a couple of specially written 512 programs which generate a steady trickle of queries, despite the fact that they've been around for a long time and have been mentioned in the Forum on various occasions.
One is Problem Solver, which was written and sold by Shibumi Soft. It aimed to alleviate some of the 512's hardware deficiencies in software, and to an extent it succeeded. It was, though, much more likely to be of help with a game than with a serious application and I've made no secret of my opinion that it was drastically overpriced at £30.00. In fact I've never recommended anyone to buy it unless it was to help a specific program someone needed and which appeared on Shibumi's list.
Despite its laudable aims, when it was first released the program had a number of serious faults, though these were eventually corrected after a year or so. However, in the meantime quite a number of 512 users became frustrated by the very slow, or complete absence of response to letters. Shibumi Soft was, incidentally, located in Portugal and hence was out of reach and couldn't be pressured into action.
Later Shibumi set up a mailing address in Northampton. While this was intended to add to their outward credibility it did absolutely nothing for their service, which if anything grew even worse. Replies to orders regularly took five weeks or more even if you caught them on a good day, while queries or complaints took even longer, assuming you ever received a reply at all. Things didn't improve no matter who (me included) tried to urge them to get their act together.
Clear warnings about Shibumi Soft's dismal performance were given several times in the Forum but I make no apology for repeating them again because even worse was to follow. New 512 users might be tempted to write to Shibumi if they come across their address in a back issue. That's merely a waste of time, but what matters is that someone might send an order with money. DO NOT!
About a year and a half ago, for reasons known only to themselves, Shibumi Soft simply stopped supplying their program. That's their prerogative of course. The unacceptable part was that they didn't tell anyone and didn't have the courtesy to reply to any letters thereafter. Worse yet, they didn't return cheques and in one case known to me plus a few more I've heard about they cashed cheques but didn't supply the goods.
I get asked from time to time if I know of a source for this program. The official answer is no, but in view of Shibumi's appalling record of rudeness, bad service and finally apparently even theft, I've decided to take an unprecedented step. However, before I continue I must state that this offer has nothing whatsoever to do with BEEBUG; I alone am responsible. If Shibumi Soft don't like it they know where to find me.
If anyone wants a copy of Problem Solver send a cheque for £2.00 payable to me at the address below. The charge is to cover costs only – I am not selling the program of course. The documentation will be a text file on the disc, though by not getting a copy of the printed 'manual' (I use the term very loosely) you're not missing a thing. However, read on before finally deciding on this offer.
Another program I'm asked about regularly is the Microsoft-compatible 512 mouse driver written by Cliff Bowman of Tull Computer Services. First though, let me make it quite clear that there's no suggestion of sub-standard service in this case.
Quite a few people have said they've been unable to locate TCS and asked if I could help. Yes I can. I phoned Cliff on the number he's had for the past three years and lo and behold he answered. Not too difficult! Frankly I don't know why anyone has had trouble, although perhaps some were misled because Tull moved after the 512 Technical Guide was published. The address and phone number shown there are therefore out of date.
Tull will happily still supply their mouse driver, although for obvious reasons they don't advertise it these days. The price is £23.50 inclusive, which is a 20% reduction on the original price. Send a cheque payable to Tull Computer Services to: ******* and you'll receive an 800K disc containing the software plus a comprehensive manual.
You might remember the 512 information disc produced by David Harper and mentioned in the Forum in BEEBUG Vol.11 No.8, plus the series of four articles on GEM (Vol.10 Nos.7 to 10) for which David supplied the information. Well there's more good news, he's been at it again!
David sent me a couple of 512 programs that he's produced recently. These were originally written for his own use, but as he says, once the basics are in place it's relatively straightforward to continue to add extra features. This is something I can confirm: the usual problem is deciding when to stop!
In the event David continued with these programs until he felt that they might well be useful to others. What's even better is that, as he did with his 512 information disc, he's released both programs into the public domain. Yes, I realise I haven't yet told you what they do, I'm coming to that.
The first program is a PC compatibility enhancer for the 512 (called PCCE for short) which has broadly similar objectives to Problem Solver's.
The reason for this program being written was the fact that the editor in Quick C wouldn't work in David's 512, although both the compiler and linker did. The problem wasn't memory since David has an expanded memory machine and as the other programs did work David thought it likely that both the cause and a cure for the editor problem could be found. As it turned out, while he was doing that he addressed a number of other 512 (in)compatibility problems too.
Without getting too technical I'll give you a brief outline of what PCCE does, but if any of the following doesn't mean much to you don't worry, just take it from me that PCCE will help a number of programs to run in the 512 that otherwise either do nothing at all, or hang the system.
One of the standard DOS calls in a PC is interrupt 9, which occurs every time a key is pressed. This can be regarded very much like events in the BBC micro. The interrupt doesn't actually do anything itself, but it can be used to detect that something has happened. Naturally, a good many DOS TSR programs (often called pop-ups) hang on INT 9 so that they are informed when a key has been pressed: they then check which key was pressed and activate if it was their assigned key (usually a combination).
