The K3 kerfuffle du jour on the Elecraft reflector is the "scary" proposition that Elecraft is making "secret" hardware changes to correct problems with the original design, and that by not sharing this information with K3 owners and prospective buyers, Elecraft's honesty is in question. Oy vey...
The argument that Elecraft is "secretive" regarding their updates and changes is belied simply by the fact that we're discussing the updates and changes at all. If anything, Elecraft and their field testers talk too much about these things - otherwise, how would anyone know about such changes in the first place? So much for the "secrecy" theory.
Elecraft should be commended for the frankness, openness and accessibility to their customers; for quickly responding to customer requests; for their willingness to improve the K3 with new features (for example, CW-to-PSK, and improvements to the filtering and noise reduction programming) that go above and beyond the published specs of the radio); and for (up to now) offering these improvements to the end user free of charge. Yet some still complain and excoriate because they are being kept out of a loop that they are not, in fact, in. It is not my business (nor anyone else's) what goes on inside the design shop at Elecraft. The only reason we know as much as we do is that Wayne, Eric, Lyle, and others choose to share such things with us; they are not obligated to do so.
Most other manufacturers would say nothing at all and either make changes unannounced, or simply say, "Don't like the AGC [or QSK, or filtering, or third-order IMD, or whatever]? Deal with it - that's the way it is. Maybe we'll fix it in the next model." As for adding previously unadvertised features free of charge as Elecraft continues to do with the K3, consider this: when I purchased the original Icom IC-706, it had coverage from HF through 2m. When Icom added the 70cm band to the '706 my upgrade path was simple: Sell the '706 and buy a '706mkII. Was Icom being "dishonest"? Of course not - I got what I paid for when I bought the original '706. A free or inexpensive upgrade path would have been nice, but by no means was Icom required to offer one.
Now let's pause for another boring JRC allegory...
WWJD? (What Would JRC Do?)
When JRC first released the NRD-535D receiver, it had a Murata CLF-D8 filter in the WIDE position, the BWC (variable bandwidth control) only worked in SSB modes and only with the INTER filter (2.2 kHz), and the RS-232C command set was lacking several useful commands (though it performed exactly as advertised).
It soon became apparent that the CLF-D8 filter was a poor choice - it was as wide as a barn door and did little to reject adjacent interference on the SWBC bands for which it was primarily intended. After much consideration JRC decided to offer free filter replacements for early NRD-535 owners and a box of CLF-D6S filters (the same as used in the NRD-525) was promptly sent to me at JRC-NY. I did my best to spread the word through the dealers and hobby grapevine (as it existed back then before the internets) that people could either have a filter mailed to them for self-installation or they could send me their radio (or just their IF Filter circuit board) and I'd happily swap it for them free of charge. There were no accusations of "secrecy" because we didn't notify owners that the CLF-D8 sucked before we devised the solution to the problem or keep them informed with progress reports; nor was JRC's character questioned because we did not prostrate ourselves before the marketplace and beg forgiveness for making a poor filter choice. People were happy - their original filter performed as promised, but a better filter was offered free of charge. Who wouldn't be happy?
We also started to receive a lot of requests from software developers for additional commands to improve the way the '535 interfaced with computers for remote control. Almost every useful suggestion was implemented, resulting in a series of firmware upgrades which necessitated the replacement of two EEPROM ICs, one of which was buried deep inside the front panel assembly - not as easy an upgrade as hooking a K3 up to a computer and running a utility app! Once again, these upgrades were offered for free, even though the original firmware worked exactly as specified. Some people took advantage of the offer, many who did not use computer control (or used software that did not utilize the new commands) chose not to do the upgrade. In any case, people were happy - it was nice to see a manufacturer pay attention to the wants and needs of its end-users. (Does this remind you of any current American manufacturer? Perhaps one located in Aptos, CA? Think hard...)
Later on, we started receiving question about why the BWC was disabled in the AM mode and not used with the WIDE filter. I, too, thought this was a good idea. The factory was persuaded to modify the BWC design to make it work with the WIDE filter and in all modes; this was done through a hardware change (the crystal filter on the BWC circuit board was replaced) and modification to the radio's firmware. All future production runs would incorporate the new BWC features, and again an upgrade was offered to early NRD-535 D owners. However, this time there was a nominal charge for the upgrade kit ($129.95, as I recall) because it was not a bug fix, but rather an improvement to the original design. I don't recall too many complaints about how unfair it was to charge early owners for the same features that later purchasers enjoyed for free. The fact was, JRC (once again) listened to it's customer base and improved an already excellent product, and (once again), people were happy. But this was back in a time before no good deed went unpunished.
