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The increase in the number and quality of flight simulation platforms we are seeing is a direct result of the increase of desktop computing performance AND the development of 3d rendering engines that are separate and distinct software products from the simulation product. There are many parallels to this evolution in the history of computing. Beginning first with in the 1980’s with the transition from centralized mainframes to distributed desktop computers. Prior to the relatively low cost/high power of the desktop PC, only a large corporation could afford to build the hardware and thus they also developed the operating systems. In a natural fit, they also developed the applications. This is the model that created the giants of IBM, DEC, etc.

With the development of the desktop PC also came a much more radical and significant implication: the user or 3rd party developer could develop an application without being the company who built the operating system or hardware. Just ask Bill Gates how important this shift to accessible application development has been.

The mathematics of flight physics, the mathematics of graphical rendering, and the mathematics of digital terrain modeling have all been very well known since the 1950’s and 1960’s. Prior to less than a decade ago, computing power was the major limitation to the development of a flight simulator application.

Microsoft was able to develop the (then) pinnacle of flight simulation because they not only tackled the flight physics problems, they also created the DirectX graphics API (application program interface) standard. Direct X is what allowed a developer to easily make a mathematical calculation communicate with graphics hardware to display a rendered pixel. By making DirectX an open standard, not only was Microsoft able to develop graphics intensive applications, but other software developers could as well (if they programmed on Windows platform…after all, Bill G was no business dummy). X-Plane, as an alternative, uses another popular graphics API called OpenGL. While DirectX is only on Windows, OpenGL applications can be implemented on Linux and Apple. This is why X-Plane is able to run those other operating systems.

The rise of both PC and console gaming created a new software market for full blown graphics rendering programs. These rendering programs are the packaged and polished mathematics that can take an XYZ coordinate and translate it for DirectX. DirectX then can talk to any graphics card that understands the language to produce the rendered pixel. With this advance, a game or flight simulation designer could focus most of their effort on calculating in-game physics and action and less time on calculating a rendered pixel. AeroFly is a natural result of this evolution. This concept is taken to the next level by developers such as Outerra, who have created a complete world building platform that can be adapted to many simulation uses.

The trend to be highlighted is that application developers have increasingly been able to focus on the end use of the application instead of all the “nuts” and “bolts” to get it to display correctly. This trend being a direct result of software developers (with Microsoft leading this position) opening their toolboxes to other developers.

All software platforms can be grossly divided in to open and closed application systems. An extreme closed application system would be like the old IBM mainframes…IBM controlled the entire hardware, OS, and application ecosystem. An extreme open application system is more like the Intel/Windows application ecosystem. In terms of operating systems, no matter what your personal opinion might be, Apple is only 8% of total PC market share whereas Windows (in various flavors) is 88%. This spectacular difference in market share is not because of the relative age of the platforms, there were both created and first marketed with the same period. The difference is because you cannot build a computer running Apple OS without buying the hardware and OS bundled together from Apple. Where once Apple held first place in the mobile market with their innovative iPhone, for the last 2 years, Android is outselling Apple and has risen to 51% percent of total market share. This trend, again, as a result of the required bundling of Apple hardware and software.

This open/closed story is being played out in our (not so) little world of flight simulation. Microsoft flight simulator and derivatives are the most open flight simulation platform right now with X-Plane a possible tie. The open nature of ESP/FSX engine has allowed Lockheed Martin to focus on core platform and future oriented developments, instead of using money/time/people to work on content. LM has also extended the open nature of the engine by including bathymetry and improving the mission/scenario sub-engines.

X-Plane has a bright future and we are starting to see major 3rd party developer efforts. Laminar’s platform is quite good and at a base level is a much more modern product than ESP/FSX core engine. The tools Laminar provides to 3rd party developers are much more mature and feature rich than the hodge podge ESP/FSX/P3D SDK. There is a growing market share for X-Plane within the FSX community, with more and more FSX users “dual simming” with X-Plane.

DCS finally figured out that they absolutely must cooperate with 3rd party developers to expand market share. Although they are still struggling with the complexity of their platform. DCS is currently the “Apple” of our flightsim universe. An innovative, high dollar product that is still very closed and, despite their passionate fans, a relatively small market share compared to ESP/FSX/P3D. There is potential for much growth in DCS. But right now, they are making way more money selling the occassional new content to existing users than selling to new users.

Dovetail Games has proven there is a young and hungry market for general flight simulation. Reputably 200,000 copies sold so far, the Steam and Facebook communities for FSX-SE are filled with new folks learning about freeware and payware add-ons. Dovetail has promised a new flight simulator platform, rumored to be built on the MS-Flight engine. Many hard core FSX pundits have derided this MS-Flight heritage but I suspect these were the same folks that postulated no good reason to purchase P3D because it was (originally) just FSX in a new interface. The real challenge for Dovetail to outsell itself (FSX-SE), is to make the new platform very developer accessible. Dovetail had some issues with their add-on content paradigm early in the life of Train Simulator but seemed to have opened a bit. They will have to invite 3rd party development in a big way to get market share with a new product. IMHO the biggest issue with MS-Flight was poor vision and marketing from Microsoft. The MS-Flight core engine was, 3 years ago, closer to what P3D is now than their common ancestor FSX.

The wildcards in this arena of flight simulation platforms are not systems like AeroFly which will never amount to more than a very very, very small, probably first time buyer, market (sorry to burst your bubble AirDailyX). The true wildcards will be platforms like TitanIM, built on top of Outerra, that are being dual marketed for commercial and personal use.

As long as Lockheed Martin continues to sell to the consumer “educational” market, it will be difficult to them to fall to second place in market share.

For now, I would tell anyone who would listen: Fly mostly what your friends are flying but have at least one other sim. Finally, be prepared to buy a third sim.

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