An Open Letter

We are making some significant changes to the Nightshade project, please read the full posting for details.
Added by Rob Spearman almost 3 years ago

You have been part of a decade-long multinational experiment, possibly without your knowledge.

Did that get your attention? I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but we have been experimenting since 2003 to see if we could grow a vibrant community around open source planetarium software. It’s time to reflect on what has happened and explain where we go from here.

Digitalis has always been about more than just making a profit. We also want to make a positive difference in the world through our work. When Karrie Berglund and I formed the company at the start of 2003, it was to solve a problem: there was no portable planetarium system that came close to matching the features of a modern fixed planetarium system. Most portable systems were essentially nothing more than glorified canisters with holes for stars.

We had the gumption to believe we could start a business from scratch and create a completely new market segment. With more digital planetarium systems now in use than any other brand, I think you could say we succeeded. But it’s been a hard road, building a new market and continuing to innovate and offer more and more value in our Digitarium systems each year. I don’t think anyone appreciates how much energy goes into a small business without that personal experience themselves.

Our mission is to improve astronomy education by creating more effective and affordable tools for learning and instruction. A large part of this is working with open source software and making this available to anyone worldwide, for free.

We started by sponsoring a fisheye projection feature in Stellarium, and then I moved on to adding planetarium specific features myself as part of the volunteer development team. At Digitalis booths we handed out Stellarium cards at conferences and were always a bit taken aback when educators frowned at the free download and asked, “What’s the catch?” A large man from Microsoft all but accused me of being a software pirate for giving away our own software for free. Contrary to common attitudes, you don’t need to be a communist to see how a common tool with no duplication costs could be improved and shared by a community to everyone’s benefit.

Eventually Stellarium developer goals diverged and we were forced to create our own fork, which we called Nightshade. Appealing mostly to planetarians, we had a much more limited user base. While we felt good about making our software freely available, we have to admit that we did not succeed in building a thriving community. Digitalis was still doing all the development work. In the last seven years I can recall only one single individual who submitted software patches to the project.

Over the last few years, a number of mediocre commercial planetarium systems have sprung up around the world at relatively low cost. All have used Stellarium or Nightshade, almost never giving anything back to the community. Most of these vendors seem to have shoestring budgets, and the technical knowledge level that goes with that. In many cases, it appears that truth in marketing and compliance with trademark and copyright laws also are not high on their priorities. It reminds me of a cogent quotation:

“There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey.” – Attributed to John Ruskin

We have had an ongoing project to rewrite Nightshade from scratch. The old architecture inherited from Stellarium was just too crippling for what we wanted to do.

To reduce confusion, let me announce that Nightshade up through version 11.x will now be called Nightshade Legacy. No more development will go into Nightshade Legacy. Our new, fresh code base (previously called Nightshade 12) will now be known as Nightshade NG (Next Generation) and is our total focus of development.

Now, after a decade of work, we have also decided to adopt a new software license. We still believe in the power of open source software. We value the transparency, the opportunity for world-wide participation and peer review, and the public benefit that can come from an open source project. But we also have the basic necessity of needing to sell planetarium systems to fund our mission of improving astronomy education.

Therefore we have created a new Nightshade Public License for Nightshade NG, which is based on our previous GNU GPL license. Nightshade NG will continue to be open source software with an open development model. The main change is that the free Nightshade NG Community version is limited to flat screens. Nightshade NG Professional will be available for Digitarium systems (upgrade costs may apply for older systems that require new hardware). More details will be forthcoming as we continue with development.

A big thank you to everyone that has helped make Digitalis and Nightshade what these are today. I know that this change may cause some hard feelings, but I hope I have explained why and how we are making this change. After a decade, it’s time to make some adjustments.

Now the new experiment begins.


Rob Spearman
Digitalis Education Solutions, Inc.