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Digibarn Stories:

Mike Smithwick and Distant Suns
One of the First Visual Astronomy Programs on a Microcomputer
(November, 2008)


Distant Suns-From the Amiga to the iPhone in only 23 years

In 1985 while working at NASA Ames Research Center some friends of mine and I went together on a group buy one of these new whiz-bang Amiga computers thingies from Commodore. Having worked in flight simulation graphics we immediately recognized the power that the Amiga brought to the desktop unlike anything else. It had been out for only about 2 weeks and of course, there was no software for it at all save for the colorful little demos that came on the system disk.

That night I started playing with their AmigaBasic, drawing things at random and playing with their programmable colormaps, something unique to home computers. All previous machines had hardware color, if they had color at all. If you wanted a gray, you had to use their gray, if you wanted a lovely mauvy shade of pinkish green. Tough. The Amiga changed all that and I thought that it might be possible to create a nice little astronomy program as a result. I could have single pixel stars of varying intensities, something not possible with the limited color selections of other machines. So I wrote a 17 line basic program that generated a display of 200 random stars, turned out the lights and said “dude!”. And I’ve spent the past 23 years refining that just a little.

At that time, the First Amiga User’s Group was meeting in a church in Belmont, and was drawing publishers from across the country looking for products. Our group played host to many of the Amiga designers, including Jay Miner, the “father” of the Amiga. One other member of FAUG was Allen Hastings who wrote a small 3D rendering program that would eventually grow into Lightwave 3D and revolutionize Hollywood.

Here I met up with Infinity Software of Emeryville who loved the program and agreed to pick it up. Eventually they named it “Galileo,” created a beautiful package for it, and released it in April of 1987 for $99. During my negotiations I noticed that my contract didn’t specify who got the rights to the software if they went under. When I mentioned this to the CEO, he as insulted at the very notion that I thought they could fail, but made my required changes anyway.

Wisest choice ever

They took Galileo to a joint Amiga/Atari show in Chicago. And with great personal pride, I learned that none other than Leonard Tramiel, son of Jack and an astrophysicist by training, crashed my software. The next year, Galileo 2.0 won a special award at CES.

About a year and a half later Infinity was history due to being forced to ship a very expensive desktop publishing product while still in beta. I managed to secure all of the reg cards to ensure the 1000 or so owners were not left out in the cold and started shopping for a new publisher. One outfit with the remarkably uncreative name “The Disk Company” contacted me and even had an artist dummy up some proposed packaging. I had never heard of these guys and was a bit wary as they mainly did European sales, and so nothing ever came of it. A couple of years later, their CEO would put together a consortium to purchase the then struggling game developer Activision, and he, Bobby Kotick, is still there. Ahh….if only….

I also checked to make sure that Infinity had actually bothered to trademark the name, Galileo. They did not, as it was owned by a firm that made software for the metal finishing industry. I ended up having a naming contest on comp.sys.amiga on Usenet, with Distant Suns as one of the submissions (Star Porn was another, but we passed on that). Ultimately was contacted by a gentleman named Lance Woeltjen who was just starting a company called Virtual Reality Labs in San Luis Obispo, and needed an introductory product. We quickly came to an agreement and as he knew nothing about software contracts, let me write my own after promising me an unheard of royalty of 25%, (when 10% was the industry norm).

We had six weeks to get a new box and manual out as DS was going to be shown at the AmiExpo in Santa Clara. It was the fall of ’89.

The Earth had different plans, and five days before, a 7.2 quake rolled through the area…at the same time our manuals were literally on the presses.

About a third of the exhibitors would end up pulling out. But we had product to sell and introduced Distant Suns 2.0 for the Amiga, the special “earthquake” edition.

A few months later I was proud to receive a fan letter from one of my childhood heroes, the late Arthur C. Clarke. Arthur said we could quote any part of his letter for promotional purposes, and we became pen pals as a result. Another letter that came in shortly after that stated: “(Distant Suns) is so well done that it ended up costing me another $700!...I ended up buying a Meade 2045D telescope…”

Mission accomplished

A friend of mine from church started a port to the still then secret Windows 3, making DS the first astronomy program written for Windows. Meanwhile, a very nice product came out for the Macintosh called Voyager. An Amiga fanatic friend of the Voyager author pushed him to port it over to the Amy, while I was starting a Mac port. Even though Voyager was a more feature rich program (and considerably more complicated to use), it was written for the original monochrome Mac, and was still entrenched in the land of fat pixilated stars long after the Mac II was introduced. DS for the Mac on the other hand made full use of the new Mac’s color capabilities.

