The Future of Amateur Radio

This article was extracted from a post I made to the greenkeys mailing list (which is dedicated to teletype machines), in response to a post about "glass TTYs", the use of computers in place of mechanical teletype machines.

The appeal of amateur radio is going to change. With global communication becoming a commodity, the future generation of hams will be attracted for different reasons. The future of amateur radio will see the hobby getting back to its roots. In the face of dwindling sales, the big manufactures will give up on producing amateur equipment. Surrounded by software defined radios that make every mode of communication a matter of just downloading the right software, the amateur of the future will want to get back to the basics of building radios with just his hands, a fist full of discrete components, and a solid understanding of RF electronics. QRP will gain in popularity. Why dump a kilowatt into the atmosphere to talk to someone in Guam, when you can Skype them in full high definition video and near CD quality sound? The appeal in amateur radio will shift away from ‘best’, ‘more' and ‘faster' towards a mentality of ‘cheap’, ‘less’ and ‘creative’.

The age of the glass TTY will die out. It already seems a bit silly using software to emulate a protocol that has been bettered by other protocols (PSK31), especially when the same software is usually capable of both. So-called ‘Glass TTYs’ will be reflected upon as a blip in time, a moment of bad judgement, while the mechanical TTYs will continue to capture the imagination of folks for years to come.

Show an 20 year old a glass TTY, and he’ll say “So what, I can text my friend in South Korea right now with my iPhone, and I don’t need to sit down at the computer.” Show a 20 year old a running Model 28, and you’ll see his curiosity oozing out. To kids born and raised in a world defined by software, things that solve problems mechanically are pure magic. Point a store-bought yagi at Alaska and feed it a kilowatt from a store bought radio with store bought linear amp, and a 20 year old will remind you about Skype. Have that same kid witness a QSO made with a radio constructed dead-bug style in a sardine can, using an antenna strung up in a tree, and you’ll have his imagination reeling.

I suspect that in the future, the “off the shelf” era of amateur radio will be looked back upon with some degree of derision, as a period of time when we let big companies steal our hobby out of our hands.

This isn't just pure fantasy either, other hobby industries have seen a similar transformation. An example? Knitting. For a period of time, there existed quite a substantial industry around home knitting machines—amateur machine knitting, if you will. Big names, Brother, Toyota, Husqvarna to name a few, were all involved in the business. Knitting machines evolved, becoming fully electronic computer controlled.

Then one day, something happened: in the face of declining sales due to an aging customer base, Brother, the market leader, pulled the plug on their home knitting machine business. One by one, all of the others followed suit, and the “industry” collapsed in the late 90’s. To the financial observer, the business collapsed overnight. But to the hobbyist, that isn’t the case at all. For many machine knitters, this industrial abandonment was a prompt to get back into hand knitting, and that hobby has seen a significant increase in interest. As the computerized and electronic knitting machines break down (replacement parts are getting very expensive to source), knitters are dragging their old punch card controlled machines out of the closet. Hobbyists are taking apart their electronic machines and developing custom controllers and software for them. People are learning how the machines really work, and they’re trying interesting and creative things with them that the automation made impossible. Lacking a huge body of fashionable at-the-ready patterns, people are more apt to create their designs from scratch.

I’m convinced that the most satisfying part of a hobbyist pursuit comes after the “big boys” have moved on for more lucrative territory.

Footnote: My mom was a busy publisher of machine knitting patterns and books; declining sales, a cancer diagnosis, and the loss of the big manufacturers saw her shuttering her business in 1999. She beat the cancer.