Where are the Ham Radio Hackers?

On the Ten-Tec Omni VII Yahoo Group, Bill, KZ3DX writes:

If I was 17 years-old I would be hacking I-phones and other items like George Hotz, the 17 year-old from New Jersey who was able to unlock the Apple I-phone so that it could be used on other cell service networks.

When I was his age, I was “hacking” dial telephones. Then one day the phone company showed up at my house. My parents were not impressed with my technical abilities.

This morning there is a story that George has just hacked the “un-hackable” Sony 3 Play Station. He says the hack was 95% software and 5% hardware.

A quick check of the modifications site run by that guy over in Denmark, shows that there are NO MODS for the Omni VII…interesting.

I just wonder how many strange and wonderful things can be done with those 36 buttons/switches on the front panel.

Can the O7 be made even better??

My question would be, “Why stop at pressing some buttons on the front panel”? Why doesn’t someone really hack the Omni VII and develop a completely new software package for it? Rigs like the Omni VII and the Elecraft K3 would seem to be perfect candidates for this kind of hacking.

Sure, there is an order of magnitude difference between a $300 iPod and a $3,000 radio, but we’re big boys, aren’t we? Besides, aside from overdriving the finals, what real damage can you do to the radio? It seems to me that even if you manage to screw up the software in the rig, you can get back to square one by simply re-loading the manufacturer’s software.

Ham radio operators have a long history of modifying their radios. Page through any stack of QSTs or CQ Magazines from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and you’ll find many articles describing modifications to the popular radios of the day. About the only thing hams do to their rigs today is to clip a diode to allow it to operate out-of-band.

What does it say about the technical capabilities of today’s hams that we haven’t yet done with our gear what some 17-year-old kid has done with the iPhone and the PlayStation? Why don’t we have any third-party software for Omni VII or the K3? I think if a manufacturer actually encouraged third-party software development, they’d quickly gain a following and make their brand even stronger, don’t you?


  1. I dunno about the Ten-Tec, but the problem with the K3 is that the hardware design is closed, proprietary. Even finding out enough about the platform you are proposing to develop for would be a challenge of reverse-engineering, which is probably illegal and certainly wouldn’t make Wayne and Eric happy. And I doubt that anyone would want to go to such lengths to upset them.

    If Elecraft were to open-source the K3 firmware then believe me there would be a ton of people eager to try their hand at improving it. But people have asked, and they aren’t going to.

  2. Dan KB6NU says:

    The iPhone hardware is closed and proprietary, too. That didn’t stop the iPhone hackers.

    Yes, reverse engineering the K3 would be a challenge, but hey, someone must be up to it. At that point, it doesn’t matter whether the K3 is open source or not. Reverse engineering isn’t illegal if all someone is doing is figuring out how something works and then developing some software to make it work better. Making hardware modifications may void the warranty, but that’s a given.

  3. True but look at the number of iPhone users vs K3 users. The odds that an iPhone user has the ability and inclination are going to be much greater.

    Also I think most people buy radios to get on the air and operate. It has taken Elecraft 3 years to get the firmware to the state it is in today (and there are still areas where it could do with improvement. :) ) I think the amount of effort it would take someone to come up with anything useful without the existing docs and source code as a starting point makes it just too difficult a task for anyone to want to attempt.

    This is one of the things I meant when I wrote a few weeks back that SDR reduced most of us to the role of mere users. The FT-1000MP owners were able to take a look at the schematic and come up with a mod to reduce key-clicks. If the K3 had a problem like that the solution would probably require firmware changes and the amount of work needed to get to the point of being able to make even a simple tweak is disproportionate to the benefit.

  4. Joe KE7DEI says:

    There are a couple of points that works against this happening.
    1) You don’t hack on a friends hardware. These are small companies not faceless coperations.
    2) Hacking is a young person games generally, people with the money to buy this hardware are probably older.
    3) The pool of people interested in ham radio is pretty small, so the chance to find someone with the skills and time to under take such a project goes down by a major factor.

  5. Boy, are you guys defeatist or what?

    You’re correct that there are many more iPhone users, but even so I’m kind of amazed that no one has taken on the task of hacking an O7 or K3.
    It may be true that the challenge is more than any ONE person can handle. If that’s the case, then let’s form the K3 Hacker’s Group and make it a group project. If we spread out the work, then maybe it’s doable.
    re: SDR. Isn’t SDR supposed to be one of those things that makes it easier for hams to experiment and not be mere users? Isn’t making software changes supposed to be easier than making hardware changes?

    re #1: Yes, Elecraft is a small company, but if I’m going to hack on their radio, I still have to buy one first, don’t I?
    re #2: Perhaps, but ham radio operators are supposed to be technically inquisitive, and it shouldn’t matter that they’re older or not.
    re #3: Last time I checked there were nearly 700,000 licensed amateur radio operators. Even if only one-half of one percent of those folks had the skills to do something like that, that means that there are thousands that could do this. Now, I’ll agree that people with those skills are probably the least likely to have the time to do it, but I’m still kind of amazed that SOMEBODY hasn’t yet done this.

