Set Top Box - Questions


What is known is that the Bush set top box was essentially a failed project. Harsh as it may sound, one can be certain that a successful project would not be flogged in shops such as Toys'R'Us for a mere twenty pounds - heck, surely the power supply alone would retail for about that much?


So, then, is this yet another in a line of dot.bombs? That question is much harder to answer. It is tempting to suggest that, yes, it is another failed "let's cash in on the internet", but I think the real reason is that the box oversold itself.
Purely, simply, that.


We shall look first at the box as a unit. It is small. It runs cold (unlike practically every satellite receiver, for instance), it is pretty stylish. And, the best bit, it isn't difficult to use. Okay, the keyboard gets to be a bit of a pain in the ass, but even so, it isn't difficult. You can purchase a much better keyboard if you're a serious user.


So what went wrong? My first comment on this is that the box does not run MSIE.
Now, when you've calmed down enough to no longer be wanting my head shoved atop a fencepost, you will surely realise that - for better or worse (usually the latter) - MSIE is the "de facto" yardstick by which many websites are created. While the technology does, on the large part, provide ways to get around via the old "back door method" (a boring little <a href...> tucked where it is only really going to be noticed by those who don't have the necessary extensions for the dumb gimmick), lazy or careless web design means that often the only way to get to the content of a site is by dozing your way though a stupid, boring, and generally pointless Flash animated dodah. Now, the thing is thus, if you don't have Flash, you don't have an entry point. Just a hole where the Flash would take place, had you had it.

[Of course, I could rant and rave about those sites who say 'this site is best experienced with MSIE' and then include a little bit of JavaScript to chuck you out if you don't have MSIE ... I won't. Because I take the opinion that if the site designer is such a total f***wit, they don't deserve my time and effort trying to figure out what their (usually broken) JavaScript is trying to do.
You can level all sorts of accusations at me, like 'this site is terminally boring' or 'jeez dude, get a life', but you'll be able to view it on pretty much any HTML 3.2 browser that does tables...all the common RISC OS ones, all the common PC ones, all the common netbsd ones... hell, even Arachne and Lynx can deal!
Okay, rant over.
:-) ]


This neatly brings us to the software. The IBX-100 runs a version of Fresco. It doesn't do Flash, and it doesn't do Java. It does do a version of 'JavaScript'.
Java, on RISC OS, is quite disturbingly memory hungry. I cannot say about Java on my PC as Window's lazy-swapping, the VM, and the lack of visible information on questions like "how much memory is this task using?" make it harder to answer (though if we are to judge by how much memory/space is consumed by typical Windows applications...). But, we'll keep with RISC OS. The beta-test version of Java tries to allocate itself 8Mb at start-up. The IBX-100 has 8Mb fitted, so clearly this looks as being a bit of a non-starter. I've not seen very many Java things around, so, really, this isn't as restrictive as it might seem.
Flash, on the other hand, does exist for RISC OS. I have it, it isn't too memory hungry, so why - I ask - was it not included in the Bush box software?


Continuing the theme of basic functionality, I think Amstrad have a better concept (note - I said "concept", not "product"!). Target the unit as an email service that "can access websites". That way, it is primarily for email, the websites are a bonus. Then your users won't be so annoyed if a given website opens with a blank screen...and stays that way.
However, the Amstrad box has it's own problems which we won't discuss, and you can't excape the fact that you'd get a 'better' net experience by purchasing a second-hand modem and a second-hand PC in the P233MMX bracket, all of which would set you back around two hundred quid maximum (in the Spring of 2003, UK prices), and unlike these set-top-box designs, that's a real computer. You can play Quake on it. Not old ZX Spectrum games, like on the Astrad Emailer+. You can do your taxes on it. You can write letters to friends, and even jack in an ADSL line and get into streaming audio in a big way... Such things are less than easy, if possible at all, and a typical net box.
A penfriend, Ewen (hey amigo!), mentioned to me a while back about the ability of the Emailer+ to play Speccy games, and I still have not gotten over it. Oh...My...God! <sigh!>
On to less mentally stressful ideas, if I was doing a slow download, I would often plug into Radio Paradise in Paradise, California. They offered a 16K stream when I was listening. It sounded crap, but it only consumed half of my bandwidth. Their 32K stream tended to drop out as my 33k6 modem usually liked to connect a midge slower, 31200bps. However Wolf FM in Tennessee offers a 24K stream which is a good compromise. You can also try JJ McKay's Hot Hit Radio.
It's a real shame the IBX-100 doesn't have the sound stuff.


