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Alive 4

Rob Goldsmith answers some elegantly posed questions from CiH!

A  promising but little discussed project to provide a fast and  modern  web 
browser  for the Atari range of computers first came to my notice some  time 
ago.  At  one  of  the  Stafford ACC get-togethers in  a  freezing  barn,  a  
friendly  dude called Rob Goldsmith showed me how slick his  early  work-in-
progress  was at formatting HTML.  Compared with CAB,  it was about twice as 
quick. We decided straight away that this was good.

What was going to be even better,  was the fact that "Project Highwire",  as 
it  was  called,  was  going  to  be developed all  the  way  into  a  fully 
functioning modern web browser,  even with some facilities,  such as Java or 
Javascript,  where CAB declined to venture. The only downside to this so far 
uninterrupted  flow of  good news,  was that work was only being done on  it 
"as time permitted." Any Atari person who has been around for any length  of 
time  knows what that killer phrase really means,   so our hearts sank  back 
down into our boots again.

It  seemed that our worst fears had been realised,  as Rob announced that he 
was  unable to spare any time for it at all,  and the project was being made 
open source. Then things went very very quiet for a while.

But  now,  it  looks like Highwire wasn't dead and gone after all.  A reborn 
website has emerged, details of collaborators have been posted, and there is 
a sense of "watch this space - something real good is coming soon!"  around. 
Now  we've  managed  to grab hold of Rob,  to put the  following  series  of 
crucial questions to him. Take it away Rob!


Hi Rob, it's been a while since we last heard from you, how are you doing?

Not bad :) Personally,  I've very busy with my PhD, the reason I had no time
for Highwire in the first place.  On an Atari note, I'm still very much here
but getting increasingly frustrated that I no longer have an Atari  computer
to develop on. I'm waiting eagerly for some sort of emulator that runs under
mac os x (and allows easy file transfer between the atari and the host mac).
I use macs in my PhD research you see.

We  see that 'Project Highwire'is coming back into the public  eye,  through 
announcements from etc. Why have things been so quiet for so long?

Well,  with so little time on my hands,  then the lack of atari computer,  I
simply  could  not progress and had to wait for the open source  release  to
generate some interest.  I am very glad to say that it did create some small
interest and, sometimes after quite some convincing, we now have a hot group
of programmers working on Highwire. They took time to acquaint themselves to
my  'idiosyncratic' (to say the least) way of programming before they  could
make progress and this also took time :)

What has brought about this recent revival?

Actually,  the  development has been quite steady over the last few  months.
Spearheaded by Dan Ackerman and with the slow addition of other programmers,
they  simply  had  a lot to do before we thought there  was  something  good
enough to raise peoples hopes again.

I  remember  Highwire,  a couple of years ago,  as an offline HTML  browser, 
which was able to offer very fast HTML page display, but not a lot else. How 
much further has it come on since then?

A  long way :) Frames were in two years ago but they were buggy to  say  the
least  and  this has been fixed.  Tables have been added (with a few  tweaks
still to do),  coloured text, placeholders for images (images themselves are
something  we  are  looking  closely  at)  and  more  comprehensive  foreign
character support have been added.  Furthermore,  quite a lot of the parsing
code has been either tweaked or outright re-written to accelerate it further
(some  pages are parsing about twice as quickly now).  The best news is that
all these enhancements and additions, quite contrary to many peoples belief,
have not slowed down the rendering - Highwire is faster than ever before!

Following on from the last question, how much further has it still got to go 
before  it becomes a viable online web browser to directly compare with  the 
likes of CAB? After the early Xmas present preview which was very nice, what 
is likely to be coming next?

Tables  still need some tweaking and forms and images are not even  started.
There  are  also  more  holes  than  solid  working  bits  of  code  in  the
hyperlinking  so,  although we have come a long way,  we still have a way to
go.  On  the  plus  front,  we do have a - VERY hacked - online  system  for
testing. This is not the final code by any stretch of the imagination but it
has  shown  us that the way we have written Highwire is a good  way,  easily
extended  as  we  had first planned.  The next release should  have  images,
hyperlinks  and possibly forms.  I couldn't even guess how long it will take
though - sorry :(

I'm  going out on a limb here,  a very long and exposed limb,  a tree-branch 
getting steadily thinner, as the wood rots underneath you. Is there any sort 
of  (realistic) timescale for Highwire to be 'rolled out'?  Are we  talking, 
weeks, months, or piece of string periods of time?

Well,  I  couldn't guess.  To give you a bit of the path we have sketched in
for developing highwire though; we see highwire as more than just a browser.
There  are  many programs (the obvious non-browser use is an  email  client)
that would like html parsing capabilities and our plan is to allow this.  We
want the core Highwire code to be almost like a library - available to  many
programs.  A  programmer  simply gives Highwire an html file and asks it  to
render it to somewhere. This library style format will also make writing the
actual  browser much easier.  We also saw no good reason to try to write two
interface  engines - the browser interface and the html renderer so we  plan
to  write most of the browser interface in html.  This will allow for pretty
coloured  and totally user controllable 'skinable' interfaces you  can  play
with to your hearts desire.  Of course, this will require hyperlinks, images
and forms to be working first :)

Could you tell us a bit more about your various co-collaborators,  and which 
bits they are doing?

