Stellarium stargazing software

stellarium.jpg
I’ve been on a good run with free software lately. As part of some recent work I’ve been doing with my Sky Clock, I wanted to check my accuracy against a web site that showed the current sky. Was Saturn where I said it should be? As part of my Google search for such a web site planetarium, I came across a mention of Stellarium, a free open-source stargazing program for your computer. It looked pretty, and the fact that it was free made it a simple decision to install it and take a look at it. And lo and behold, it’s very good. Long ago I owned a copy of Red Shift from Maris, and it wasn’t a great experience. The interface was bulky and there was all kinds of weird content that I didn’t really need. Stellarium by contrast is very simple. Its interface feels a little Unix-y and text heavy (lots of single-letter accelerators that expert users can memorize), but it does exactly what I needed, it’s beautful, and it’s free.

As a professional software developer, this last part always gives me pause. I’ve lost count of the number of really useful really good programs I use that are completely free. Not ten minutes ago I downloaded the free Eclipse-based JavaScript/HTML editor Aptana along with a nice free font (Proggy Clean) to use with it. Last night I downloaded a free genealogy program called Personal Ancestral File. Again, it’s pretty basic, but it does exactly what I need. I don’t need and I don’t want to pay for all the fancy-pants features they cram into Family Tree Maker, another product I once spent money on.

Commercial vendors can charge for new features, but they must eventually run out of meaningful novelty. Their free competitors, who by definition can’t be run out of business, will ultimately swallow all features worth copying.
So I wonder: in the long run, will all software be free? I have become convinced that the answer is very nearly yes. In the long run, all software will be free, or hosted as a service, or both. Money will still pour through the system, but by a very different set of sluiceways.