Shortly after it was released for the Mac, I was at an AmiExpo in Los Angeles where we had a booth. I wandered over to the Voyager booth and they were showing Voyager for the Amiga. It was clearly many months away from shipping, so I don’t know why they were tipping their hand by showing it off so early. While I was there one of the Voyager guys was at our booth, and Suzi, the wife of my publisher asked him cheerfully if he had seen Distant Suns for the Mac yet? Grinning, she told me later that this gent turned pale with fear, so clueless he was that we were already on the Mac, in color, doing stuff that Voyager couldn’t. All the while they were wasting their time doing an Amiga port, which wouldn’t come out for about 6 months. (In fact they were so rushed, they tried to lure one of our own programmers to help them finish it).

Commodore would eventually use DS in its advertising and it would go on to win several other awards. DS became one of the very first CD-ROM based software packages, and as such was in very high demand by the retailers, given prime space at Fry’s for example. In 1993, Billboard Magazine listed it as number 9 on their top-10 list of CD-ROM titles wedged in between two Microsoft titles.

By this time, it was doing so well that I quit my job at NASA to work on it full time, taking a few contract gigs in between with Apple, Sense-8 and elsewhere doing 3D graphics and VR stuff.

After porting the code to the Mac, decided to do my own Windows version as an excuse to learn that platform. By now the code was so platform independent that it took only one day to get the main star display up on Windows. However it would take about a year to finish “all the other stuff”. And that version is still for sale to this very day.

VRLI was now operating pretty close to the edge, and the new version of DS, renamed First Light, was delayed. It had to get out otherwise paychecks would be held up, until an unexpected order for $30,000 came in from Egghead unprompted, based merely on the rumors of the product.

First Light would go on to receive nice reviews in Newsweek and the Washington Post.

VRLI ended up being bought out by a “shovel ware” company called Romtech in 1995, primarily for one business application. As a result, First Light/Distant Suns languished, but it was mentioned in one of Scott Adam’s Dilbert Newsletters.

Finally after several threats to pull my contract, I was able to renegotiate things with Romtech, including going non-exclusive so I could self-publish and manage the Japanese and Italian versions along with upgrades for the original VRLI customers. At this point I linked up with Monkey Byte Software, a new venture started by one of the former VRLI guys, who handled marketing and distribution, and continue to do so to this very day.

DS would not play well with Vista, so I decided that after 20 years, it had reached a natural end of life and elected to discontinue any further development. Then the iPhone came out. Several years before when I was temporarily laid off, I spent the time doing an OpenGL screensaver for the PC called Grand Tour, using some of the DS code. When the iPhone SDK was released, I realized that I could take that code, port it and release an entirely new version of DS that I had always wanted: One I could fit in my pocket. I had hoped to have it ready for release when the Appstore went online, but it wouldn’t be until October when Distant Suns 1.0 for the iPhone finally went up. And the cycle repeats itself: fan mail saying it is someone’s favorite iPhone program, letters from people who owned DS and Galileo years and years ago, thanking me for reviving the title and the ability to once again write any astronomy purchases off of my taxes.

DS pops up in surprising little ways. A few years ago I bought a very nice astronomy program for Palm, written by a French gentleman. It looked really familiar and then I found out that he modeled the colors and some of the design after DS. Just last week my girlfriend gave me a paper a friend of hers got at a hackers conference, referencing DS in some archeoastronomy context.

It’s been a fun ride, and I hope it continues for years to come.

Curator Bruce Damer: Thanks, Mike! See the scanned images and photographs below to illustrate this story!

Scanned Images

Booth showing Distant Suns

Another view of the booth

Mike at work
First Light... new version of
Distant Suns
Galileo poster
Galileo version 2, 1987 (Amiga)
Your starship awaits...
Distant Sun Ad
Newsweek story, 1995


Various versions of the software
iPhone version clearly visible
Award from CES
Original license agreement

See Also:

Distant Suns official website

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