It's an interesting idea. I really like the movement interpolation concept,
and better eye candy would be great.

> their monochrome DECs), and replace it with an actual menu system with a key
> configuration screen.

being able to save named keymaps and trade them would be cool. 

> With failure built right into the plan, I can't fail to fail, even if I
> succeed.

That is a brilliant observation. And if failure is a goal, you can't help
but succeed.

> The other major possibility is to have the tactical fill a square viewport
> on the left 3/4 (or 9/16ths) of the screen, with the other 1/4rd or 7/9ths
> of the screen being used for galactic, playerlist and message-list stacked
> vertically.  A square tactical avoids issues with aspect ratios or freaky
> camera frustrums, although I don't want to get too cute in a first version.

that offhand sounds a little more workable, though overlays for ship
status would prolly still be worthwhile. you could also leave just a bit
of space under the tac to put something. But overlays for instrumentation.
Big, legible fuel and damage gauges.

I think users should be able to control layout to some degree; one
layout does not work for all users. I've often wished for the ability
to drag and resize my windows. And then save them in a named fashion
and have some way to share them with other folks. If you do the 
lots-of-overlays approach, windowshading would be nice.

personally, I'd find playing with a unified message window to be 
pretty nasty; I really don't want the ALL flamage intruding.

how would you do the popups?
(war declarations, network info, rank requirements)
as translucent overlays? 
Buttons to pop them up and pull them back would be cool, and the buttons
and overlays could be color-coded to match each other.

the two things I remember really liking about the graphics of the star
trek the motion picture coin-op video game were the counter-rotating
phaser lock rings and the sort of diamond net grid that popped up when
you got hit. Having the whole screen have some kind of overlay or
color shift when you get hit might be cool, and some kind of eyecandy
to distinguish successful phaser hits from misses. when you hit a
cloaker, you could maybe see a hazy shape or something (yeah, the
shape couldn't be made to match the ship type, but it could still be
made to look cool...). 

I guess popping up damage inflicted, or even altering the graphic
based on damage, would be too borgy. As would having increasing
numbers of randomized soundbites the more damage you took (people
yelling things like "hull breach on deck 4! seal the bulkheads!")

your mentioning the navy ships graphics made me think alternate
graphic sets could be pretty funny. Elmer Fudd = AS, Yosemite Sam =
BB, Bugs = CA, Daffy = DD, Roadrunner = SC, Taz = SB.

could the sucker be made to do paradise, or at least have hooks 
for future expansion?

I know there's an opengl client for conquest; perhaps it's worth
looking at for visual ideas.