06 November 2022

Five Years On

Google sent me a reminder a few days ago that November 5th 2022 is the fifth anniversary of this blog. My, how time has rocketed by. In my personal life I don't think there's been such a momentous and rocky five years. I lost my beloved father, gained some new  friends, lost some old friends. I said goodbye to some four legged friends that I loved and respected more than most humans I've met. I watched COVID leave its indelible stamp on the world, watched this country tear itself apart over petty and deeply partisan politics, watched many government institutions I used to respect crumble to the ground, and I watched with deep sadness as my beloved US Army lost its mission focus and wandered off into political correctness la-la land. 

On the flip side there have been plenty of blessings. I stumbled up the corporate ladder a bit. Same frustrations, just a little bit more money. After 20 years my wife retired from what was becoming a soul-crushing teaching job with the local school system and found herself a private school teaching job she loves. We were blessed with a new granddaughter, and are close enough to all of our grandchildren that we can watch them grow up virtually in our own back yard. Our extended family of brothers and sisters and their families seem to have made it through COVID just fine. And a few new furry four legged friends have entered our lives.

So, in conjunction with my lovely wife I've decided it's time for a major life re-focus. It's time for retirement. A year from now I plan on packing up my desk at work and saying goodbye to some dear coworkers and friends. The future will be all about family and close friends and doing the things I want to do, not what I have to do.

Things changed somewhat in the Amateur Radio-related world too. I've gone deeper into the hobby and shifted my focus more towards emergency communications. I find the the discussions and issues surrounding Amateur Radio-based emergency communications fascinating. I've become a MARS and SHARES member and just completed the CISA AUXCOMM course. Yes, this is all an outgrowth of COVID and the political unrest that is wracking the country, but I've always been something of a prepper with a natural interest in doomsday scenario planning and response. Not the goofy zombie apocalypse stuff, but real-world scenarios like tornados, hurricanes and earthquakes; things that will happen.

One of the things that's been different in this five year period is the lack of change brought on by the perfect storm of COVID, the resulting economic slow-down, and the loss of computer chip manufacturing capabilities. In any normal five year period market forces would have driven serious changes in product line-ups. Instead, among the major Amateur Radio system manufacturers (Icom, Yaesu, Kenwood, Elecraft, Flex, and a few others) we've seen a stagnation. Kenwood has all but left the Amateur market to focus on their new public safety sector (but I understand they will be back in a big way once the chip shortages are behind us). Icom entered the COVID period with a strong product portfolio (IC-7300, IC-7610 and the IC-705) but seems to be biding its time and resources to see where things are headed. Yaesu also entered the COVID period with some strong offerings, and seemed to be the only manufacturer that focused on bringing new products to market during the lockdown - things like the FT-5DR (and incremental upgrade to the FT-3DR) andhe FT-710 (a competitor to the Icom IC-7300). Most companies just continued making the existing products in their line-ups as they tried to figure out where the market was headed. 

What has moved forward is software development. COVID didn't stop the coders, and I've followed steady updates and improvements to existing platforms like Winlink, Vara, WSJTX, Fldigi, JS8CALL and various logging and rig control systems like Ham Radio Deluxe. We've even seen significant new software packages come on-line, like VaraChat (keep your eye on that one) and ION2G (a user friendly ALE package). The past five years have actually been a lot of fun, from a software perspective. 

So what are my predictions for the next five years? Some of them are pretty obvious:
  • Manufacturers will kill off legacy products that are just too old to keep in their lineups - radios like the Yaesu FT-818 and the Icom IC-718 will be gone.
  • Virtually all new HF radio designs will be SDR-based
  • Radios will increasingly morph into internet appliances - the rise of the 'virtual radio' is just around the corner. 
  • Radios with embedded wi-fi and Bluetooth will be the norm. The lack of wi-fi or Bluetooth will become a reason to not purchase a radio
  • New mobile 100 watt 'shack-in-the-box offerings. A few years back Yaesu killed off it's ageing but still great FT-857, a 100 watt small form factor HF/VHF/UHF rig, and never replaced it in their lineup. Icom just stopped production on the IC-7100, it's mobile HF/VHF/UHF offering. Neither manufacturer has anything in this market segment. Nature abhors a vacuum, and market forces will prevail. I'm fairly confident both manufacturers have something in the pipeline, or at least the late design stages
  • With the rise of SDR, we'll see every new radio coming to market with embedded digital (internal sound card) capability. Just like with wi-fi or Bluetooth, the lack of an embedded sound card will quickly become a reason to not purchase a radio
  • We'll finally see the demise of x86-based processors and operating systems, with a wholesale shift to 64 bit processors as the baseline standard and 128 bit processors coming on strong. For a number of years now hardware capability has exceeded Amateur radio software requirements - most Amateur radio applications just 'loaf along' on modern hardware. Let's see if the developers can step up and deliver impressive new application performance that leverages all this new processing power. Oh, and you'll have to finally give up your Windows XP machine
  • For years people have been predicting the death of Windows and the meteoric rise of Linux in the Amateur Radio desktop world. Sorry. Ain't going to happen unless Microsoft makes some majorly dumb licensing moves in the OS world (which they've been known to do). In five years we'll still be talking about mostly Windows-based applications
  • Speaking of computer hardware, in five years virtually all Amateur Radio operators will be using laptops. The desktop is dead, dead, dead
This next list is less about obvious things, but more an informed wish list; things I hope will emerge:
  • Yaesu and perhaps even Kenwood will release their market response to the Icom IC-705. Yaesu's current QRP rig - the FT-818 - is simply too old to compete for much longer, and Kenwood has nothing in this market space. Yaesu in particular simply can't let this market segment go unchallenged
  • I think we'll see one or more main-line manufacturers come out with what I'll call 'tweener' radios - HF field radios that are battery powered and offer more output than a 10 watt QRP rig, but less than a 100 watt desktop rig. With the meteoric rise of weak signal digital modes like FT-8, the huge popularity of field activities like POTA, and the realization that, with improving solar conditions, we'll soon be able to get things done with just 20 or 50 watts that we couldn't get done last year with 100 watts, Icom and Yaesu will see this market niche and each bring something to market
  • Integrated battery technologies will continue to improve, particularly in the HF radio segment, and we'll start to see rigs with factory battery packs using the much safer and more efficient LiFePo chemistry
  • Speaking of battery packs, I think we'll also see the concept of the 'factory empty' battery pack that's being pioneered by the Russian manufacturer Lab599. They are about to release a battery pack for their TX-500 QRP radio that uses popular Li-Ion cells. But they will ship the battery pack without batteries. It will be up to the user to locally source the batteries. This is a great idea that gets around all the difficulties of shipping somewhat dangerous lithium-ion batteries to markets around the world.
I think that's about it for prognostication and wishful thinking. I'll wrap this up by saying that it's been a very interesting half-decade. I plan to keep this blog going for at least that long, hopefully longer. As long as I have an interest in Amateur Radio and feel I've got something worth writing about, I'll blog.

Plan on meeting back here in 2027 to see how accurate my predictions were! 

W8BYH out

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