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Microsoft's telescope centers on Windows

The software unveiled last week will run on XP or Vista, but not under the Mac OS. That doesn't stop Microsoft from using Macs to demo the software, however.

REDMOND, Wash.--When Microsoft releases its WorldWide Telescope this spring, the program will be a Windows-only download.

Much of the astronomical community, however, uses Macs and other Unix-based hardware. So, when principal developer Jonathan Fay shows off the program, he often uses a MacBook Pro. The telescope program itself, though, is running in Windows using the Mac's dual-boot Boot Camp software.

Microsoft's WorldWide Telescope software offers several different ways to look at the heavens, including the Hydrogen Alpha view. Ina Fried/CNET News.com

Other Mac users will have to use similar technology. The program can theoretically run using virtualization programs, such as VMware's Fusion or Parallels, but 3D applications often throw those programs for a loop.

Principal researcher Curtis Wong used a WinTel laptop running Vista on Monday night to demonstrate the program to journalists at a reception kicking off TechFest, Microsoft's internal science fair. Microsoft first demoed an early version of the software at last year's TechFest, while its current incarnation was shown last week at the TED conference in Monterey, Calif.

Given his penchant for Cupertino-designed hardware, I wondered why Fay was less than enthusiastic about prospects for a native Mac version. He said the type of programming needed to make the software a reality can be done vastly faster using Microsoft's .Net and C# programming tools.

To make it truly cross-platform, he said, "I'd basically be looking at three to four years of development." Plus, he quipped, "It doesn't hurt if a few people buy Windows."

Although Wong and Fay have done the actual software development largely over the last 18 months, the genesis of the project goes back to conversations Wong had years ago with now-missing Microsoft researcher Jim Gray, to whom Wong paid tribute.

"It's dedicated to Jim," he said, noting that Microsoft is making the software available free via a not-for-profit Web site.

Wong demonstrated a number of different ways to view the universe, including X-ray, hydrogen alpha and traditional imaging. The different views offer starkly different looks at the universe.

The images, as previously noted, are stitched together from a variety of sources including the Hubble and other Earth and space-based telescopes. Think of it as a "terapixel panorama," Fay and Wong said of the finished product.

Contrary to some reports, however, the program does not use Microsoft's PhotoSynth technology, but rather a different stitching technology and an internally developed projection method known as Toast.