On Innovation

A long-standing pet peeve of mine has been the fact that industries go years and years with “innovating” all the wrong features. Until recently, for example, digital camera companies kept adding more and more megapixels. My camera has too many megapixels. I turned it down because the files were way too big. It wasn’t until about a year ago that manufacturers caught on that what we really wanted was better ISO sensitivity so we could take pictures in lower light.

Radios and police scanners in particular are an area where I’m even more aggravated at resources being put in the wrong areas. RadioShack just filed for FCC certification for the Pro106, a police scanner with controls looking straight out of an iPod. I’ll refrain from making snide comments about its appearance. But what I will say is that there are a lot of features I’d like on a police scanner. Copying a first-gen iPod is not one of them.

Before I bought a $500 police scanner, I owned a Motorola ASTRO Saber. More than a decade ago, it was a state-of-the-art digital radio, one of the first Project 25 radios produced. Public safety agencies timidly tested the digital waters, spending four figures on each of the radios. I bought mine by way of eBay about a decade after it was produced, and it was a radio that had clearly seen some use in its day. It had a firmware revision that was probably five or more years old, too. When I got the Pro96 (the $500 RadioShack digital police scanner), I realized something surprising. It cost more than the “real” Motorola radio, though the Motorola was a decade old with ancient firmware… Yet the Motorola sounded much better. The State Police run mobile data terminals on the same frequency. The Pro96 treats it as analog audio and blares it through the speaker. The Motorola didn’t do anything since it wasn’t a valid digital signal. The Pro96 periodically stops decoding digital and either makes horrible bleeps as it goes in and out, or it switches to analog, making sounds akin to a really loud modem. Remember, the Pro96 has decoding software that should be at least 5 years newer.

I took meticulous care of the Pro96. There’s nary a scratch on it. You’d be hard-pressed to find dust. And yet it has problems. The audio cuts out, or goes so quiet that you can’t hear it. I ranted a lot about this in my Pro96 review, which essentially concluded that, given all the problems it has, it’s really not worth the money. The ASTRO Saber had scratches and scrapes, and had no issues at all. Volume was clear, and could go very loud. Or, unlike the Pro96 before volume problems, you could turn it down really low, too. The Motorola also had big knobs, because it was designed with people using it in mind. The Pro96 has tiny knobs that are slippery. Not unusable, mind you, but hardly the epitome of usability. The knobs on most any Saber-line radio are shaped in such a way that you can tell by touch exactly how far they’re turned, too. While driving, I have to use my fingernail to try to find the small notch on the Pro96 knobs.

The Motorola has some features that, after existing for at least a decade, haven’t ever been imitated. Nuisance delete is one that I really wish people would scan. On most any scanner, you can hit “Lockout” and exclude a channel from being scanned. It won’t ever be scanned again until you manually find the channel and remove the Lockout. Most any modern radio has the capacity for thousands of channels, though, so odds are good that you’ll forget all about it and just never hear it again. But nuisance delete is a sort of “soft” lockout. It persists for your scanning “session,” but when you turn the radio off and back on, nuisance deletes are lost. This subtle distinction is huge, because most of the time I want to stop scanning a particular frequency, I’m just annoyed that static is coming through the speaker, or that an asinine conversation is taking place. Scanner makers, you’ve had more than a decade to copy a very basic feature that couldn’t possibly be patented.

Like a lot of geeks, I’m one of those people who can often intuitively understand how to use an electronic device. I don’t read manuals. I just tend to think like the people who design electronics, apparently. But I’ve had to read the manuals for most any radio I’ve ever owned, just to have the foggiest clue how to work it. Rather than menus or a sane arrangement of buttons, you have buttons that might as well be haphazardly placed, and you have to know what buttons to press to make things work. To deal with limited space, there’s often a “Function” key that, when pressed, changes the function of all the buttons. I’ve learned how to use the radios I’ve bought in short order, but if I start using one, moving back to another is hard, because I have to re-learn how it works. By contrast, I can pick up any cell phone ever made and easy use the menus to find anything in short order. Why don’t radio companies use menus, rather than expecting us to learn arcane key combinations?

Why are there almost no radios that can record audio? The past few phones I’ve owned have had this capability. Why not put an SD slot on a radio and let me record audio? Why don’t scanners ever show me the signal strength of what I’m listening to, a feature most any ham radio has? Why don’t radios show me the battery level, a feature most any cell phone has? Why are scanners bigger and bulkier than radios that cover the same range but can also transmit 5 Watts on multiple bands? Why don’t they make scanners that can receive SSB?

These are just pet peeves that I’ve encountered, not the product of a team of people sitting down and brainstorming ideas. So why is my list so far ahead of companies that should have a team of people sitting down and brainstorming these ideas?