Current State of RISC OS
Risc OS is a British operating system (OS) owned by Castle Technology that was and is way ahead of its time. Designed to be run from ROM the system is utterly incorruptable by anything short of reprogramming with a pick axe. Choices (eg, backdrops/wallpaper) are saved to disc and changes to the OS (such as Patches) can be stored in Flash Memory so there is no loss of control. Total start up time on my 1999 Risc PC, from pressing the on button to loading up your browser, is just under 16 seconds according to my watch, and that's booting to a 1280x1024 screen mode with a full sized bitmap background, total custom GUI Theme overhaul and mp3 player churning out OMD.
Risc OS is a fully up to date system at the time of writing (Latest new version 2004, Castle are currently consulting on a new version codenamed Merlin). On it's native Risc machines Risc OS takes up virtually no RAM, the access time is measured in nanoseconds, not milliseconds from a hard drive and, in use, everything from the operating system is instant. When a major upgrade comes along you can eaither just pop the old ROMs out and push the new ones in or if you prefer, you can boot all 4mb of OS from your Hard-Drive/CD-ROM. The 4mb of ROM contains the OS, basic apps such as a text editor, bitmap editor, vector editor etc. A Risc OS machine without a hard drive is still a useable computer, useful if your hard drive smegs up but admittedly not a desirable state of affairs.
Risc OS software is pretty impressive. All the industry standard filetypes are supported by the major applications, so there isn't a problem there. For some reason (whether it's something to do with Risc itself or just good coding I don't know) all the apps are a hell of a lot smaller than the Windoze versions. The major document editor takes up around 0.5 meg of your hard drive and only around 600k ram, with the benifit that you can fit the equivilent of MS Works onto a single 1.6Mb floppy (those are the same floppies windows decides to format to 1.44Mb). Windows users usually refuse to belive their eyes, but then I suppose Risc OS apps don't have flight simulators hidden in them :-).
Risc OS dedicated machines such as the Kinetic or the new Iyonix Panther (produced by Castle Tech) can run other operating systems. Linux runs brilliantly, no problems there. So does BSD. Mac OS can't be installed for obvious reasions (more's the pitty). Windows/DOS does run, though it's a tad slow. My (admittedly venerable) Risc PC when running Windows 98 is fine for MS Office 2000 or playing Duke Nukem 3D, but don't try to run any of the latest games via windows. The up side of running Windows/DOS ontop of Risc OS (Risc OS taking the place of a hyper-flexable BIOS and back-up OS) is that it can run Windows inside a window on a Risc OS desktop/GUI with the DOS drives as disc images on your hard drive, which can be treated as standard directories/folders. This way I can back up Drive C (dedicated solely to the Windows OS) by simply copying the disc image as easily as if it were a Word document. In the event of a major disaster rendering Windows unusable, system files can be edited and documents recovered via RISC OS without even being deprived of your MP3 collection.
Risc OS can now be run in a similar way on Windows or Linux thanks to the 'Virtual Acorn' software by Graeme Barnes of 3QD. The latest version of Virtual Acorn, VRPC-Adjust, is a nigh on perfect emulation of a Risc PC running Risc OS Adjust. The emulation package effectively allows Risc OS to access the full resources of your PC letting you take advantage of Risc OS's modern and powerful graphics and DTP software packages. Of course this still requires you to load Windows/Linux as a host OS. As both these Operating systems are significantly larger than Risc OS's 4MB this really boosts the "Switch-On to Work" lag, though once booted Risc OS's ease of use and streamlined apps do give a significant advantage over relying on the huge code-mountains that pass for apps on Windows. Several companies have taken advantage of these factors to produce so-called hybrid machines such as the A6+ from Advantage 6 which are designed specificaly to run RISC OS on x86 based hardware via emulation.
Risc OS dedicated machines such as the Iyonix from Castle Tech do, as stated, run the OS from Rom. The BIG advantage of this is that it never needs to be reinstaled due to file corruption, disc errors etc. A windows user that I know asked me why I prefered Risc OS. I replied by asking him how many times he had reinstalled windows in the past year. He couldn't remember. I asked him how many times I'd had to reinstall Risc OS in the past ten. Think about it.
RISC OS Related Nodes
If you are aware of (or create) any further writeups related to RISC OS please let me know so I can link to them here.
For Screenshots of RISC OS see http://www.iconbar.com/desktop/screenshots.html