The Ham’s Inconsistent Love/Hate relationship with Progress and Technology

WARNING: pontificating and ranting ahead. You’ve been warned.

Tom pointed out that I had an inadvertent markup error which ended up dropping several paragraphs of this post. It is now corrected.

Julian, G4ILO followed up yesterday’s post about technology not being good for ham radio with a nearly equally confusing one today entitled Platform for progress. I find it confusing because the over the bulk of it, I’m entirely in agreement. He says that there are a (presumably significant) number of technophiles who get involved in amateur radio, only to drop out immediately when they realize that it isn’t a replacement for the cell phone or Internet because the infrastructure isn’t as extenstive or reliable as they expect. I’d agree that is probably true, although it’s hard to say that hams who never really become active have any actual negative effect on the hobby.

He then goes on to criticize the existing top end of HT radios, and in most respects I agree with him. When I compare the level of technology that’s inside my VX-8GR to the level of technology inside my two year old iPhone 3GS, the difference is palpable. But I think that’s mostly unfair: after all, the iPhone is cutting edge mass market product, with sales in the millions, and the VX-8GR will probably sell a few tens of thousands of units. And, of course, the IPhone’s purchase price is in most cases heavily subsidized by high fees from the cell phone companies which are simply not available to ham radio manufacturers.

But even taking those things into account, the state of the art in ham radio HTs is maddeningly primitive, and in ways that make operating your radio more difficult and more confusing. My VX-8GR has impossibly small buttons in an undistiguishable array on the front. Many important functions require pushing both a function key on the side and then a button on the front, a maneuver which cannot be done with one hand, and if you were left handed, require a very odd grip. The display is small and often fails to contain useful information, while commonly cluttered with information you don’t need. All the APRS functions are hidden behind the need to hit the MODE button, which puts you in a different mode, with different setup options, and a similarly bewildering method for navigating among APRS messages. Programming memories is (as it is on virtually all radios) a similarly mystifing barrage of error prone button clicks. It’s simply horrible.

And yet, it’s probably one of the better and more capable radios out there. Go figure.

Julian’s vision of how HTs could be transformed is remarkable, and I wish that ham radio manfuacturers would listen to him. While some people criticize attempts to make things easier to use as “dumbing down”, I completely disagree. No good purpose is served by poor interfaces, even for experts. It’s ridiculous how much effort it takes to get a radio programmed with local repeaters. I recently did this for the VX-8GR, and it involved:

  • Buying a custom cable and software, because even if you had the cable (which is of course not a standard type), you still can’t find software to program the radio for free, despite having spent $350 on the radio.
  • Surfing over to K5EHX’s awesome repeater site and downloading an export of all the local repeaters.
  • Loading them into the software, and then deleting obvious duplicates and bad data.
  • Organizing them into banks.
  • Adding a bunch of FM satellite frequencies, along with Doppler shifts for satellite operation.
  • Adding in APRS setups for both terrestrial (144.390) and satellite (145.800) frequencies.

I can imagine a world where I plug the radio in, visit a website, and all this happens automatically. Would this be dumbing down amateur radio? Of course not. It doesn’t take any particular intelligence to program a radio: it’s just a bit of tedium that could reasonably be automated. But the state of the radio art is a long way from making this happen. What’s more, because most radios hide behind undocumented protocols and stupid non-standard cables, it isn’t even possible for guys as clever as K5EHX (who programmed and maintains the repeater maps himself) to step up and make life easier for everyone.

So, Julian and I are in violent agreement, right up until the end of today’s post, where he says:

So why won’t this happen? I guess the reason for that is that Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood and the rest don’t make cellphones. Their business is making radios that are intended to be as dumb as most of their users. Ham radio is just an offshoot. The market just isn’t big enough to justify developing what for them would be a completely different and unique hardware platform. So I guess for the foreseeable future we’ll be stuck with our geeky walkie talkies and the cool stuff will all be on cellphones.

