By Ben Ellison
Thank You, Mr. Gates
|Microsoft alumni are gifts to the world of marine software.|
You’d be grinning, too! Brad Christian, who retired young after a fruitful 17-year stint as a Microsoft programmer, is seen at right enjoying quality time aboard his Bayliner 5788 Urania. He and his family are just setting out on a “gourmet cruise” of Washington State’s San Juan Islands, an event which he took pleasure in organizing for his yacht club this past summer season (and which sounds tasty enough to deserve coverage in our sister publication Voyaging). On top of all that, Christian has the satisfaction of navigating with a humdinger of a program, Coastal Explorer (CE), that he built himself and that I predict will become a valued tool for many boaters.
Microsoft may be a popular punching bag both for regular folks frustrated with computer complications and competitors annoyed at aggressive business practices, but its huge success certainly has been good for yachting. Cofounder Paul Allen’s 414-foot Octopus deservedly gets major attention on PMY’s busy (and fascinating) Megayachts forum. He and other key beneficiaries of Bill Gates’ money machine own no fewer than four of “The World’s 100 Largest Yachts,” and the Seattle area is reportedly crawling with more modest yet technologically tricked-out Softie boats.
But the person who particularly earns my gratitude is the smarty who “graduates” from Microsoft comfortable enough to take an extended cruising break, but instead—or simultaneously—builds cool marine software for the rest of us. Two such alumni founded charting powerhouse Nobeltec ten years ago, and one of my favorite mainly-just-for-fun programs, the PocketStars (www.nomadelectronics.com) astronomy guide and nav calculator, was apparently created more or less for the hell of it while its alumni developer enjoyed “retirement” along the Inside Passage.
Maybe it’s the driven, brainy—even arrogant—“we can do it better” Microsoft culture, or the proximity to great boating waters, or the creative energy naturally born of new freedom. Whatever causes the phenomenon, Christian and CE are certainly its expression. Even the prerelease software version I’ve been testing is notably stable, well-crafted, and loaded with fresh ideas.
I’m hard put to name a favorite, but I guess I’d start with the tightly integrated gazetteer. Almost all PC nav programs and plotters already help navigators access useful supplemental information without digging around in reference books, usually via icon chart overlays and/or somewhat cumbersome “find” menus. CE goes to the next level. First, it contains a vast database of 7 million place names and locations, which it monitors without asking and without cluttering the display. As your cursor plays over a chart, the appropriate names appear on the status bar, and when you create a new route, the start and finish locations are automatically used to name it. When a buddy mentions a hot fishing spot or a great anchorage you haven’t heard of, there’s the Google-style search box on the main toolbar, which will zip you to an annotated list of all matching locations and then probably right to its charted position.
This article originally appeared in the September 2004 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.