So now we turn to the hardware. If you've read the nerdier stuff here, you'll know that inside the Bush box is a combi-IO chip, providing: 2 serial ports, parallel port, IDE port, floppy disc, iRDA... It's a 'standard' ISA combi-chip, in this case an SMC FDC37C669. Look up the datasheet at if you're interested.

So, what do we see of it? Internally either a serial port or the iRDA is used for interfacing with the keyboard; and the parallel port. The other facilities are just ignored, it's not even as if there is a blank space for an IDC style socket for the harddisc or floppy disc.
Because that, I feel, would have been a useful addition. I'm leaning towards floppy disc. A cheap and cheerful thing that plugs into the back (maybe even looped though the parallel port like a zip drive) and will allow you to save stuff onto a disc which is formatted 1.44Mb DOS (for maximum compatibility).
Yes, it is true that every Bush box will easily connect to a parallel port iomega zip drive - but these are more expensive (I was thinking of about £30 for the drive, tops) and also require the disc to be formatted to the format used by the Argo Interactive software - not easily done on a PC. Certainly, raw reading and writing of sectors is possible, but what's the point of putting things on the disc if you have to understand the disc format and paste sectors together in order to retrieve your data? In fact, how many of you reading this know how to pull raw data from a zip disc, when it is hooked to a genuine PC running Microsoft?


Coupled with the above optional disc drive, you could then purchase 'expansion packs' which are special archives containing software add-ons. A cheap pack could, for example, add Flash capabilities and an off-line mail editor so you can write email and save it on disc and upload it all at one time. Maybe...yes, maybe, even basic POP3 and SMTP support. Use an all-in-one package, and you could add NNTP.
Provided the host ISP offers NNTP, POP3 and SMTP... you have in front of you a complete communications package - email, news... cool!
Hell, why stop there? The thing barely consumes any electricity. Why not load up some software and turn the thing into a fax machine? It will receive incoming faxes. These will be compressed and stored on disc until the user wishes to print them (or, it could print-on-receive as modern printers can do auto-power-up, I know that the BJC-4200 can do so), and you can include a drop-dead-basic word processor (nothing fancy, not even a spellcheck) to allow faxes to be written. 1stWord+ may not have been the greatest WP software, but it consumes a tiny 129K with no spellcheck dictionary. The code could be modified to make an even simpler word processor, and maybe bring the application size down even further.
A further package could install some sort of scanner driver. Remember, we're talking faxes, so 300dpi in black and white is much more than sufficient!


But, alas, no.
Instead we are stuck with a box that prints to a remarkably limited range of printers. A Lexmark 1000/1100, a Canon BJC-1000, and a Canon BJC-2000, and the only software upgrade route is by hooking up an Argo format zip disc (to be honest, I think we're lucky to have this much).
For printers, it disturbs me greatly that they didn't at least include FX-80, DeskJet, and LaserJet protocols, as most printers on the market can emulate at least one of these types. Such drivers exist for RISC OS (I use LJ-2, DJ, and FX myself), so why are they not in the box? I think this is a major limitation.
In the directory Resources.STBPrint.Printers you'll find definitions for such printers as FX-80, BubbleJet... even appears to have a PostScript driver inside!
It just appears to need the PDumperDM, and PDumperLJ modules and a lot of fiddling to get it to use them.


The box itself is basically 8Mb of memory, a Lucent modem (on the mobo, pretending to be podule 0), and an ARM7500 macrocell (processor, IO, and video combined) clocking around 40Hz. This may seem to be a bit of an "I laughed so hard I wet myself" in a modern world where anything under 384Mb RAM (a third of that on the video card) and 1800Mhz clock speed is 'wimpy', but those who have used the Bush box will know that it isn't so tediously slow and clunky as it might seem by specs alone. Indeed, it is quite suited to the task it is intended for. I believe that expansion via a disc interface would have allowed the unit to go in all sorts of new directions.


