26 December 2010

Software Archaeology: Deep-Sky Planner 1

2011 marks twenty years of development on Deep-Sky Planner. Digging through my files has brought back some memories and some amusing facts ...

The story begins in 1987 when I got a copy of Borland's Turbo C for DOS to do some contract work. I also had the RNGC catalog so I massaged the catalog data with Turbo C for my own needs. This was hobby computing aimed at finding new things to observe with my Celestron-8.

In 1989, Sky Publishing released NGC 2000.0 on diskette. That quickly displaced RNGC for my growing needs - feeding a new 20 inch telescope. At the same time, I began working on a menuing system in DOS with Turbo C. It was a really simple system but it was much better than the command line programs that were the interface du jour.

In early 1991, I got Turbo C++ to learn the C++ language. I had evaluated Zortech C++ but found Turbo C++ to be easier, cheaper and sufficient for my needs. In the summer of 1991, I began working on the code that has become Deep-Sky Planner. I redesigned the menuing system that had originated in DOS and I began to design a data access system in C++ that was small and fast. By December I got a copy of Jean Meeus' Astronomical Algorithms and the C language library that came with it. These acquisitions allowed me to start adapting the Astronomical Algorithms library to C++ with speed of execution being the primary goal.

Borland C++ was released in 1992 with TurboVision, a DOS based library that provided a solid graphical user interface. My experience with developing commercial end-user applications highlighted the necessity of providing a user interface that users could understand. When I adapted my code to use TurboVision, I knew that my project might be commercially viable so I sent a written proposal to Sky Publishing. By August of that year, Sky had responded with interest so I sent the first evaluation version of Deep-Sky Planner to them on 2 diskettes.

By January of 1993, I received a publishing contract which was signed, sealed and delivered by February. There were many months of delays during acceptance testing and copy editing (of the manual) before the product was ready. There were some personnel changes at Sky during this time, and it was the first shrink-wrapped software product published by them.

I had an interesting note from Sky's Books & Products Manager in January 1994 telling me to change the title to include a hyphen. That's why it's Deep-Sky Planner not Deep Sky Planner. Other corrections made during the copy editing process were helpful, but the hyphen one has always set this title apart from others. I still don't think 'deep sky' is wrong, but I'm not a professional copy editor either.

As part of the publishing process, Sky sent a marketing survey to me to help them understand how to market the product. One question asked about any competing products in the marketplace. I responded "I know of no other product that offers only textual output. Most are planetarium programs that also provide limited databases and limited reporting capabilities." I went on to mention TheSky for DOS (Software Bisque) $129, MegaStar (Emil Bonnano) $139, Deep Space 3-D for DOS (David Chandler Co.) $79 + $65 database upgrade. As far as I know, Deep-Sky Planner was the first commercially available observation planning product, debuting at $34.95.

Deep-Sky Planner 1 was officially released on April 1, 1994 and the first advertisement appeared in the March 1994 issue of Sky & Telescope. It was speedy and compact, and it contained a lot of deep-sky objects (31,418) for the day. It didn't include any planet ephemeris computations which became the most-requested feature from users. Amazingly, it still runs under Windows XP.

Next time I'll look at version 2, an adventure into 16-bit Windows.