Gladly!  As I said,  I am very reluctantly having to take a back seat at the
moment and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all those who have
contributed  code or time testing or documentation etc.  You are all doing a
great  job!  Dan  Ackerman (aka Baldrick) is doing most of the  work  (sorry
Dan!)  and coordinating the work of the others.  I am sure you don't want  a
long list - we are all mentioned at:

As  you can see from there,  apart from the half a dozen programmers working
on Highwire itself,  there are people working on related code, documentation
and testing. Everyone (except me!) are doing a fantastic job :)

The  Highwire  website suggests that "any Atari computer  capable  of  multi 
tasking"  should  be able to run Highwire.  In your view,  what is a  decent 
minimum set-up?

There  are  a  few reasons for this choice.  Two of the big ones  are  that,
firstly,  if  you  are on a single-tasking setup,  you cannot thread  (well,
easily)  and  we  want  to thread  the  online,  caching,  rendering,  image
decompression, plugins such as flash and file downloading. Secondly, single-
tasking systems have not got such good support for things like libraries  (I
explained above what we want to do with Highwire). More generally,

I  personally feel that you won't get the most out of Highwire in a  single-
tasking  system  and it will only perform a little better overall  than  CAB
while restricting our coding so we can't create a better product for  multi-
tasking  systems.  This  will  always  be a  controversial  call  and  while
developing we are trying to think of ways to support earlier systems but  we
have enough trouble trying to support the three versions of C developers are
using  (gcc,  pure  c and lattice) and the 4 os's we are testing on  (magic,
magicpc, magicmac and mint).

How much of a boost will current (CT2,  Nemesis, Phantom), and future (CT60, 
Tempest) hardware accelerators give Highwire?

Highwire,  like any other program, will run faster on a faster processor. At
that  show two years ago we tried it on a Hades machine and it did  realtime
re-rendering as you resized the window - without flicker. On the other hand,
higher  colour settings and resolutions will slow it down again so it's  all
swings  and roundabouts.  I would say that the threading and the great  code
acceleration  additions  in Highwire will make it very usable  on  a  falcon
(unaccelerated) and if you have anything better, Highwire will rock :)

In  your  opinion,  how capable is something like a standard Falcon  (taking 
that  as  a base system) capable of running some of the  more  advanced  web 
features, such as Javascript, etc?

First,  let me clear up a possible slight confusion. Java and Javascript are
NOT the same thing.  I doubt we will get Java working at all - and certainly
not on a falcon. Javascript, however, is a totally different kettle of fish.
In essence, Javascript is a scripting language for the Document Object Model
(a kind of interface to the inner workings of the web browser) and as  such,
does  not  require  huge processing power.  Another feature I  mentioned  is
flash.  Although  Shockwave  can be very processor intensive,  simple  Flash
should also be possible. I am less sure about this though :)

Your original intention was to make Highwire freeware, as direct competition 
to the commercially available CAB. Is that still the case, or is there going 
to  be  a move to a shareware type of distribution?  You may be  aware  that 
quite  a  lot of people would still be willing to pay  something  towards  a 
decent and up to date www browser for their Atari computer.

This is quite a long way into the future but I still hold that there  should
be  a free browser for the atari.  A likely arrangement will be a free  html
3.2  or  even basic 4.01 browser and shareware registration  to  enable  the
plugins such as style-sheets,  flash, javascript and possibly the 'skinning'
feature mentioned above.  If all you want to do is browse, you can do it for
free.  If you want to browse with style,  this may cost a small amount. Why?
it encourages the programmers to keep programming :)

Putting on your philosophy hat, do you think that there is a real need for a 
replacement for CAB? A lot of people seem to run a PC alongside their Atari, 
and use the PC for the majority of internet tasks.

To answer this honestly,  no :) However, esp. after seeing my answer to your
later  question  on ie and microsoft,  I love the atari platform (even if  I
have  had  to  move away from it a bit).  You could apply the  same  'is  it
needed' to any program. After all, if you have a pc as well, why not install
an emulator to play your games and do all your computing in windows?

Now I'm putting that last question in a slightly different way. With Windows 
XP being revealed, in spite of the hype, as buggy and insecure. Do you think 
there  needs to be a real alternative to the legally  endorsed  incompetence 
and  money-grabbing  of  Microsoft?  On an  entirely  different,  non-Wintel 
platform perhaps?

