Tens of Dollars

A guy at the office and I have a running joke about the amateur astronomy business. I will opine that the market is just begging for some great product to solve problem X for every telescope user in the world. And then we both snicker that one could make tens of dollars by building and offering such a product for sale. This is a marketplace where selling thousands of units a year makes you a massive player. It’s a market that is in a permanent niche.

Now, to some people, this is a feature. There is always that class of hobbyist whose idea of sheer hell is that their interest would somehow blossom into something generates a genuine mass market interest. Even back in the 80s there were already people who thought that computers had been dumbed down too much when people started putting them into boxes for you instead of making you build a wire wrap board. These people must be really pissed off now.

Astronomy serves as a case study in what happens when the mass interest never hits. Let us be realistic. This is a hobby that is primarily enjoyed by a few tens of thousands of users almost all of whom are male and aged between around 41 and 67. As a result, the market has the following odd characteristics:

1. The market is small. There will never be a product here that has the psychological impact of something like the iPhone. Or the Apple II for that matter.

2. The market is conservative. These people really hate change. I’ve mentioned this before, but I can’t think of a single consumer device besides a commercial telescope mount that still uses RS-232 for anything. The only other uses I’ve seen are for esoteric industrial control applications. This is also a market that isn’t quite sure that eyepiece designs from the 19th century still don’t have some technical advantages. I could go on and on.

Because the market is small, there are very few players in the market that can scale their operations to modern levels. The largest companies by far are the ones based in China. Orion Telescope and Celestron are the two most well known names here. They both source all of their products from the same large optical company in China. But, as you move up the food chain cost and quality, you move into smaller and smaller companies. The most well respected maker of refractor telescopes and telescope mounts is Astro-Physics. They make at most few dozen instances of each of their products a year. If you are lucky you can get a mount almost immediately (like now) but usually you’ll wait around a year. If you are unlucky and want a telescope be ready to wait 10 years.

Here is another example: there is a guy who used to work for Astro-Physics who now makes what I hear are bitchin’ tripods for the mounts. But the only way you can hear about him is in a forum post, or a classified ad. You can only order one of his tripods via email, and you will have no idea when the thing will actually be delivered.

You see this over and over again. More than half the time you go to any large dealer of astronomical products and look up something you want to buy, the words “pre-order” or “out of stock” or “back ordered” will be right next to the “buy” button. It’s almost easier to just look at the astronomy equivalent of ebay and wait for used stuff to show up. It will often happen faster than the new stuff. This is an infuriating state of affairs. People (by people I mean me) are now programmed to expect to just go to Amazon and buy anything with one click. The astronomy world destroys this expectation completely.

The issue of scale also comes up in the software business. Several of the most used pieces of astronomy software are primarily developed by one person. Not a small team led by one person: one person writing all the code (off the top of my head I can think of Skytools, PHD guiding, Nebulosity, the Astro-Physics mount software, and Equinox). While all of these tools are certainly functional, they will not win any design awards, and they are limited in the rate at which they evolve (c.f. the market is conservative). It’s just now occurring to folks that wireless control of equipment might be neat. Or that user interfaces might want to evolve past the Visual Basic Forms sort of look and feel.

Of course, there is an upside to all of this smallness. If you are lucky you will find small groups of people making just what you want and doing a really good job with customer service. Every single one of these small companies that I have mentioned (except the tripod guy) runs a mailing list on Yahoo where questions are answered by the people who run the company. Not some customer support staffer in India. The actual guy who runs everything. This is pretty neat. It’s too bad that they can’t hook up with that Amazon commerce engine though.

It’s good that you can find good support because you are going to need it. The combination of the small size and conservative nature of the audience means that there are not a boatload of companies breaking down doors to make telescopes and other astronomical equipment easy to use. I don’t think the industry has ever really gotten past assuming everyone buying telescopes has a little DIY streak in them and enjoys constructing custom wiring harnesses by hand, or hacking marine battery packs, or any number of other little construction projects. Let’s just say that product packaging is not necessarily a great concern. For example, you can buy a $10,000 Dobsonian telescope and then find out that you have to wire up the cooling fans to a power supply on your own because it’s too much trouble for the company to do that in its “factory”. In fact, you can go to manufacturer A’s web site and read about how one of their best features is that they don’t make you wire up the fan by hand, like manufacturer B does. It would be comical if it were not so sad.

Although I have learned to adjust to the strange ways of this industry, I still find myself wishing that it would move from the darkness of an obscure DIY niche into the light of a true mass-market retail industry. I’d like for things to be in stock, and I’d like to not have to worry about knowing whether I am using the right god damned power connectors between my battery and my telescope.

Side note: the power connectors on all this equiment are universally awful. It’s pathetic that you can buy an equatorial mount that costs as much as a used car and someone will still tell you that it order to get a clean power connection you might want to “spread the pins” of the power connector just to be sure. I mean come ON people.

I dream of a day when people will realize that spending hours calibrating a CCD camera just isn’t fun, and they should figure out how to automate the process. Or the day when I’ll be able to 1-click purchase a filter with confidence instead of having to call around to fifteen small-time dealers before I find one. But, I think I’ll just have to make the best of the here and now, because I don’t see that day coming. If anything, the industry is shrinking and what we have now may be the best it will ever be. After all, there can’t be that many people waiting in line to make those tens of dollars.