Open Source, it is not just for Linux anymore

I was involved in an email discussion the other day with a fellow Amateur Radio operator about a program called UI-View, a Windows-based application for the Automatic Position Reporting System. In the course of our discussion I inquired into the state of the source code, having pointed out that some of the interfaces should be reviewed to take advantage of some of the newer mapping tools. I was informed that the source code had been destroyed on the author’s death, at his request. This made me pause.

I paused, not because the author was dead, I knew that. In fact, Roger Barker G4IDE had been dead for several years before I got around to using his software. I paused because I was absolutely stunned that any Amateur, a member of a community that prides itself on innovation, experimentation, and community mentoring would willing destroy the source code for what is arguably a professional grade piece of software, well thought out, and very functional. This made me pause and review the software I use as an Amateur.

There is a large amount of software that is in use by the Amateur community that is open sourced. Most (dare I say all?) of it is Linux-based, which is not a surprise. In my tool box, I have software for logging contacts, running APRS, programming my radios (and each one is slightly different for each radio) and doing packet work. It would seem every single one of them is closed (or at the very least, not openly saying they will share their source).
Perhaps the developers have a good reason for this. Perhaps they are unaware of the advantages of being open sourced. One of the most beneficial to my mind is keeping the code going after the passing of the original author (either by death or frustration). Good applications show their value and people pick up the torch and keep it going, even if the originating author is done with it. Other advantages, as have been stated elsewhere, include fewer errors in the code, a more rapid time to completion and those gee whiz! moments of insight that move the state of the art forward.

Certainly there are issues related to resources. It is not cheap to procure a compiler and development environment for the Windows platform, learn the interfaces, or is it easy to test software to be used in a community that has been described as the cheapest group of individuals on the planet. My tongue is only slightly in my cheek. Amateur Radio operators will acquire any old piece of technology and keep it running if there might be a value to it. I have seen some amazing things come out of these junk drawers, from antennas to interfaces between old tube radios and modern computers. And computer technology runs the gamut from modern laptops running Vista and Linux to clunkers that barely boot running DOS…version 2. So I can understand why a developer might want to make a buck with his or her code.

One of the more interesting things I have seen, outside of the shareware model for raising funds, although not as much recently, is the wishlist model in the open source community. I first saw it with Tobi Oetiker’s MRTG program all those years ago with his CD wish list. Today he has a much more robust funding model, primarily spurred by the ability to target ads, something that was not as well defined in the late 1990s. But by and large, the model in the open source community has been to crank out the code and make it available for the joy of doing it, or because the developer or group of developers saw a problem and a solution and thought that others could benefit from it.

On the Windows side, however, this generally is not the case. There are a number of Windows programs that are open sourced, but many of these did not start as Windows programs. Notable programs are Pigin and Wireshark two programs that started in the Linux realm and were ported to Windows because of demand, but it does not seem that programs that start natively in Windows-based development are developed with the same sense of … well openness.

So, to those who code, especially those who code on the Windows platform, I am not opposed to your recouping of costs, but I would encourage you to open source your code. You might be pleasantly surprised at the results. And to those who already do, my thanks.


Shameless plug: If you would like to know more about becoming an Amateur Radio operator, check out the Welcome to Ham Radio page and the American Radio Relay League’s page. Or just ask one of us!


David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


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Open source and amateur radio

Nate N0NB's picture

I don't have an answer. There are good projects out there like Fldigi that are released under the GPL and are cross-platform. As David describes, Fldigi began on Linux after its author Dave W1HKJ became frustrated trying to improve and extend gMFSK. Fldigi now runs on virtually all Linux variants, Windows XP and Vista, and OS X. It has become a staple for the Linux using digital modes operator.

What is lacking is a contest logging program on par with the classic MS-DOS based CT. CT has been best in class in my mind for well over 15 years, but Ken K1EA has not updated it for some time so it has fallen behind on radio support for some later models. Some efforts at logging programs have been made, but for one reason or another seemed to be heading in the wrong direction for me to invest much time in. Some new projects like CQ Log show promise and I should revisit them again.

For the ham wanting an APRS program, Xastir seems to be the only game in town. It is covers its intended use quite well and is actively developed. Unfortunately, for me at least, it's GUI uses Motif and I swore off Motif apps years ago for not only their ugly appearance and clunky interface but because they do not integrate into my KDE desktop at all. So I'm not terribly interested in APRS because the author wishes not to change tool kits. Fine, I guess.

To get to the main point of the article, I too have found it disheartening when authors of amateur radio software keep it closed source. For example, how can an independent analysis be made of closed source antenna modeling software? How do we know that some exotic antenna design doesn't have a basic flaw? Sure, we can build and test a prototype, but wouldn't an open modeling program make this easier and more accurate?

Some years back the author of a prominent antenna modeling software suite pulled it off the market citing piracy that was costing him license sales. His code, his call, I guess, but I couldn't help but wonder at the time if releasing his code under a Free Software license wouldn't have been the best revenge. I suppose we'll never know.

Then there are the ham software authors I've encountered over the years who aren't just uninterested in Linux but are very harsh about their dislike for the entire concept of free and open software. Thankfully, they are few and are probably becoming less relevant everyday, but in the early days it was not uncommon to encounter this mindset.

