essay on packet radio

         PACKET: FOR RADIO PEOPLE OR COMPUTER PEOPLE?
                         Fiction, by Travis A. Wise (c.1993)
 
     My name is Travis Wise.  My callsign is KB8FOU, and I have my General
class license.  I have been a ham for four years, and I have been active
on packet for three of those four years.  I am also active on VHF and UHF
frequencies, and dabble in HF.  I am a "radio person."
 
     I am also a "computer person." I have been using computers for many years,
and as a BBS SysOp, I am fairly knowledgeable about computers.  I had little
problem hooking up my packet TNC to my computer, and working out the software
and hardware bugs.
 
     Many people are both "computer people" and "radio people," but there is
a large population of hams who have never delt with computers before, and
are now getting into packet.  This is encouraged even more by the no-code
Technician license.  In this story, I make a clear difference between "computer
people" and "radio people."  Please keep in mind that I know some people are
both (as I am), and some are neither, but in this case, the person was a
"radio person," and not a "computer person," and so I will emphasize that
case.
 
     Living in Silicon Valley, our club of 300 hams has a number of packet
guru's, and I seem to have recently become one.  Shawn, a fellow club member,
contacted me a few months ago and told me that he had a new TNC, and a
Commodore 64 computer.  Many of the components were still in the box, and he
really wasn't sure where to go from that point.  Shawn is not a "computer
person."  He has never used a computer before, and really wasn't sure what to
do.  Shawn is, however, a "radio person," an avid contester active on most
HF and VHF bands, and an Advanced class ham.  I volunteered my services to
help him get up on packet, and a few weeks and one sheet cake later, we were
keyboarding to each other.
 
     It took many weeks before Shawn was comfortable with the packet commands,
and a few months until he was a packet afficianado.  Through nightly tutoring
sessions on the club's 1.2 GHz repeater, and a few books and other reading
material (including Larry Kenney, WB9LOZ's, "Introduction to Packet Radio"),
Shawn was soon exploring new frequencies and using PBBSs.
 
     Shawn had no trouble connecting his TNC to his computer and to his
radio, and little trouble with the terminal software itsself...it was menu
driven, and, as we say in the computer business, fairly user friendly.  Shawn's
biggest stumbling blocks were the TNC commands and the PBBS commands.
 
     Not being a "computer person," Shawn lacked some of the background
knowledge about some of the TNC commands, but he quickly picked up on the
important ones.  As I told him, its not necessary to memorize every command
and its function...we only use a few of them on a daily basis.  Still, the
number of commands and the format in which they were presented were major
obstacles.
 
    Maybe if the manuals and books presented the commands in a two chapter
format: One chapter for the daily-useage commands (MONITOR, MYCALL, CONNECT,
DISCONNECT, etc.), and another chapter for the rarely-used commands, it would
be less intimidating, and more easily understood.
 
     "Computer people" often have a certain amount of aquired logic when it
comes to working with computers.  They understand about the flow of data,
and the causes of certain effects on the hardware and software.  People new
to the computer world often have trouble with computers until they learn
this logic, and become comfortable with the computer.
 
     Shawn's second stumbling block was the BBS commands.  I suddenly found
myself explaining commands which I had never thought twice about, such
as the differences between "L" and "LM", and why "LM" doesn't mean "LIST
MESSAGES".  As I mentioned, I'm a SysOp of a BBS (catering to Ham files), and
the software I use is well written, and the commands make sence.  They
are user friendly, and an industry standard.
 
     Shawn pointed something out to me which I had never thought of before...
many of the PBBS commands don't make sence, especially to a "radio person"
(versus a "computer person").  Why does "W" mean "bring up a list of available
files?"  Why do we have twenty varieties of the [L]ist command?  And that
prompt...I continuously hear from new packetteers that it is not recognizable
as a prompt!
 
     Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not bashing the BBS SysOps (my father is
one), and I'm not bashing the writers of the packet software, who all should
be highly commended for their volunteer work on the system which currently
supports thousands of users, and many times that in messages.  It's a marval
of ham radio that we have available, but as time goes on, and useage increases,
we find ways we can improve upon the system.
 
     I have already suggested that the authors of the books about packet and
the manual writers begin catagorizing the commands as "common useage" and
"rarely used" in their books.  I also suggest that the packet community
scrap all of the current commands used, make a list of all the necessary and
wanted commands, and match new, logical command letters to the phrases.
 
     If you think levels, or tiers if you wish, of menus would make the system
more confusing, take a look at the phone line BBSs, which have been in
existance for longer than packet, with many times more users.  When we're re-
writing the commands, let's look around at other services and see what they
use.
 
     As time marches on, computer makers and software publishers are making
computers more user friendly, and we need to be doing the same thing to
packet.  Let's make packet more user friendly to the "radio people" who are
now becoming packet operators.
 
     If you don't think there is a need to re-think our current way of doing
things, I encourage you to sit down with someone who doesn't know a thing
about computers, or, on the other end of the spectrum, someone who is very
knowledgeable about computers, and see how logical they think it is.  I think
we are used to the system because it is all we have, and we have been active
on it for a while, I know that was my situation.

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