Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Platform for progress

One of the things at the back of my mind when I was writing that the magic of ham radio wasn't in high technology was the feeling that anyone who got into the hobby out of a mania for high-tech toys was soon likely to be disappointed. I've seen it happen when people who are new to the hobby and don't yet know much about it get an enthusiasm for APRS or Echolink. They get disappointed that the network coverage is patchy or nonexistent compared to cellphone coverage because they don't realize that it depends on hams to provide the infrastructure and where there are few hams - or none interested in these particular aspects of the hobby - there are no repeaters and no gateways.

I've seen the same people criticize the latest VX-8, TH-D72 and Icom D-Star radios as being overpriced and unimpressive. They don't like the geeky "walkie talkie" look or the plain 1990s LCD display. They can't believe that APRS radios don't support predictive text entry like the cheapest mobile has for more than a decade. And why can't they have a colour screen and a scrolling map display?

It's easy to dismiss these criticisms as coming from people who don't understand that ham radio is a specialized niche market and that amateur HTs don't benefit from the economies of scale which allow vastly more R&D to be spent on a smartphone costing a similar amount of money. But then I realized that perhaps the critics had a valid case. Manufacturers of smartphones don't completely reinvent the wheel whenever they release a new model. They just design the hardware. But the hardware is a platform. On it runs a standard OS and various apps, a few of which may be customized to the manufacturer or phone but most of which are generic. Given that software development is one of the most time consuming and expensive parts of any new technology product development, wouldn't that be a huge saving?

Why can't top of the range hand-held radios use a similar hardware architecture to cellphones? Instead of a custom design the radio would be a computer running embedded Linux. The RF side could be SDR or it could use conventional technology - it wouldn't matter, that would simply depend on what is most cost effective and delivers the best battery endurance. But all the control functions, together with transmit and receive audio, would be accessible through an API to software. The user interface would be an app.

Since the radio is a computer the interface would be endlessly customizable and all kinds of things not possible with existing radios could be feasible. Instead of entering local repeater frequencies into memories you could install an app that gets your position from the built-in GPS and shows you the nearest repeaters. One click and you're listening on it.

Instead of a plain LCD display showing distance and bearing your APRS capable radio could show a full map display just like APRSISCE currently provides on Windows smartphones. You wouldn't need packet modem hardware in the radio because packet generation and decoding could be done in software. In fact there would be no such thing as an APRS capable radio. The platform would be the same - if you wanted APRS you would just install the APRS application. If you wanted Echolink you could add the Echolink application. If you wanted D-Star you could buy the D-Star app from Icom. If you wanted to work satellites then I'm sure someone would write an app that would keep track of where the satellites are and even control the radio frequencies taking account of doppler.

You could power this hypothetical next generation radio using cellphone battery packs, which are a lot cheaper than the custom battery packs for traditional ham radios. You could even use standard cellphone accessories.

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.


James said...

Now you're cooking. Good point on the niche market aspect. I guess a radio from a commercial manufacturer will be pretty dumb for many years. Maybe someone can kick off a smart-radio revolution that will convince the big names to make something for commercial entities that then can trickle down to us.

The problem, then, would be to get the source so that modifications can be made. Or hope that an open platform like Android is used. I'm not going to hold my breath for anything like that to happen from the big three. There's a bigger chance that if it's going to happen, then it's going to come from the community itself.

BTW, thanks for the blog Julian. I always enjoy reading new updates from you.

Rick said...

On the other hand, the cause might be better served by producing radio heads that can talk directly to existing
tablets and smartphones, i.e. I doubt the revenue is
there for a Yaesu/etal to undertake a greenfield
development for a device like iPhone. So the idea
would be to produce a radio that could talk over
Wifi or Bluetooth to the iPhone/iPad/Android
device and use that existing device's display,
user input, and software environments to support
a ham radio app. This is a lot like the PC/HRD model
of SDR applications. I've never been impressed with
the user interface design of any amateur product.
Too many nested menus, poor displays (contrast,
resolution), not at all intuitive or user friendly.
If you've ever tried to use an Icom R-20, you'll
know exactly what I mean. The K3 is about the
pinnacle of user friendliness in my shack, and
that device still has a sea of buttons and menus
that sometimes require digging out the manual
to find a setting.

Fenris said...

I believe that there is a plan to create a "future handheld" of this nature Julian, the last I remember reading about it was related to Bruce Perens and possibly TAPR, it came up during discussions about the Codec2 AMBE codec replacement efforts.

At present it's probably a pipe-dream, and making it really advanced is difficult because the engineering in these modern mobile phones is astonishingly complex.

Alex Hill said...

Are you mellowing on SDR Julian?

MRiutort said...

Julian, this sound like a great idea and probably some other one may be working it in one way or another. But I need to say that the only way that this can be do in an open source or public license is following the standards new or created for this kind of project.

May be the use of cell phones a good idea because the powerful hardware they has, but only for the software running the standards of the OS on it, not the hardware needed for the radio frequency part of the ham radio band segment. So, this need another hardware to acomplish the task.

This need a SDR full open source mix (software/hardware) or a more propietary design of elements like the normal products that we found around today. What a good idea, what a design challenge.

Nice, Milton NP4KT

Steven Snelgrove said...

I agree. I have bought many radios and have never loved any of them. Always something clunky or wrong.

Thought of a way around the problem. Take a basic radio like the Yaesu ft-2800 or the FT-2900. The control head comes of with three screws. All of the important signals are present at the connectors joining the control head to the radio.

Make an extender board that would pass the existing signals and also allow them to be tapped or replaced. Provide a Arduino area with a few nice chips like MSK modems, etc. Wrap the extended electronics in some nice looking sheet metal. Same radio, just a bit longer. Control head still works.

If this were to exist, people could create the software to drive the radio the way they want. People might even start to share their software source code.

How nice would that be?

Right now ham radio is wrong because the essence of it is really now software. But the software is all proprietary either embedded in somebody's idea of a radio feature list or in their magical Windows program. The problem is that the magic is all locked up.

It is kind of funny that hams make such noise about being non-commercial. Except that it is okay to lock the knowledge of how to do the hobby in a software or hardware product and sell that for money.

Ham are also old. I am 57, same age as you. It takes a long time to accumulate the knowledge needed to put together a good radio. When that knowledge is all locked up, it stagnates.

How many old hams use text messaging? And yet I have a daughter who has sent as many as 10,000 text messages in a month. If this is inconceivable to you like it is to me, well...

What ham radio product does messaging on this scale? What ham radio product has something as simple as a contact list that every cell phone has? How is ham radio relevant at all to the text messaging generation?

And hams do not even see that there is a problem. They are all happy about how some old geezer was able to send Morse code faster than a kid could type out a text message.

A billion kids in the world all sending out multiple thousands of text messages per month. There hasn't been that volume of Morse code sent in all the time since it was invented.

Good grief.