So - what went wrong?
From the outside, it is hard to know exactly who to blame. I think somebody has been a bit over-the-top in dumbing the system down.
And, sadly, corners were cut in order to save money. These corners may have been the ones that would have held the box up. I could make a smart comment about ancient Greece, but at school I found history boring, so instead I'll say "Facilis desensus Averno", which has little relevance, it just makes me seem vaguely literate. :-)
Anyway, consider, for example, a new A3000 computer (Acorn, not Amiga!) when it was released. I don't remember the exact price, something along the lines of £800 probably isn't far off. Inside they omitted two chips used to provide a serial port. The cost in those days? About a tenner (- sterling, that's roughly 15 euro, or $15).
It seems as if the same sort of logic was going on here. Things were omitted. I know from my work as a programmer that logic all too easily flies out of the window and imagination takes a back seat to monetary concerns (one of the reasons I changed career) - but in the end, with hindsight, one can look back at the project and wonder how much was lost, overall, to save so little? Indeed, I would be extremely interested to see some of the early design plans for the unit. The ex-Acorn people are an innovative and clever bunch, and I'd be interested to see if any of these kinds of things (or maybe better stuff I've not though of) was written into the original wish-list?


Where do we go from here?
I think Bush, Alba, and Pace are probably going to be more than happy to forget this headache. I have it from an "unconfirmed source" that somebody at Pace (who owned the rights to RISC OS) wanted a nice 32bit version to put into a new all-singing-all-dancing internet box. Since leaving England (May 2002), it seems a number of Pace people no longer work for Pace (monetary cutbacks, I would guess). A 32bit version of RISC OS has appeared for the new Iyonix - so sitting here in France I can only guess what the heck has been going on!

What we can't deny, though, is sadly, the best internet experience comes from a Windows machine running MSIE. I avoid such a beast as much as I can, but I don't deny that it is slick and - quite frankly - impressive.
Okay, security 'issues' up the wazoo, but it doesn't bother me - I don't use it!

But I know there's more to life than pretty pictures. I use RISC OS and Fresco for better security, better configurability, and a need for speed. No pictures for me, thanks.
But that aside... I think the way forward depends upon your resources. For me, I'm going to try to knock up some basic fax facilities. It'll be little more than !Edit, !ArcFax, and !Printers on a zip disc; but it'd be interesting to try it. Talking to the on-board modem might be in interesting experience?
If you don't have a zip disc, don't have an Acorn/RISC OS computer, but do have a Bush box...well, things aren't so good for you. You've got your Bush box and, well, you've got your Bush box.


I did not use my Bush box as often as I could, as I tend to save stuff that I download (one of the reasons a disc crash wiping out 2Gb of data didn't concern me too much - 90% of it was downloaded rubbish that I didn't need. 6% was backed up. I still get upset over the remaining 4% though...). However I did use it for those times when I wanted to look up something. It'd be a boon, actually, to begin watching a movie (videoing it, I video a lot of stuff), and as the starting credits roll, I pop over to IMDb and look up the film. The Bush box is connected to the TV by SCART, the VCR by UHF, so I just hit the AV button to toggle between them. The hi-fi system takes the NICAM stereo sound directly from the VCR, so the sound is unaffected, and I can easily switch back to the broadcast if it starts to sound interesting.


As I've always said, I probably would not have bought a Bush box for the original price.
I'm not ashamed of this, as my Internet needs were more specific than the Bush box can provide. Of course, seeing it on sale for £20, of course I bought one!
The question, for me, is what now? I have actually managed, with a modem and fake 'phone line' (refer to Frobnicate issue 1) to connect to my RiscPC with the Bush box. It looks really good when connected to an AKF12 RGB monitor. But, you know, there's more that this little gizmo is capable of. I consider the keyboard to be a bit of a problem for me (I only have the remote-control keypad, not the full-sized keyboard). A problem, yes. But not a big problem. I'm going to have to sit and think about this awhile.
Having said that, I've knocked up some software to render drawfiles in a sequence, controlled by the keypad. If I ever need to do a presentation, then I'll take the Bush box and my Zip drive, and a 50Hz monitor or a TV... It'll be a ready-to-roll display system.

Return to index
Copyright © 2003 Richard Murray