I suspect you are asking 'would a new atari computer survive and grow in the
current market'. I am afraid I must answer no to that implied question - sad
though the answer is.  To answer your direct question,  yes, there is a need
for open source software,  cheap development tools and better software but I
see  it  coming from the unix world - Linux and MacOS X (which is  based  on
netbsd).  Taking  MacOSX  as  an  example,  it is built on  the  solid  unix
foundations  and 90% of it's core development is open source (Darwin  -  the
unix  bit  -  is free to download,  if you want it).  It is also capable  of
integrating  into  a pc network and using pc files and  filesystems  to  aid
migration but it is so much better and easier to use (just like the atari!).
Last, Linux and MacOSX come will a full suite of developer tools for free.

My  message  is  simply - if you can,  move to a  non-windows  platform  and
wherever  possible support open source software.  With the increased cost of
microsoft licenses,  a recent survey of UK companies found about 30% of them
are  seriously  evaluating a move away from microsoft and another  40%  were
'considering it'.

Moving  away from tricky project-specific questions,  you may breathe a  bit 
easier now, just a little bit, go on. Now wasn't that better!  Have you been 
keeping any sort of eye on the movements of the Atari scene in general? What 
are  your views on the progress of the demo scene,  return of the  Reservoir 
Gods,  and  things like the CT60?  Where do you think it is all going in the 
near to mid-term future?

Whatever anyone says,  the atari platform is fun to program. In my view it's
as simple as that. People try other platforms such as pc and apple but there
is  nothing quite like an atari.  Couple this with the sense of  achievement
you get from making your slow old atari do something fantastic and the great
atari  community support,  there are certain programmers who just can't stay
away :)

On the other hand,  this thrill of 'hacking' the atari is not really present
in  writing  microsoft  word converters or database  programs  and,  despite
programmers coming back, I think application software output will decline.

The  atari platform is less and less becoming a 'working' platform and  more
of a fun machine to write demos for.

Re-iterating  what  I  said  above,  if you move,  don't move to  a  windows
platform.  If  you  must go pc,  go linux (although it is a bit of a pig  to
setup)  and  choose something other than intel - AMD are good and  half  the
price. My personal recommendation is an apple because MacOSX is stonking and
magicmac is very good (but doesn't currently run under os x...  come on Ash,
release an osx version - please!).

You  may be wondering why we are still writing Highwire - think about  this:
Highwire, under emulation on a pc, seems to be a little faster than ie 5...

What are your views on emulated Atari's? Things like STEEM seem to be pretty 
popular;  there were these guys who developed a game called 'Chu Chu Rocket' 
on it, no honest!

I can well believe it :) Quite a lot of Highwire development is in  magicmac
and  magicpc  and,  although  magicmac is not really an emulator  (macs  use
motorola chips like ataris) this whole process is perfectly viable.  The big
problem  with  ataris  is the lack of procesing  power  compared  to  modern
standards and emulation (esp.  magicmac) solves this problem. Atari programs
fly on a modern pc or mac. Oh, and by 'pc' I don't just mean windows - there
are linux atari emulators as well :)

One  thing I would like to ask emulator programmers is 'please make it  easy
to  move  files between the emulated atari and the host machine' -  this  is
what is keeping me from developing Highwire :(

And we'd just love a paragraph of pure blood-red ranting at this late stage! 
What  are  your views on the whole Microsoft thing?  Populariser of  quality 
home  computing to the lumpen masses,  or cash-bloated,  Jabba the Hutt like 
destroyers of diversity and excellence?

Apple,  Atari  and others 'popularised' home computing and ibm invented  the
'pc'. Microsoft did nothing more than copy other peoples ideas and sell them
at  a  cheaper  price.  There is no real argument about this - that  is  how
Microsoft became the standard for pcs.  After they got there,  they got rich
on  costly  updates  and  licences as well as charging a  fortune  to  be  a
'certified developer'.

This  would  not be a problem if they produced  quality  software.  However,
bugs,  not  sticking  to agreed standards,  constantly changing formats left
right and center and not releasing protocol and format info etc.  as well as
a  seemingly total lack of the concept of 'ease of use' (well,  they  copied
the products off of atari and apple,  not the concepts, after all!) has lead
to a world where the average user is perplexed, frustrated and generally not
in a mood to look kindly on their pc.  Look at Atari, Amiga or Apple and you
will  see  quite the opposite.  The users of these machines don't need  much
technical support,  huge software operating manuals and constant bug fix and
security updates.  Many more 'creative' professionals use Atari's and Apples
for  their  work  and the general reason is 'they do  what  I  want  without
distracting me from what I'm doing'.

I  only  have one good thing to say about microsoft - their Mac  version  of
office  is  really  good :) However,  the mac products are  developed  in  a
completely separate department to the pc products...

Finally,  Knightrider  versus  the A-Team,  who do you think would have won? 
(This was the header text on an email virus!)

Ah, at last, an easy question :) I would have to go with Knightrider because
the car has an AI. I research AI, A-Life and Artificial Evolution for my PhD
so I'm a bit biased :)

Thanks for your precious time Rob, and best of luck mate!

You're welcome :)

- Alive! Mag - 2002 -

Alive 4