Sunday, July 5, 2009

iPhone Astronomy

When I gave up my Palm Z-22 for an iPhone in March of last year, one of the few things I sacrificed was a free little astronomy app that would draw a chart of the planets and constellations for any date and time.

Third-party apps for the iPhone became available a few months later, and among the initial offerings were four good astronomy apps. They cost $9 to $12 each, but they were far more powerful than what I’d had before. Over the year since then, two of these apps have been greatly improved and three others have been introduced. The most powerful of them now costs $19, but there are good choices for $5 to $6 and one of the apps also comes in a pretty good free version.

I have no idea whether these apps are stimulating more interest in astronomy among the general public, but I sure hope so. They’re affordable, fun to use, and instantly available whenever you find yourself out under the stars wondering what you’re looking at. Although astronomy software for full-sized computers is more powerful still, it’s often more expensive and harder to use--besides being tied to a large, power-hungry device that you can’t slip into your pocket.

The iPhone (and iPod Touch) user interface is ideally suited for this kind of software. On the screen you see a map of the sky, automatically adjusted for your current location. The amount you see at any one time is limited by the screen’s small size, but you can move the map around and zoom in and out instantly, using intuitive finger gestures. The better apps are so easy to use that even if I’m sitting at my computer, I prefer to pull out my iPhone to look up the time of sunset or the phase of the moon or the best time to view the Andromeda Galaxy.

In a modest effort to promote these apps, I decided last winter to write a review of them. Not a quick off-the-cuff review, but a thorough review of all seven apps, with a detailed comparison table and lots of screen shots. Otherwise, how are users supposed to choose among the seven apps--or even know that they have so many choices? (There’s no easy way to even find them all on the iTunes Store, which outgrew its primitive organizational scheme long ago. Astronomy apps are variously categorized under Education, Navigation, and Reference.)

The review project ended up being a little too ambitious, and I’ve had trouble keeping the review up to date. Still, there are hundreds of people out there who have read the review, and I’m getting a steady trickle of email thanking me for it. If a few more people fall in love with astronomy as a result, it will have been time well spent.

Astronomy is just one of many subjects where computing makes more sense on a mobile device than on a bulky computer. Another is trail maps and nature guides, as I mentioned recently. I get the sense that most of us, including the software developers, are still adjusting to this paradigm shift, and I look forward to the next generation of useful mobile apps.

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