Is There An App for That?

We’re hearing talk these days of the “Post-PC Era” when devices like the iPad, tablet PCs, and smartphones along with cloud-based applications will ultimately replace the PC.  I don’t totally buy into this as these devices don’t have the form factor or horsepower to replace the PC, at least in business environments.  I do think that the venerable tower PC, outside of gamer circles, will die.  It used to be standard to select a tower PC based on the number of expansion slots and bays, and it was once common to upgrade processors for more horsepower.  Those days are gone and more people are using one-size-fits-all laptops or appliance-like desktop machines, and when they’re three or four years old they’re tossed out for the latest model that can run Microsoft’s latest OS and office suite.

For over the last 15 years, when you bought a PC you by default got Microsoft’s OS, Windows and usually Microsoft Office or Works.  This symbiotic relationship has been dubbed “Wintel”, symbolizing the combination of Windows and Intel-based hardware.  Of course Linux has made inroads over the years but despite what Linux advocates say, it’s never passed the philosophical litmus test, being able to be run by your grandmother.  It continues to be the darling of techies’ desktops and runs the Internet behind the scenes.

With applications heading to the cloud and developers needing to support multiple devices running different operating systems, applications are more and more running in virtual machines such as Java rather than on the bare OS.  HTML 5 is supposedly going to revolutionize web applications, bringing functionality that was previously limited to Flash applications into HTML, an open language that is universally supported.

Amateur radio in my opinion has always had an odd relationship with software, that somewhat has its roots in the mindset of 1980′s DOS PC computing.  It wasn’t until the early 2000s that some of our most widely used logging and contest programs offered Windows replacements of their DOS ancestors.  Our free software authors never quite embraced open source, opting more for free-as-in-beer / freeware.  Nearly all notable amateur software is Windows/PC based.  There is some software for Mac and Linux, but it’s more a novelty.  I’ve found Linux ham radio software, especially logging programs, to often be someone’s experiment with making a database frontend rather than a concerted effort to build a major software application, like Ham Radio Deluxe or DXLab.  I know this will raise the angst of Linux users, but if you want to run amateur radio applications with full functionality, it’s tough to not use a PC running Windows.  I’ve tried about five times to switch to Linux in the shack and gave up.  I would love to buy a Mac, but I would still need a PC to run my amateur apps.

There is a paradigm shift in software coming.  The PC/Windows world is coming unseated.  It’s not going away, but it’s not going to be the default “no-brainer” choice that it used to be.  While we have many fine commercial and free software offerings, we’ve failed miserably in making cross-platform applications.  Even our networks like Winlink, D-STAR, IRLP, and APRS are vertical “silo” applications, some tied to specific OSs or hardware, or just outright ignore open standards.

Enter the Raspberry Pi, a very inexpensive single-board computer that is for supporting economical computing in third world countries.  It’s quickly turning into the latest geek fad.  Never has such a small board had such computing power at such a low price, and despite being a full-fledged computer it may very well displace the popular Arduino on many experimenter’s benches.  It should be a very hot commodity in amateur radio as it’s cheap and open, and ideal for hardware hackers like us.  Here’s the kicker.  It has an ARM processor and it can’t run Windows.  The best programs we have can’t run on this device.

I don’t see the PC world ending very soon, but I have to question at what point we’re going to start sacrificing some opportunities due to our lack of cross-platform software and systems.  In the past when considering software compatibility, one used to ask whether you ran a PC or Mac.  Today you hear questions like, “Can I get that in my app store?”, or “Does it run on Android?”

11 Responses to “Is There An App for That?”

  • Mike Ve3wdm:

    Good evening Anthony, very good piece and I sure do echo what you have written. Yes the ham software is mostly dependent on Microsoft with a few that are Mac written. I also have to add that when ever Windows throws out a need OS it sure does take some time for the ham software to catch up. Thats not a big deal if you are still running the same old laptop or desktop….but….if you buy a new laptop or desktop it most of the time has the new OS per-installed. I have in the past now and then run into this and when the ham software is added you get lots of driver issues. I do have Ubuntu on one of my laptops and it works great. I have to install a program called Wine that will allow me to run some windows programs. Lastly it’s also getting harder and harder to use the RS232’s that some ham hardware still ask for. I do use an Edgeport to over come this hurdle. It seems USB is long and hard in coming for ham hardware and those RS232 to USB converters have in some cases problems in the communication. Again great blog topic!!

