Earlier today, I was examining the various mobile phone service plans and “smart phones.” This caused me to reflect on how text messaging has become such a big deal in the mobile wireless world. Text messaging, more properly called SMS (Short Message Service), supports simple text messages up to 160 characters. Even with a limited text length, much information gets passed using SMS, with usage rates exploding in recent years.
Twitter created a messaging system based on these short messages (actually limited to 140 characters to fit into SMS with some margin). It wasn’t clear at first what the purpose of this system is, but people have figured out how to make use of it.
Other social networking systems, such as Facebook, have included SMS into their system, including sending status updates out via text messages. It turns out that you can do a lot with just 160 characters of plain text.
Ironically, amateur radio had the basic technology for a simple messaging system decades ago. This technology is packet radio or AX.25, a narrowband digital communications format that is ideal for sending short messages. This was a hot technology during the 1980′s and into the 1990′s. Later it faded into the background as the Internet delivered much faster digital pipes. APRS (Amateur Packet Reporting System) revived interest in the mode in the past decade but remains a niche application in ham radio.
The APRS community has tried to take APRS main stream as a ubiquitous messaging system, but this has not gained wide adoption. Bob Bruninga WB4APR documented the Universal Text Messaging initiative on his web site. This is a nice piece of work. Bob argues correctly that we have quite a few different messaging formats that need to be tied together so they can be more effective.
What is standing in the way of a robust amateur radio messaging system? I think it it is quite simple: the lack of a compelling mobile device for text messaging. While both Kenwood and Yaesu have incorporated APRS into their handheld radios (TH-D72, VX-8GR), the emphasis seems to be on position reporting (GPS) and simple status messages. Neither of them have done anything innovative in the text message area, such as including a QWERTY keyboard or a touch screen user interface. Imagine a handheld radio based on the Android operating system…an open system that can be programmed by the amateur community. Being inherently digital, ICOM’s D-STAR radios had the opportunity to really nail this type of use but they have missed it so far.
There has been some fine work done using D-STAR to provide Instant Messaging (IM) capability. Most notably, the D-RATS software by Dan Smith KK7DS does a super job of integrating IM and email, using the ham bands along with the Internet. (D-RATS has many other features, too.) But to run D-RATS you need a computer attached to the radio….appropriate in some applications but missing the portability associated with the conventional HT or mobile phone.
A valid question is whether this really matters at all. Do we even need a ham radio instant messaging system? If we did, what would we use it for? Applications that come to mind are: position reports, event announcements, DX spots, emergency pages, callsign lookup, repeater directory and, of course, casual chatting. I suspect that once the capability is available the software gurus among us would apply it to applications that are beyond our current thinking. Actually, we know what hams like to “tweet” about…just monitor the high level of ham activity on Twitter. To really make this work, we’ll need some action from the equipment manufacturers.
That’s my thinking….what do you say?
73, Bob K0NR