Argh. First of all, I don’t see how anything good comes out of insulting a bunch of your fellow hams. Our own intelligence lies along a continuum, and while I admit that there are a lot of people considerably stupider or less experienced than I, there are also a whole bunch of people on the other side who are considerably smarter and more experienced. It’s hard to understand how calling other people stupid actually enhances ham radio. James has pointed out that Julian was likely referring to business and public radio users as being “dumb”. I’ll strike the previous paragraph as a misunderstanding of his point. I do think that Kenwood, Yaesu and Icom don’t design ham radios the way they are because of any conviction that their radios need to be simple (in fact, I’d say that they are needlessly complicated to use, as my examples above were meant to indicate) but that simply they have successfully sold radios of similar design, and their isn’t enough competition for them to invest in improving them in significant ways. I also think it is possible (but I have no evidence to support it) that there might be some fear that a significantly new and radical architecture for radios might be met with some trepidation by hams, who have a reputation of not being the most progressive and quick to adopt new things.

Secondly, it presumes that technological advances in ham radio must come from manufacturers. Even today, that simply isn’t true: modes like APRS and PSK31 were originally designed by amateurs, and have been copied and extended by amateurs until the manufacturers took notice, and are just now being adopted as features in products. We also see software defined radio in inexpensive amateur kits like the Softrock, and now adopted into semi-commercial products like The SDR Cube. My guess is that you’ll see a commercial offering of similar capability reasonably soon. My point: we can serve to lead and inform manufacturers what technology we find interesting by developing it ourselves, and creating a market for it..

Lastly, I’m exasperated by the fatalism that is expressed by these kind of statements. Here and in the responses to yesterday’s article, Julian expressed doubts that “ordinary hams” could learn enough about SDR or acquire the ability to work with surface mount parts. I’m baffled by this kind of negativity. Here in the U.S. we are regulated under Part 97, which says that the amateur radio service was created to allow for self training, experimentation and advancement of the radio arts. It doesn’t say anything about mastering “just the easy bits” or “just the non-software bits”. Julian also made the claim:

Those that have the expertise to experiment with new technologies in ham radio probably learnt those skills professionally. The reason why I am against the incursion of advanced technologies into this amateur hobby is that it forces more and more of us true amateurs into being mere appliance users.

I don’t really mean to pick on Julian, but I find this to be almost entirely wrong. First of all, everything I know about amateur radio, electronics, digital signal processing and microcontrollers I learned because of personal interest, and I know literally dozens of people of similar stories. And of course, there have always been skilled amateurs in our ranks who learned their material as professionals, and brought their skills to amateur radio. Julian appears to be saying that the participation of skilled, professionally trained people in amateur radio is undesirable. I find that baffling.

I also think his conclusion is odd. To me, the inclusion of software technology into amateur radio serves as an incentive to bring large numbers of skilled software engineers into the ranks of amateurs, enabling new applications and new techniques. The vision I have for the future of amateur radio is one where we are more more engaged, not less. Furthermore, if we drag our feet in adoption of technology, amateur radio as a whole becomes increasingly irrelevant as the rest of the world advances in technology. We simply become a kind of technological re-enactment society, like a kind of radio Rennaissance faire. (Apologies to those who like Renaissance faires…)

Ham radio is a very odd endeavor: for an activity which is centered around one of the greatest advances in technology in human history, we have a surprisingly large number of people who treat it with mysticism, who want to hold it just at the level that they themselves feel comfortable, and who resist efforts to change or advance it. There are radio amateurs who are obsessed with tube rigs, and refuse to consider modern solid state design. They’ll tell you there is something just inscrutable about transistors, but the truth is, they’ve never manufactured a tube, and for the most part, tubes are just as inscrutable as transistors. SImilarly, there are people who refuse to use ICs in their rigs, because somehow it just seems to be “cheating” to use a device that integrates more than one gate in a package, even though making transistors is just as inscrutable as making ICs. You’ll find people who don’t want microprocessors, so they do crazy things like using 555 timers in reckless abandon, with all sorts of diode based switching, when a $2 Atmel chip will do the same and more for less money and actually with less circuitry.

Julian’s blog has lots of really cool stuff, stuff that has inspired and challenged me to learn and do more. I hope he continues with it. Like him, I’m eagerly awaiting G3XBM’s DSB 10m rig design, and hope to be constructing one. I’m still playing with beacons, and APRS and other things that he’s interested in. I just wish we could send out a consistent, careful message to our fellow hams and potential hams to be that technology and amateur radio aren’t strange bedfellows. We are the Amateur Radio Service, not the Antique Radio Society.