Dear Old Hypercard; farewell good friend


Tim Oren writes a nice little Eulogy for HyperCard.

A few things stick out in my mind about Hypercard.

It was incredibly fast. Software today rarely seems as fast. It could do a page turn faster than my G4 seems to be able to type a single character. It did could do these sweet builds from one page to the next that continue to this day in presentation software. You never saved data. That reminded me of APL workspaces.

It was one of the first applications to take seriously the idea that behavior might be inherited not in via the type/subtype hierarchy but via the document enclosure topology. So a button that when a button invoked the function F hypercard would search for the implementation of F first in the button, then the page, then document.

Tim points out that Hypercard wasn’t broken into client and server as we would likely do today. More important to me at the time and still today was that there was nothing you could do in the UI that you couldn’t do in the scripting language. That made it possible to do all kinds of very sweet animation on top of the amazing painting engine. This design pattern of a strong deep data type with a scripting engine laid over it is very powerful. You see it in Autocad, Emacs, and Excel. A lot of software these days the only deep data structure is – tada: the database. That gets dull pretty quickly.

When the Mac first came over the wall in 1984 I was fascinated by how it empowered a huge population of people to use computers. For the first time you really could bring one home and get to work writing that novel. A lot of people complained that the machine wasn’t friendly to programmers, which struck me as totally missing the point.

So I got curious about how you might empower a large population of people to program. Could you create the same event over again, this time enabling people to write software. The only example of even coming close at that point was the spreadsheet.

Hypercard did exactly that. It never competed with the installed base of developers. Instead it generated this amazing bloom of new tiny little applications. Instead it illustrated what happens when you manage to hand a useful tool over to a large unserved population of amateurs. The tail of the power-law curve.

I wonder, if flash is the closest modern equivalent; maybe so.

0 thoughts on “Dear Old Hypercard; farewell good friend

  1. andrew

    “I wonder, if flash is the closest modern equivalent; maybe so.”

    And Director, which for years was a great tool, and which also had interesting data structures nothing like databases. The same layering of a scripting language (Lingo), an animation engine, and something like a drag-and-drop UI builder as HC, too. It’s now bloated with 3D capabilitites and other geegaws, and seems like hardly anyone uses it anymore. Flash is still catching up to what Director could do about three versions ago.

    Also like Hypercard, Director effectively created a software industry: the whole “edutainment” era of CDROM educational games, some of which still live on.

  2. Phil

    I’ve always thought of the Web as the closest modern equivalent. I realise it’s far from directly comparable, but I haven’t touched HyperCard since I started building websites.

  3. Ben Hyde

    That’s exactly right. The web it he modern equvalent of Hypercard.

    Just typical that something with rougher edges by broader audience would displace something more elegant by with a narrower one.

    Interesting too how they both lead with content and presentation and drag programming and interactivity along just for fun.

  4. idlewild

    I think when one considers learning HTML, Javascript, Cascading Style sheets, PHP and mySQL, then yes, the web is the modern day equivalent of Hypercard.

    If Apple had not abandoned Hypercard, I believe we would have a tool as great as the original, that allowed amateurs to master domains as easily as the original allowed them to master hard drives in the ’90s.

    Thanks for writing a nice article.

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  7. Omar Khan

    Remember macromind,
    As for hypercard I programmed
    many stacks in my time.
    It was very simple.
    The closest equivalent,
    is not something using mysql vs php because those rely on a server.
    The closest equivalent to the hyper scripting language is javascript. For creating visual elements I say html/css. And for a database I say XML. All client technologies available for the average developer and free.

    However, I guess Flash with its drag and drop ability has become the choice of many web designers.

    But the thing about hypercard was that it did not try to be all for everybody.
    I mean you could get started simply by selecting the pen icon and draw something.
    So I guess microsoft powerpoint(tm)
    is a little but closer to hypercard in my opinion. It still lacks the user friendly scripting language.
    Afterall, i remember hypercard had the goto keyword.
    I believe you used it like
    on mouse up
    go to stack number 1 or something.
    Anyways, simple scripting language no ugly curly braces, easy to create visual elements (just draw them on), and easy to execute just get the hypercard player free from Apple computers.
    If only in the early days of the internet and the dom and javascript and html and netscape, there was a convertor to turn your hypercard into a webpage. I believe there was one or was I dreaming? Anyways, all that was needed was to create a 512 by 342 image map and use javascript to handle the events.

    As one final note, anyone remember Myst, if my memory serves me well it was written in Hypercard, and Myst was shipped with my first Mac.

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