The problem for 512 users is that Acorn didn't implement INT 9 in DOS Plus, and that's why many TSRs don't work: they simply don't know that keys have been pressed. These programs load OK, but that's the last you see of them, apart from their memory consumption.
PCCE corrects this omission, along with a couple of associated problems such as the lack of an 'in-DOS' flag and a meagre amount of system stack space without which various TSRs that otherwise would work will crash the system. PCCE also implements a better method of breaking out of loops caused by CGA snow-avoidance techniques, this particular 512 DOS Plus problem preventing the Galaxy Lite shareware word processor from working, for example.
Other additions are making the cursor behave as it should in a PC, avoiding the text (BBC hardware) cursor lying idly somewhere on the screen when a program doesn't use it. This is a common nuisance in menu driven programs, especially those that use a mouse. Other programs expect to change the shape of the cursor, but they won't in the 512 without PCCE.
Another, more topical item, is that Pkware have very recently released version 2.04G of their excellent data compression and disc archiving shareware. I have mentioned it before, but another Forum article is long overdue on this software. Watch this space. However, I was disappointed to find that unlike previous versions, the new one wouldn't run at all in the 512, not even as far as displaying the help screen. I happened to tell David about this yesterday and he'd just received the new version too. Today he rang me to say he'd extended PCCE to fix the problem.
So far the list of programs that PCCE allows to run in the 512 is based on David's own tests. It includes Galaxy Lite, PKZIP/UNZIP v.2.04G, Microsoft Quick C and QBasic, As-Easy-As v.5 and a number of games which otherwise hang the system. Some of these might need an expanded 512, but as David doesn't have a 512K machine he can't check this. Anyone who gets PCCE and does find out, or can add other programs to the list should let me know and I'll include the information in future issues.
There is more in PCCE, but of course explanations are bound to be technical and so aren't likely to be interest most users. There's simply not enough space here to explain everything anyway and we now need to move on to David's other new program, a Microsoft-compatible text mouse driver.
A mouse driver doesn't need much explanation but it is appropriate to observe that it's another PC standard Acorn failed to provide. This omission is amazing when you recall that the mouse itself was included as part of the 512 system, but it becomes truly stunning when you consider the fact that Acorn did go to the trouble of writing two non-standard mouse drivers for the 512's bundled GEM. After all, in a PC, GEM uses a standard mouse driver! I can only think that someone must have had a very warped sense of humour.
David calls his program a Text Screen Mouse Driver, because it operates in 80 column text mode only. The inspiration for this one was the pull-down menus in the Quick C editor, once it was working, hence the 80 column 'limitation'. That said, who wants to work with 40 column text anyway? I know of no programs that do so. Graphics in the 512 is a totally different matter, which is why even the TCS mouse driver mentioned above has limitations in this area.
Many of you know I'm not a mouse fan, and so I'm no authority on this subject, but I'm quite prepared to accept it when David tells me his mouse driver works correctly with some programs that Tull's driver doesn't, the pointer movement is smoother, so the mouse is easier to use, and of course best of all, the program is free.
And finally, here is yet another 512 special! Programs that allow you to edit the environment variables in PCs aren't new, are very useful but sadly don't work in the 512. Things are in different places in the 512 and this is another area where DOS Plus and MS-DOS don't work in quite the same way.
Richard Poynter recently sent me a program which does this job in the 512. The program is very neat, with a nice front end and it reinstates the screen contents when you leave it after an edit. Within the program you can directly edit any of the 512's environment variables while the system is running.
Why? Well for example when you set a default PATH, normally in your AUTOEXEC.BAT you can't change any of it it without typing the entire line again. A temporary addition to PATH, to test a new program say, then putting it back afterwards is very tedious, especially if your PATH string is as long as mine. The screenshot shows the editor in action on my path, plus the editing options. With 'ENVEDIT' you can simply add or delete only the part of the entry you want to change instead. This is much quicker, easier and far less likely to result in an error.
Richard retains the copyright of his program so it's neither public domain nor shareware, but he is happy for me to supply it to 512 Forum readers.
You can obtain a copy of David Harper's programs from BBC PD (see the PD column in this issue as well). Alternatively, I'll provide a copy of the two plus Richard's environment editor for the princely sum of £2.00 inclusive.
Note, however, that I am not prepared to mix legitimate PD software or freeware with (strictly speaking illicit, though Shibumi Soft certainly deserve the treatment) commercial software on the same disc. If you want Problem Solver and the other programs these are two separate requests, though you can knock 38p off the combined price for the reduction in p&p.
For any of the above programs (except the TCS mouse driver) write to me directly: *******
Next month we'll take a look at PC magazine cover discs plus Pkware's software.