  • Lawrence LaBranche KI6ZQY:

    I have to agree with needing Windows, and disagree with needing a PC vs a Mac. In a generic sense, a personal computer(PC) is also a Mac, though most think of Windows. Now a days, with the Mac desktops and laptops having an Intel CPU in them, the Mac can run Windows natively.

    With boot camp, it allows you to dual boot, OSX or Windows. In this way, when you are running Windows, you give 100% control to Windows on a Mac machine. There should be no compatibility issues with any Ham software in this mode. I am thinking the minimum Windows is now Win7, due to Microsoft. That may present problems with some software.

    The second way, is to use software such as Parallels to run Windows within a virtual machine, within OSX. The CPU is used according to need. With today’s fast, multi-core/cpu machines this still should run fast. It is not like the old days where the instructions had to be converted on much slower cpus.

    Sorry if it seemed preachy, but I had to correct things a bit. Of course, you have the cost factor.

  • Goody K3NG:

    Lawrence, good points. I agree you can run OSs within virtual machines, but it’s never quite the same as a native OS. It’s certainly better than it was years ago. And as you mention, there is the additional cost. You have to buy a hypervisor and a copy of Windows. Furthermore, a VM is its own little world and not integrated with the host OS, and you still have to maintain the guest OS. For the trouble and cost, it’s probably easier to buy a cheap Wintel laptop, use it for Windows apps and remote desktop to the laptop from a Mac. I’ve been running Windows for almost 20 years now and I work in IT. After experiencing the stability and ease of use of iOS and having dealt with Windows over the years I’d love to jump to a Mac. The thought of still having to maintain a Windows VM is a bit saddening.

    Mike, I know what you mean about RS-232 to USB adaptors. I use several with my laptop so I can control multiple rigs, a keyer, and a rotator controller. “Real” serial and parallel ports have gone the way of the dinosaur. I frequently experience blue screens if I use certain combinations of USB to RS-232 converters. Have you tried running Ham Radio Deluxe or N1MM in Wine? I haven’t been able to get either to run in Wine. If these programs were open sourced, someone could probably compile them to run in Wine. But HRD went commercial and N1MM will likely always be freeware and not OSS.

  • Lawrence LaBranche KI6ZQY:

    Goody, the first method, the boot camp route, you are running Windows as 100% Windows on Mac hardware. You have to pay for a Windows copy though.

  • Goody K3NG:

    You have to pay for Windows in both the dual boot and guest OS virtual machine scenarios. No offense, but dual boot is so 90s. It’s just really messy having to boot up one OS to run some apps, and then have to boot another to run another set. I guess with sleep mode it’s not as laborious as it used to be.

  • John K0EBC:

    Take a look at the press release from Microsoft’s tablet which will run Windows 8. I might be putting a kidney on Craig’s list.

    John K0EBC

  • BX2ABT:

    Hello Anthony,

    You clearly need to give yourself a kick in the butt. You are lazy and sold your soul to the devil (M$). Now there is a new kid in town (Pi), which is not plug-‘n-play, and all of a sudden you find out that the devil can’t touch it, only the guys who still experiment and ticker (Linux). Are you really that dependent on M$ software to run your radio station? It would be rather sad if your tuning knob and pen have become HRD or whatever software there is.

    It’s all in your attitude. There is enough quality software for Linux to run a modern amateur radio station, if you want to. Wine fills in a small gap, but not always. So, if it doesn’t work then don’t use it! Yes, this will deprive you of some opportunities. Do you really care? If so, then sell yourself out, but don’t come back crying afterwards.

    With regards to data and interoperability: if you reject software that doesn’t use open data standards then you shouldn’t have any problems now or later on.

    So sorry, but I think this was a lousy blog post. (Don’t take it personally, though. I am always a bit harsh when reading biased opinions. Maybe because I want to provoke a discussion and attitude change).

