Alasdair Bailey finds out what's afoot up at the Castle.
(Note - click on the images to see a (much) larger version. Adjust-click on the Acorn to load into a new window.)
Castle Technology is based in the small Suffolk town of Framlingham about thirty miles north of Ipswich. Headed by Jack Lillingston and John Ballance, Castle has been an important force in the Acorn market for quite some time now. The company takes its name from the village's medieval castle, built in the 13th century by Hugh Bigod.
Following recent expansions, the company now occupies two large industrial units and, unlike many computer companies, its premises are nicely decorated and tidy. This speaks volumes for the company and its management; nobody likes to give money to a disorganised-looking outfit.
A quick look around the office reveals only one lone PC amongst a sea of Acorn machines. As with many Acorn-dedicated companies, this lone PC is used solely for accounts because of difficulties in finding accountants able or willing to use the RISC OS alternative. Castle is keen to stress that it is a completely RISC OS dedicated company; having briefly ventured into the PC hardware market in the early 90s, it found the technical support necessary to be too time-consuming so soon gave up.
A bit of history
As a company with a history of buying up Acorn's discontinued stock and selling it on, it was only natural that following October 1998's announcement, Castle should work to continue the supply. The production side of the business has now been going for just over a year. Motherboards and cases are commissioned for manufacture elsewhere in large numbers and shipped to Castle for assembly.
The current range
At the time of writing, demand for both Risc PCs and A7000+ machines is far outstripping supply. Castle is currently about three weeks behind on orders; by the time you read this the company should be back on track. This is a very positive sign given that many thought the market as it is now wouldn't see out '99.
Castle is currently doing a good job of marketing and selling under the Acorn brand. Its base model - the A7000 Odyssey - is basically an A7000+ as was produced by Acorn but with marginally improved perfor mance and Castle's own software bundle. The company's Risc PC range also benefits from new hardware developments with all models now including the new revision 'T' StrongARM processor with its improved task-swapping capabilities.
Assembly of new machines takes place in a downstairs room in the main building. Case mouldings, PCBs and other components are purchased in bulk and stored in the warehousing unit across the way. At all stages in production, Castle strives to maintain the high standard of quality and reliability that was championed by Acorn. All computers are tested, tested some more then tested again with a long spell on the soak rack somewhere in between.
Castle operates a strict stock control system across the site using a network of RISC OS machines to maintain a database of exactly what's in stock and where it is. Practices such as these are essential now that machines are being assembled on site; staff could be left drinking coffee all afternoon if stocks of processors unexpetantly ran dry at lunchtime.
Advancing the standard
Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Castle is constantly improving its range of Acorn-branded systems. The high-end Risc PC models now ship with DVD drives although no drivers for the DVD facility are included. When questioned about this inconsistency, Jack commented: "It's always a chicken and egg situation. There was an opportunity to put DVD drives in and use them as a CD reader which is what we've chosen to do." He then continued to explain how hopefully, the presence of plenty of DVD drives in the market will promote the development of drivers for data DVD discs and perhaps even MPEG hardware for playing movies from the comfort of RISC OS.
Castle's machines now all ship with RISC OS 4 as standard. It is good to see that Castle is supporting RISCOS Ltd. in this respect after they stood accused of going it alone in the days of the Steering group which took care of negotiations after Acorn's withdrawal from the market.
It's plain to see that once the sales of RiscPCs and A7000s start to fall, Castle, as a commercial enterprise will need a new product to stay alive. What form this new product will take is still a mystery but given the company's good relations with what was once Acorn, some are suggesting that a re-awakening of the Phoebe Risc PC II project may be on the cards.
Understandably, Castle is remaining tight-lipped on this subject. Any talk of new hardware will dent sales of current models. Jack points out that Acorn sold only minimal numbers of Risc PCs and A7000s once the Phoebe project was widely publicised. This could well have been one of the major contributing factors to the axeing of the project. Those in charge at Acorn would have gained an unduly bleak picture of the state of the desktop market by looking at sales figures for the two years leading up to the demise of the workstations division.
When quizzed on whether he'd seen the events of 'Black Thursday' coming, Jack replied simply: "It came as a hell of a surprise and a total shock". However, in common with some others in the market, he had been left slightly nervous after a meeting for dealers a fortnight prior to the event. At this meeting, Jack recounts how a last ditch effort was made to raise funds for the project.
Following Acorn's move to abandon its traditional desktop market, Castle did not join the numerous other dealers and developers who took part in the so-called Steering group negotiations. Instead, as mentioned earlier, they negotiated their own deal to continue the supply of existing models. At the time, many condemned Castle for acting in this way. Looking back, with the gift of retrospect, it's a good job they did. Had the steady supply of Acorn branded machines not been maintained over the 14 months between Acorn leaving and the RiscStation coming on stream, many would have deserted the market.
Jack sees the existence of companies producing their own RISC OS hardware as a good thing on the whole. That said, he is quick to point out that Castle's Acorn developed range still has its benefits: "you've got a wide range of hardware add-ons that are already up and running and widely available, all the software is 100% compatible because that's what it was designed to run on and the hardware is supported throughout the industry.". Healthy competition between the companies should keep all parties on their toes which is always a good thing.
A new browser
This is where Oregano comes in. As a desktop version of an NC OS browser developed by Oregan Networks, it uses very little memory, is quick to render pages and most importantly, will be maintained into the future. The browser has been developed by Oregan for a Korean customer and following a deal with Castle, it is now being taken across to RISC OS. Most of the work is going into making the browser more desktop-friendly so, for example, it has been modified to use more than one window and display an icon bar icon.
As can be seen from the screen grabs, Oregano is a nicely-presented application with a somewhat unique window layout. At the time of writing, the interface is still very NC-oriented so takes a bit of getting used to. This should be sorted out by release though.
Castle's primary reason for developing Oregano is to provide it with a browser to be included with new machines. "I think everybody these days expects to have a good browser that's supported" commented Jack. His sentiments will be shared by many others in the market we suspect.
It's good to see a company which is willing to promote software growth as well as its main line of business in the hardware sector. Castle also works closely with RISCOS Ltd. and seems keen to make sure its users have a decent range of applications to run on their machines rather than being left with a nice operating system on stable hardware and not a lot else.
One interesting fact gleaned during the interview was that sales of machines are split roughly by thirds. Currently, one third of Castle's orders are from education, a third from home users and the rest from OEM customers. It's interesting to see that the OEM market (people such as SiPlan and Millipede) wich was largely ignored by Acorn in favour of eductaion now represents a third of all sales of its machines.
Jack has a clear view of what needs to be done in the future: "I think the important thing is to maintain the reliability which is our number one selling point: we must be very careful that nothing moves us away from that." Let's hope that Castle can continue to set the standard for reliability into the future.