The new cool digital mode for amateur radio is FT8, made possible by Joe Taylor/K1JT and the WSJT software. At first, FT8 seemed like just the next digital mode to try but it is turning out to have a bigger impact than that. Jeff/KE9V recently posted about the popularity of FT8 here:
FT8 is so far out in front that other digital modes are a foregone conclusion. CW only remains relevant because of its popularity in contests. Even phone, the Holy Grail of wannabe HF operators everywhere, is a nearly forgotten mode compared to FT8.
This reminded me of some of the classic research on adoption of new innovations. What are the factors that cause a new thing to really take off versus languish on the shelf? How do these apply to the quick adoption of FT8?
Diffusion of Innovations
In Diffusion of Innovations, E. M. Rogers lists five factors will influence how quickly a new innovation gets adopted:
Relative Advantage: The degree to which the innovation is superior to ideas it supersedes.
If an innovation is clearly superior to the present way of doing things, people will be more likely to adopt it without too much concern about its usefulness. If it’s not clearly better, people will tend to question whether it is worth the trouble of changing.
Compatibility: The degree to which the innovation is consistent with existing values, past experiences, and the needs of the user.
If an innovation is similar to existing practice and blends in well with user needs and expectations it is more likely to be adopted. If it requires change on the part of the user or represents an inconsistency with the user’s past experience, it may be rejected.
Complexity: The degree to which the innovation is relatively difficult to understand and use.
The more complex something is, the more likely people will reject it because “it’s just too much trouble.” Understandable ideas will tend to be considered more carefully and are more likely to be adopted.
Trialability: The degree to which an innovation may be tried on a limited basis (in other words, without committing to full-scale, total operational change.)
The easier it is for an individual or organization to try something out without being fully committed, the more likely they will give a new innovation a try. If the innovation can only be tried with full-scale change and great expense, it will tend to get rejected.
Observability: The degree to which the results from the use of an innovation are visible and easily communicated to users and other decision-makers.
If the results of an innovation are difficult to measure or see, rejection is more likely. If the results are clearly visible, then the adopting individual or organization can more easily correlate the results to the innovation. Generally, a decision-maker wants to be sure that the intended results can be measured, otherwise how can the innovation be evaluated?
Adoption of FT8
It is very clear that FT8 has a strong relative advantage to other modes. Just listen to the many comments from hams like “the band conditions are really bad but I’m still making contacts.” One could argue that FT8 is not that compatible with existing operating habits (think CW or SSB) but the mega-trend of using “sound card modes” is a huge enabler. For some time now, hams have been using the PC platform as a digital signal processing engine, using the sound card to handle the analog-to-digital conversion (and back). Perhaps this traces back to PSK31 as one of the major forces that caused hams to connect their transceivers to their computer. In that sense, FT8 is very compatible with existing sound-card-enabled stations, making it strong on compatibility and trialability. Just load up the WSJT-X software and give it a try. Of course, observability is strong too…now I’m making QSOs when I wasn’t before.
There is a bit of a learning curve with FT8, which could be a barrier to adoption. You need to learn the software and fiddle around with the settings to make it work. But for many hams, this is not a barrier but a fun challenge to take on. Most of us like to try new things, as long as they aren’t too frustrating.
The final point I’ll make is that the popularity of FT8 reinforces my contention that Ham Radio Is Not For Talking. FT8 is all about making a radio contact and does not enable conversations. Sure, most hams like to talk (usually about radios) but when the bands are poor they like making radio contacts via FT8. Making QSOs is king.
Those are my thoughts. What do you think?
73, Bob K0NR