Beam Me Up by iPhone — Astronomy Software Makes Celestial Comeback

In 2009,  Mike Smithwick was touring Florence with other astronomy enthusiasts to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s invention of the telescope.

As soon as he introduced himself to his tour companions, one stunned participant asked, “Are you the author of Distant Suns?”

Indeed, Smithwick said, he was the creator of the popular astronomy software for students and amateurs, an application which he had been publishing since 1987.

His tour colleague confessed he was still holding onto a 15-year old Macintosh computer for the sole purpose of running Distant Suns.

An astronomer and artist turned software author, Smithwick says his product was one of the first programs to let users “leave the earth.” Actually, Distant Suns allows the user to simulate a trip to other planets and orbit, say, around Saturn. It also offers star charts and displays of stars and planets.

Many customers who are curious about astronomy when they first acquire Distant Suns eventually go on to buy their own telescopes, Smithwick recalls. “One guy said to me, ‘Your software cost me $800,’” because it inspired him to buy a real ‘scope.

When Microsoft shifted to the Vista operating system in 2006, Smithwick found it just too onerous to re-code the software from the prior Windows OS. Fortunately he had a day job at Live 365, an Internet radio network that allows users to create their own content, and letting Distant Suns go didn’t mean the end of his income.

Then something happened that he had dreamed of but could not have anticipated.

Back in 1985, when he was first developing Distant Suns, Smithwick says, “I envisioned a computer in my pocket that I could just beam up to the night sky. I doubted it would happen but I thought it would be ideal,” he remembers. When the iPhone debuted in 2007, he was delighted. “I resumed working on Distant Suns for the iOS,” Smithwick says.

Last year, thanks to a welcome promotion from Apple, sales shot up, although this year they are only a fifth as high as they were at the same time in 2010. However Smithwick is not deterred, and in fact he has quit his day job to concentrate on new products and features for Distant Suns. He’s fired up.

Currently he has about 20 competitors in this space (no pun intended), “all single authors like myself except for the largest one called Star Walk, a handheld game publisher.” The software developer predicts a new product will be out soon… but he won’t comment on which planet or galaxy we’ll be visiting.

About Francine Brevetti

Francine Brevetti has covered business for newspapers in New York, a Hong Kong, the UK, and most recently the Oakland Tribune. A native San Franciscan, she delights in her Italian heritage and despairs about ever learning Mandarin. She also ghostwrites autobiographies and runs a workshop guiding people to write their own memoirs. Find her at FrancineBrevetti.com
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