Finally, there is the ARRL. As I see it, the ARRL should be at the forefront of promoting open and free sharing of information about ham radio technology. By and large they do a good job as any construction project that requires a program for a PIC or some such device must have the source available. This is a good step. However, it's aggravating when I read a review of some closed software in QST that is Windows only. Sometimes it is some commercial package yet often it is not these days. CQ magazine is not much better.

I don't know what the answer is except for Microsoft to continue making Windows less hobbyist friendly.


Evan Plaice's picture

Is it so hard to grasp that he open sourced the code for personal pride rather than other people's benefit? I could imagine an individual in the OSS community who values pride and accomplishment in one's work over money.

Isn't that what the cathedral and the bazaar is all about. It's not about money or power. It's about achievement, overcoming challenges, and gaining praise from others in the community. Like the tech equivalent of street-cred.

Maybe he felt this way all along. Being selfish doesn't always involve taking from others (except when he died, of course).

Links don't work

Ari Torhamo's picture

Just informing that the links you provide in your article don't work. The culprit is a quotation mark, which every link seems to have at the end.


David Lane's picture

That is what as known as a template bug. I have pulled the quotes entirely so hopefully the links will work and I will get with our beloved webmistress and see what is up.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack


Anonymous's picture

Did this guy also request that his remaining money be burned in front of his children as well?

For life of me, cannot imagine why any programmer would ever do this. I don't want to come off as being harsh to the deceased, but did he want to be remembered as a jerk?

I'm not a radio guy, but I have read a lot of the information that is freely available in that community. It would appear that it is one based on freedom of information. It seems like these guys are more than happy to pass along the information they have acquired over the years. Much like the OSS crowd. This is just plain strange.

The "rest of the story"

David Lane's picture

Actually, he never asked for money, even when he was alive. He asked for a donation. In death, to get a registration code, on your honor, you pledge to donate to a worthy cause in his name (I think I donated to American Heart Association, but I forget now).

Most Amateurs are very giving of their time and knowledge - you have only to look at the number of web pages on everything from building antennas to fixing a particular piece of equipment. We are not stingy in passing on the skills, very much like the OSS community.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

Community spirit

ZL2iFB's picture

While I agree with the thrust of your argument, there is more to this than just making money. Close source software gives the owner/developer a better chance of controlling its continued development. The classic argument is that the originator knows it inside out and can ensure that quality is maintained. This seems like a rather arrogant and egocentric view to me but I'm not a software developer so what do I know?

Some may be persuaded to release APIs, at least, so that others can extend their software through add-ons. This might be a worthwhile compromise for owner/developers unwilling to relinquish control of the core code.

As to the issue of what will happen when the owner/developer dies, the commercial world has the concept of escrow. Could the radio societies, maybe, offer an escrow service for amateur software, as a service to the wider community?

73 Gary ZL2iFB
Grateful user of many excellent free amateur programs

Other arguements

David Lane's picture

Certainly there are a variety of reasons beyond money to keep close hold of the source. I am not a developer personally (although I do occasionally do a little coding - a very little) so recouping costs was all I could come up with.

Having been closely involved in a number of development efforts, I would argue that good control of development comes from good oversight but that does not necessarily mean a single developer. I can cite several examples of this from Apache to MySQL.

How code is dealt with is an issue that each developer or development team has to deal with. One thing that I would advocate is that there are more advantages to opening it up than there are to keeping it closed. But I have been in the OSS community longer than I have had my Amateur ticket.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

I am in complete agreement.

JK Wood's picture

It pains me to encounter closed-source ham radio software. If it's something you're selling, I can understand. But much of it is freely given away. What really pains me is projects like rptdir, where the author "intends to open-source it" but refuses to do so until "it's in a state for distributing the source." For one, the software works! His main complaint seems to be that it won't be easy to build. I personally don't care. I build and package software almost every day, and I along with probably a dozen others would be happy to help him whip it into shape. I can't understand the mindset where you refuse to let others help you out. I can't even run rtpdir on my setup because I'm running 64-bit Linux. If I had the source code, it'd be childs play to build it and start distributing it.

Consider this comment an open letter to the ham community: Stop being selfish!

JK Wood


David Lane's picture

It might interest you to know that I let the League know when I post stuff that is related to the community. Maybe I should submit it as a guest editorial to QST as well.

David Lane, KG4GIY is a member of Linux Journal's Editorial Advisory Panel and the Control Op for Linux Journal's Virtual Ham Shack

destroy when I am dead

odd's picture

That is so odd,to request the source code destroyed when you die. That puts another twist on "you can't take it with you when your dead".


John McKown's picture

I often wonder about this as well. I do understand that the Windows environment is costly (in actual money) to develop for. And so I understand the "shareware" mentality to recoup at least the cost of the development environment. And making a profit is nice too. But I really wonder about "destroy the source when I'm dead". At that point, there is no more profit to the developer. Well, other than possibly releasing the source and thereby possibly be remembered even more fondly.

I guess maybe it's a mind-set difference. Windows people grow up in a closed, money-centric environment and it wears off on them. Linux people tend to grow up in an open, libre/gratis environment and I guess that wears off too.

John McKown