Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Looking forward...

With 2008 officially behind us I've spent the last few weeks (as I'm sure many did) contemplating where we've been and where we're going. There seems to be a pervasive sense of relief, some trepidation about what 2009 might bring, but also a growing sense of hope that we're leaving behind a lot of baggage and moving into a period of revitalization and renewal. I believe that it's human nature to think that the troubles of today are unusual, unprecedented, and thus we long for days of old when "life was simpler". The reality is that in each generation there occurs a crisis of some sort that must be addressed. As the saying goes, "This too shall pass". Fortune, bad or good, is a fleeting thing. Our forefathers struggled, we struggle, and I guarantee our children will struggle. In between these struggles are periods of great happiness, and periods relative calm which often pass by almost unnoticed. From an amateur radio perspective I think 2008 will be remembered as a period of struggle, and hopefully in hindsight will be seen as a time when things began to change.

Amateur radio struggled during 2008. We ended the year with the lowest number of sunspots since the early 1900's. The sun's been so quiet for so long that any time the sunspot number isn't zero, or the solar flux index climbs over 70, everyone gets excited. The quiet surface of our sun was echoed in many ways throughout amateur radio. At the 2008 Dayton Hamvention (and smaller events such as Pacificon 2008) equipment manufacturers offered almost nothing new. In some cases popular equipment such as the Kenwood TH-D7A APRS handheld was suddenly discontinued. (It's speculated that certain parts in the TH-D7A were not ROHS-compliant and Kenwood couldn't get drop-in replacements.) It's worth noting that two of the biggest product offerings of 2008 were the Icom's IC-7200 HF transceiver, and Yaesu's VX-8R quad-band APRS handheld. The IC-7200 has "new" features such as (drum roll please) a USB port for audio I/O and control! How innovative! (I'm being sarcastic.) The VX-8R was shown at Dayton in early 2008 but wasn't actually shipped to customers until mid-December. It contains cutting-edge features such as APRS - which works if you buy their "GPS-Mic" which is insanely large and quite expensive. How is it that my Blackberry Curve can feature a high-contrast LCD display, QWERTY keyboard, battery, multi-band voice/data radio and a GPS in a housing that fits in my hand, but Yaesu needs that much room just to house a microphone and GPS? To add insult to injury; I had an on-the-air QSO with KI6CRL once he finally received his VX-8R after several months on a waiting list -- and it turns out it's got a thermal problem where his transmit audio level drops to nothing as the radio gets hot. This is the hot (no pun intended) new product people waited almost a year to buy?

Perhaps the Japanese manufacturers simply observe that amateur radio is struggling to grab the attention of younger people and believe that it's therefore not capable of producing a good return on investment. I would say that this is both a correct and incorrect observation. It's correct that in its current state amateur radio is largely unattractive to younger people. It's incorrect in that it doesn't take into account the concept of "making a market"; more on this later.

Why are young people not getting into amateur radio? It's not because it's technically challenging; you need only look at the surging popularity of the Maker Movement to know that technical innovation is alive and well among the younger generation. The fact of the matter is that it's our own Luddite mindset that's at fault: It's hard to recruit younger people into a hobby where the equipment manufacturers have only just this year discovered that USB is a viable interface option! I once watched a guy at Ham Radio Outlet whine for five minutes about how hard it was to get RAM modules for his 486 laptop; and amazingly he was finding a sympathetic audience. (By the way this happened in 2006, not 1996.) I was once chastized in an online discussion group for promoting the proliferation of APRS iGates; devices that route packet radio traffic onto the Internet -- my detractor stated that he felt "anything which blurred the lines between ham radio and the Internet" was a bad idea. Finding ways to revitalize older technology with the most pervasive technical revolution since the telephone is a bad idea? Give (unto) me a break.

