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Phoebe

Phoebe Case

Phoebe Case
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Phoebe Case, top angle

Phoebe Case, top angle
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Okay, so I do't actually own one of these computers; apart from two prototypes, no-one does. This, my friends, is were the story of Acorn Computers sadly ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper. It's Phoebe, the machine that killed Acorn.

I can remember going up to Cambridge to attend the Developer's Conference where Phoebe, the successor to the RiscPC, was unveiled; in the pre-iMac days when computers were all biege this was a bold, striking design step. Of course some of us didn't like the mustard-yellow, wishing for something more in keeping with the Acorn legacy - Acorn green perhaps (green apparently was too difficult a colour in this type of plastic), or some wanted black or red. The striking colour was obviously intended to bring about discussion, and so publicity; and hey, a change of colour helped the Proton prototype become the BBC Model B we all knew and loved. Maybe we'd grow to love it, or at least bide our time and find the address of a good case mod artist.

The Phoebe wasn't just a case however; a new OS, RISC OS 4, would be behind it, with its pastel coloured icons and jigsaw puzzle piece shaped new modular configuration program, and internals that did away with the old, expensive podule style expansion cards for standard PC style ISA(?) cards. An entirely new machine.

I designed the website for the launch show, Acorn World 1998 at the London Arena. Basing the design on the Phoebe itself as Acorn requested, I created a site where the logo was always overlaying an indented CD drive bay; the sponsors logos in the first drive bay; and large puzzle piece shaped icons in the second drive bay. It was stylish, colourful, and was echoed not only across the rest of the site but also in the magazine advertising. I even dared to use a Java countdown timer to the shows opening, because Acorn had said they were keeping up with Java developments so well that whenever Sun released a new version, it would only be a couple of weeks before the Acorn version would appear.

The countdown timer's still counting; there's no official site, only a couple of backup archives.

The launch was cancelled, and with it the show. There's not been a London show since; there's not been the market to support one. Acorn had ploughed all its time and money into the new machine, years of development and millions of pounds - they gambled that they could get it to market and make the money back; they lost that gamble. To some of us it seemed incredible - forget that we thought that there'd always be an Acorn, what about all of that time and money? How could they give up when they were so close? To others it had only been a matter of time, and they informed us sagely that it had been on the cards for a while.

It turned out that ARM, which Acorn had started to make chips for their desktop machines, was doing so well that it was worth several times its erstwhile parent. It still continues to dominate the mobile market today, because the low power consumption of the ARM chip makes it ideal for such devices as mobile phones and hand held computers. Acorn however fell apart; ARM bought itself out of Acorn with some strange share deal that no normal Acorn punter could understand, then there was E14 (Element 14, which is of course Silicon) but finally all the useful remnants were bought by Pace, who design set top boxes.

So where, then, do these photographs come from? The answer of course is that the case is all that remains of the Phoebe legacy; the machine was so close to completion that the initial batch of cases were ordered, in fact two distinct types (matt and gloss) exist. These sat in a warehouse until some bright spark decided to sell them as souvenirs, no computers inside but tantalising glimpses of what might have been, complete with wiring for the power switch, the indicator lights and so on. Suprisingly they were snapped up; unsuprisingly I was one of the snapees. You'd think that one of the advantages of being an Acorn nut who helps run a RISC OS news service is that sometimes you get tip-offs about products for sale and can follow up on them slightly ahead of telling your readers; alas it doesn't work, because newsgroup postings meant that even as a relatively early adopter I was somewhat down the waiting list.

Oh, and the name? It comes from the TV show Friends; one of the main characters was called Phoebe, and that was the codename for the project. There was a competition to find a better name, but no-one won so Phoebe remained, to the point of being printed on the case. Continuing with the Friends theme there was a little-seen evil identical twin sister called Ursula, which was the code name for RISC OS 3.8, the new version of the OS which finally saw the light of day as RISCOS Ltd's RISC OS 4. Rachel was the processor card, and Chandler the IOMD2 chip.

So Acorn is dead; long live Acorn. A number of companies popped up in its place, now that there is no main company to stamp upon competition. There are new, cheap, low-end machines, some of them with quite striking case designs; but we're still waiting for that fast, stylish machine with cutting edge speed and cheap, PC compatible peripherals.

More Info

Phoebe info page: http://www.octosys.co.uk/phb.html

Updates

Ex-Acorn employee David Cotton wrote in to correct a few mistakes on this page, and offer some extra info in the way of the project code names etc. He had this to say about the IOMD2 chip:
Chandler was in many ways the crux of the project, and it cost an absolute fortune to develop - we got the first ten samples through at the beginning of the week that the project was cancelled, and had only two soldered down on Revision 1 boards by the time of the canning. Hence there are only two working Phoebe's in the world.

At the RISC OS 2001 show in Berkshire there was a working Phoebe prototype on display for the first time, along with some other interesting bits and pieces. I wrote up a show report for The Icon Bar, and the relevant bits have been reproduced below:

There was a real blast from the past at the show, and one of the reasons I decided to go at the last minute: as promised a working Phoebe prototype was in evidence near the theatre, and even though it was only really a prototype it was already running fast enough to display four or five Replay movies at the same time, and render an ArtWorks document as well, without appearing to slow down.  It's a couple of years old, it hasn't been optimised, and yet it still beats anything we have at the moment.  Sadly it'll never be anything more than a museum piece though, especially as there are no PCI drivers (the cards power up, but there's no software to run them) and as there was no CD ROM (lack of compatible drivers) or floppy drive (broken connector?) installed either it was pretty hard to get software on it! (putting the hard drive into another RiscPC was the eventual solution).  I won't wax lyrical about all the bits and pieces, but I took plenty of 'photos to add to my own website.  There was the pizza oven slice fitted to a regular RiscPC (although sadly no free samples of food in evidence!); a production model of a fax machine developed by Acorn for a client who then had to junk almost the entire run because of problems from a rival company; and a triple video output card as used in service stations to display info on multiple monitors from one RiscPC.

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One of the main reasons I went, the working Phoebe as promised; note the number of movies playing at the same time.
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Prototype blue case design rendered in foam.  A number of colours were tried, and yellow was the most popular.
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Prototype board knocked together to test the IOMD2 (see white area).
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Above the first prototype is a second board ready to take the finished article.
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Early IOMD2 prototype.
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