  6. Sorry, Dan. I think Joe’s 3 reasons are right on the nail.

    As for SDR being one of those things that makes it easier for hams to experiment, I don’t know who claimed that but I can’t agree with it. Last time I looked, electronic circuit knowledge was still part of the ham radio exam syllabus. Programming is not. And SDR is a very specialized form of programming that is beyond even most people who work with computers in their day job.

    There are far more amateurs designing bits of hardware than there are writing software. And those that do have the skills would probably rather write something that anyone can use than do something that could only be run on an expensive bit of hardware, especially given the reluctance of K3 users to do *any* mod that hasn’t been sanctioned by Elecraft.

  7. Well, Julian, it seems to me that you’re arguing for the status quo, while I’m arguing that we could be doing much cooler things if the status quo was different. Software is already a big part of ham radio, and it’s only going to get bigger. That being the case, I think we need to encourage more hams to start writing software.

  8. Here are a couple of comments that I received via e-mail (posted with the authors’ permissions):

    Tom, AB5XZ writes, “You’re right, and I think TenTec is right there with you, just not on the O7. Their Jupiter is at least as close to being user-modifiable. I don’t have one, so I don’t watch for mods.

    Lego originally had a closed mindset about the Mindstorms robot’s computer. A few years ago they realized that it would be good to release a software development kit (free), and now there are several free software packages for Mindstorm. The schematics are available for the hardware, too, as part of the SDK.”

    Ken, WA5JUM writes, “Great idea about the Omni VII. I have one and desire a more suitable interface (also more colorful and visually attractive) for it.”

  9. If I’m arguing for the status quo, it’s only because I think I’m being realistic. It’s just a lot harder to write a useful program than it is to build a useful circuit. I don’t think coding is as much fun as melting solder either. Most people get into this hobby from an interest in electronics and radio, not programming. People who are into hacking code develop games, multimedia stuff, all kinds of other applications.

    Hams are learning enough programming to write software for microcontrollers. But I think that’s as far as it is going to go for most people. Developing another HRD or PowerSDR or EchoLink is a task only for people with finely honed skills from their professional life. And because (unlike hardware designs) so many programs are closed-source, others are prevented even from seeing how they are written and learning from them.

    Before you can get more hams to hacking software you need more open source programs they can hack and learn from.

  10. David Brodbeck N8SRE says:

    I suspect part of it is the iPhone has a lot of restrictions that users chafe under, which is a strong incentive to hack it. The K3 probably already does what most owners want it to, so there’s less incentive.

    I don’t buy that SDR makes it harder to hack — just different. It doesn’t necessarily come easy to people who are used to playing with hardware, but there’s a whole generation of coders out there who love to play with software. In many ways software is easier, because changes can be tested in seconds and there are essentially no material costs to making changes.

    This is still a new area, but it’s rapidly gaining traction. Linrad is perhaps a good example — it’s an open-source, Linux software package that can drive several types of SDRs, both commercial and home-made. QEX recently had a series of intro-to-SDR articles. We just don’t have a simple, inexpensive, easy-to-reproduce design for people to tinker with — there’s no SDR version of the Neophyte Receiver (yet).

    I suppose I’d be remiss if I didn’t also point out that there are reasons why companies might make it hard to hack on radios. Radios that are easy to modify for CB use quickly get banned. I used to have a Ranger RCI-2950, a radio that was pretty trivial to mod for CB. Mine was not modded, but because of its banned status it was technically illegal for me to even sell it used to another individual. (I found this out when eBay nearly revoked my account for attempting it.)

  11. Chris WA5TT says:

    I would add this: Why don’t amateurs do more homebrew projects using more up-to-date rf chips and such? TI and Analog devices have oodles of cool chips suitable for applications, but all the qrp and many ham projects and such seem to use packages that were old when I was at the university.

  12. David Brodbeck N8SRE says:

    I suspect part of it is that many of those new chips are only available in surface-mount packages meant for machine assembly. It’s possible to solder these parts at home but it requires equipment many hams don’t have. It’s also more difficult to prototype with them; you can’t use them deadbug style or on a breadboard, so you pretty much have to etch a PC board just to get started.

  13. Well, it took time, but I can talk on 27. anything with my K3. Actually I can talk anywhere in the HF spectrum. Hack the planet! Hack the planet!

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