Even when amateurs use computing they often miss the point. Many people who use APRS are still using the DOS version. One of the most popular APRS applications is UI-View32; the author of which (G4IDE) has been dead for several years -- and specifically asked that upon his death the source-code be destroyed rather than be placed into the public domain as an Open-Source project. How about despite the fact that it's marketed as a stand-alone APRS/packet solution Kenwood continues to build its TM-D710A without a USB or even a PS/2 keyboard jack. Simply put: Amateur Radio can't reach a younger audience until it integrates modern technologies and embraces development/collaboration concepts such as Open Source that younger people associate with "good technology".

You might be saying, "So what? Who cares if we fail to attract and retain younger people into amateur radio?" The answer is simply; we stand to lose everything. The current mood in Washington DC is already somewhat negative towards the FCC; there have even been calls for Obama to dismantle the FCC and implement a new innovation-centric technology governance model. Amateur radio is nothing without our spectrum allocations, and given how we're not really using the spectrum we have it's likely that under the new FCC leadership we'll lose some spectrum in the coming years; someone's going to have to pay back that $700 billion bailout and spectrum leases can be auctioned off to raise cash. As time progresses the incoming FCC leadership is going to be increasingly younger, and likely resistant to the idea of leaving large swaths of potentially cash-generating spectrum in the hands of older amateurs who insist on using out-dated computing technology that increasingly doesn't integrate with modern systems.

So how can we solve this problem? How can amateurs help "make a market" and create a potential for vendors to recoup long-term return on their engineering investment? First and foremost we have got to actively embrace modern computing technology, Maker-style hardware re-purposing concepts, and an Open Source licensing model for software and firmware. This means that:
  • All amateur radios going forward should have USB ports, and if appropriate should support USB host-mode.
  • I should be able to plug my HF transceiver or my handheld into my laptop and control it or configure it over USB.
  • I should be able to plug a keyboard into my TNC-capable rig and type text without a computer.
  • Rather than a proprietary interface, and a proprietary configuration app, all amateur radios should contain an on-board web browser (just like a $30 Linksys router does) running from an embedded controller and an Ethernet jack. I should be able to connect the radio to my LAN, and ideally I should be able to plug in a USB Wi-Fi dongle and attach to the radio wirelessly.
  • The embedded controller should be some kind of standard (ARM-core, etc) and the operating system firmware should be Open Source and modifiable; picture OpenWRT or some variant.
We must start doing this now, or by the time we realize our mistake it will be too late. I firmly believe that a radical departure from our current mindset is the only way to move amateur radio forward.


John said...

Hello from John, ks4xn, in Gainesville, FL. I agree with your comments. Where I somewhat differ is that these much needed changes will prompt an increase in younger hams. Certainly can't help once they're in the fold. But I doubt these improvements will induce younger folks to get licensed.

My belief is that it's a marketing and educational issue. A more focused attention to including amateur radio/electronics in school curriculums and interest clubs should be at least part of the focus.

Contacts with astronauts, use of CW which kids seem to be drawn to, digital modes, understanding how things work, etc will get the attention of kids. Follow-up and activities by clubs, the ARRL, etc can build on that attention. Hope this isn't too long of a comment. Thanks for the thought provoking ideas. 73

morgauo said...

I too agree with your comments, as well as with John's. Contact with Astronauts, CW and other ham in the school activities is a great way to go with the younger kids in elementary or junior high.

Better embracing the internet and newer technologies however is necessary if you want to attract teenagers and young adults of high school or college age.

Your description of what a ham radio should be is great! Unfortunately I don't think it's going to come from the major manufacturers today. They will be happy to just cater to the status quo until the current generation of hams is gone and then probably just shut down their amateur radio lines and focus solely on commercial.

An idea I've had in the back of my mind is something similar to the TuxPhone (http://www.opencellphone.com) only with a ham band radio module in it instead or maybe in combination with the GPRS module.

A 2-meter transciever module plus a second receiver for APRS would be great. One transmitter would probably be fine if the software were smart enough to cache outgoing packets when the PTT is down plus retune.

I don't know when if ever I will get to build this. I have other projects to do first and not the money to buy the parts.

I could definitely see this displayed on makezine.com, instructables.com, youtube, etc...