My point is, hardware and software changes are a normal part of production. No product is perfect, so it is a good thing to take customer feedback and fix things that need fixing, and if possible add things that can be added to an existing design. JRC understood this over 15 years ago just as Elecraft understands it now. Many other companies could care less, as long as the product is "good enough" to meet the published specs. The K3's transmit 3rd Order IMD of -27dB as measured in the QST test currently puts it in the same league as the Icom IC-746PRO and Kenwood TS-480; that is not "poor" as some have suggested but "average" performance and unless I'm very wrong falls completely within Elecraft's claimed specifications for the K3 as well as FCC spectral purity requirements. Elecraft could easily just leave it alone and be content to offer a rig with a superlative receiver but only an average transmitter, and they'd still be considered to be acting ethically and honestly; instead they've pledged to improve the TX side of things and offer a solution to early purchasers. I applaud them.
We now return to our regularly scheduled rant...
As an early adopter of the K3 I fully accept the fact that I am one of the test pilots of a complex piece of equipment, produced by a pioneering and evolving company in a way that is diametrically opposite the standard business model of the Big Three of JA-land. I considered this fact carefully when I sent in my deposit check to get one of the first production run. I could have waited for all the bugs to be shaken out of the K3, or I could have purchased a different radio with a more proven track record. In the end I chose to be part of the K3 bug-shaking process.
The moral of the story is, when you pre-order a version 1.0 product as complex and specialized as the K3, any expectation that it will work 100% as advertised right out of the starting gate is both unrealistic and unreasonable. On the other hand, it is perfectly reasonable to expect problems that pop up after the initial release of the K3 to be addressed in incremental updates (1.1, 1.2, 1.3, etc.); that seems to be the path Elecraft is on and nothing that they have done so far suggests otherwise.* Furthermore, if new features or functionality not originally specified or promised in the 1.0 version are added to later versions, Elecraft has every right to charge those who wish to implement those new features a reasonable fee, just as they have every right not to offer any such improvements at all. As someone else pointed out, how many Orion I's have a color LCD display?
* In fact, the official response from Elecraft to the specific question of transmitter spectral purity raised by the ARRL's lab test is pretty much what anyone familiar with Elecraft would expect: "We're looking into this already. Any improvement we make in firmware (or hardware, for that matter) will immediately be made available to all K3 owners." Who could ask for more? (Don't answer - we know who they are...)
Contrast Elecraft to the auto industry: I've received manufacturer recall notices for just about every car I've ever owned, each telling me that my car has a bug and I should bring it in to have it fixed. The manufacturers did not issue a series of prior reports informing me that they think there might be a bug, nor did they provide me with regular updates from their engineering departments letting me know what they were doing about it. A CEO of an automobile company is not going to be active in the owner's groups responding to individual questions and complaints. Instead, when a problem is confirmed and a solution is found, owners are notified and offered a remedy. If I buy a completely new model car when it is first introduced, I understand that I'll be much more likely to receive recall notices for it than if I wait a couple of model-years. This would be no different for any other type of hi-tech, non-disposable product; in recent years I've had to perform upgrades - both software and hardware - to fix bugs in countless computers and software applications, not to mention my iPod, my Celestron NexStar 8 GPS telescope, my Line 6 POD, many other amateur radio products, and God knows what else. This situation is by no means unique to the K3, and no other amateur radio product's upgrade path in my experience has been as smooth and painless as the K3's.
As Elecraft grows I fully expect them to learn from their K3 experiences and clam up a bit more about what is going on behind the magic curtain, as it will soon be impossible to respond to every gripe from every customer as they have so nobly done in the past. This will fundamentally change the character of the company, but it is an inevitable side effect of market growth. Like Apple, they will soon have to move out of the garage and start behaving like a "real" company - and I don't say "real" like it's a good thing; I like Elecraft just the way they are! Before the K3 there were a relatively small number of Elecraft users and the company enjoyed an almost exclusive, club-like following; now the K3 will likely push Elecraft to a new level in the industry and the "family" feel that Elecrafters now enjoy (and that I only recently became aware and part of) will by necessity have to give way to more mainstream business practices - including real secrecy, not the kind they are imagined by some to have now. My advice to the bitchers and moaners is: Enjoy it while it lasts.
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