At the edge of software

Two years ago I got into amateur Astronomy.  I bought an 8″ dobsonian telescope (which is the perfect first scope), and joined the local astronomy club.  I’ve come to realize that my biggest weakness is coming up with appropriate target lists, given location, time, and the equipment I’ve got.  It turns out there is actually a piece of software specifically written to address that: Sky Tools 3, which is windows only.

More interestingly, it turns out that this is the only piece of software, pay / free, regardless of platform, that does this.  There is nothing else close.  There are plenty of planetarium software, free, open, and pay, on every platform that you can imagine.  That’s a crowded space.  But to solve this very specific problem of generating good visual observing lists there exists only one software solution.

It got me thinking.  When we talk about cross platform software, and getting people to consider open source alternatives, people always focus on the crowded center.  Debates over word processors and browsers, email and graphics tools.  These all have pluses and minuses, but in the crowded center there are plenty of options.

Out at the edge of software there aren’t options or alternatives.  The market is too small to support more than one, and you are lucky if even one tool exists to do what you like.  These pieces of software are the tent stakes that keep Microsoft as the 90% platform for personal computers.  At least with virtualization it means that I won’t have to run windows on real hardware to run Sky Tools, but it does mean that I’m going to be running windows in a VM a lot more often than I was before.

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