    73 from Taiwan,


    Running any Debian flavoured Linux distro with Fldigi, CQRlog, Xastir, chirp, Gpredict, ibp, Perl, php and what not. RS232 provided by carefully selected USB-2-Serial convertors

  • Goody K3NG:

    Hans, if I were such a M$ fan boy, why would I *want* to ditch Windows and want to go to OSX or be concerned with Linux applications? Regarding the Pi, I’m considering porting my keyer software to it and interfacing with I2C. You missed the point of my article entirely. It’s not the OS, it’s the *applications*. You accuse me of being a slave to an OS, but then tell me I should be a slave to applications on another OS that don’t enable me to get done what I want to do. What is the sense in that? I ran Linux before you had to compile the kernel with the bzImage option and I’ve run Linux and BSD on a 286. I used XWindows when you had to use vi to adjust everything, and back then Linux distros didn’t deprecate releases every five minutes like they do today. I’m no stranger to other operating systems or having to work at making a system function. I’m not going to run an OS just to say I run it or brag about it in a sig line. I no longer want to fight a machine nor do I need to show off a tricked out OS, I want a tool to get something done. That’s something Linux advocates tend to forget, BSD advocates never knew (at least for the desktop), something M$ promised in the next version, and something Apple adopted as a mantra from day one. So who have I sold my soul to, Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, or Steve Jobs?

    Here’s a challenge. Show me Linux apps that have the same functionality as HRD, DXLab, and N1MM. Here’s a hint: CQRLog doesn’t come close. FLdigi is really the only program that offers comparable functionality on various platforms and isn’t a nightmare to run, but that application is focused specifically on digital mode operation, not logging, contesting, equipment control, or award tracking. What, you can’t get any of them to run in Wine? Stop being lazy and fix Wine’s code!

  • Hans (BX2ABT):

    Maybe I didn’t get your point, entirely, but I think you didn’t get mine either.

    Every tool has its uses and you choose the tool according to your needs. Your choice is based on a certain need and so your choice of tool is fixed. I do it the other way around: I choose the tool and see what I can achieve with it. But I don’t expect that tool to do what other tools can do, hence I am never disappointed. That’s why I wrote it is in the attitude you have. It shows clearly in what you wrote about the Pi: “Here’s the kicker. It has an ARM processor and it can’t run Windows. The best programs we have can’t run on this device.” If you think HRD is the best program in the world and you need it to get work done, then run Windows on a PC and don’t even think about using a Pi for it. I don’t want you to be a slave to anything, but I also don’t think it is fair to only mention Linux/Apple software as a novelty or someone else’s experiment. Apple is smooth as silk, Linux stable as a rock. They are tools that are very useful . They may not satisfy your needs, or achieve your level standards, but they get the work done. Tomorrows “apps” running on whatever device will so too, but maybe not the way you are used to.

    Having said that I think you understand why I don’t want to take up your challenge. It’s just a futile exercise in comparing apples and pears.

  • But I’m not asking for HRD or any particular Windows app to run on Pi or Linux, or Windows to run on the Pi. I’m asking for us, the amateur community to avail the functionality to the platform.

    This is the circular discussion I get into whenever I discuss Linux amateur radio applications. Someone claims Linux is wonderful/everyone should use it/etc. and it can replace Windows because Linux apps X, Y, and Z exist. I point out that Linux apps X, Y, and Z don’t do functions 1, 2, and 3. I’m told don’t do functions 1, 2, and 3 or keep using Windows. But I want to do functions 1, 2, and 3 on a platform other than Windows, and I was told this alternative platform and this set of apps can replace Windows and these Windows apps. The point of my article is that the days of Windows domination is going to come to an end, the point was not the superiority of Windows applications. We’re entering a world where there are several popular OSs and we lack comparable functions in amateur radio on these other platforms. Back in the 80s and 90s we had to live with whatever tool we got because of software and hardware limitations. Computing today is much more user-centric.

    My challenge is essentially a rhetorical one; I’m attempting to illustrate that the equality in tools that many claim just isn’t there.

    I’ve considered starting an open source initiative to develop the logging and contesting functionality available in Windows, however the open source Arduino amateur radio projects I have consume what little free time I have. Our freeware software authors don’t appear to be interested in supporting cross-platform OSS efforts. I think freeware tends to be detrimental to amateur radio in this regard, but that’s another discussion.

  • BX2ABT:

    You are right: many claim other platforms offer the same functionality, but they don’t, Linux being a prime example. So take it as it is! There is no equality and there will never be. The world of communication and entertainment has become a very complex and diverse place, changing fast on a daily basis. Todays fad is in tomorrows dustbin.

    And as you rightly point out, this will not only bring benefit. Going backwards is painful, but then again sometimes you have to first go backwards in order to go forwards. On your blog Hajo pointed out that the basic underlyings of Android and *nix OSes are the same. If more programmers would start to write code that could be easily recompiled on other platforms then we would be taking a big step forwards.

    I’m looking forward to the discussion on Freeware/OSS. I know that I was very disappointed when I entered the world of amateur radio to find very little OSS.

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