Columns for OSOpinion.com

Apple's HyperCard
How Arthur abandoned Excalibur

Published at OSOpinion.com on June 22, 2001
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Once upon a time in the Macintosh Kingdom, there was a sharp little program called HyperCard. It was an intuitive programming environment that made it easy to create a simple address book, but it was powerful enough to produce an award-winning game called Myst. Sadly, Apple decided this Excalibur of a program was too heavy to carry, and dumped it back into the lake from whence it came.

The time has come to draw it forth once again.

Excalibur is Forged

HyperCard, the brainchild of Apple legend Bill Atkinson, was pounded out in 1987, and it used a metaphor of "stacks" to present information stored in a series of "cards." A user could create buttons to link different cards in a stack together, just as hyperlinks connect multiple pages in a web site. It was also easy to program HyperCard with HyperTalk, a built-in programming language that used plain English to execute commands.

A Weapon that's Easy to Wield

When I discovered HyperCard in 1989 at the age of eleven, I was instantly enchanted with it, and I quickly learned how to create a simple point-and-click game using transparent buttons and multiple cards. As I learned more about the HyperTalk programming language, I started to create fantasy role-playing games similar to the Nintendo classics Dragon Warrior and Final Fantasy. Creating the games was great fun, but nothing compared to the thrill of watching others enjoy playing them. One friend commented that I should sell my games commercially, which sounded a bit silly until I learned the best-selling game Myst was created with HyperCard.

Dragons Left Unslain

When the lady of the lake handed HyperCard to Apple in 1987, a dragon called Microsoft Windows was coughing and sputtering into version 2. At the time, this beast could use no more than 640 kilobytes of memory, and it remained unusable as a mainstream operating system for years to come. This was a golden opportunity for Apple, with both a graphical interface and a graphical development environment, to slay the Microsoft dragon.

HyperCard provides an easy way for users without any technical experience to write simple, useful programs. The International HyperCard Users Group (iHUG) lists a hundred examples of how users have created custom database solutions, address books, and other valuable tools with HyperCard. If such a formidable weapon were wielded properly, Apple could have attracted early developers away from the Windows platform.

HyperCard also marks Apple's trek into the realm of multimedia. HyperCard is an easy-to-use solution for creating interactive programs that combine pictures, searchable text, sound, and video. This presents an easy way to author CD-ROM presentations, and Apple could still market HyperCard as a less expensive and easier-to-learn alternative to Macromedia Director.

Back into the Lake it Goes

Initially, HyperCard was a free product included with every new Macintosh. The following it attracted soon gave Apple reason to start charging $250 for the software. This stunted HyperCard's growth before Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997 and ended HyperCard's development completely.

However, HyperCard's following would not let Arthur abandon Excalibur so easily. The team at HyperActive Software launched a campaign to petition Apple to resume developing HyperCard. The group got to meet face-to-face with Phil Schiller, Apple's Vice President of Worldwide Marketing, but the response was disappointing.

Mr. Schiller explained that Apple simply did not see any financial benefit from continuing to fund HyperCard's development, despite the success of similar interactive multimedia programs like Macromedia Director or easy-to-use development programs like Microsoft Visual Basic. HyperCard is available to this day at the Apple Store for $99, but it has been frozen at version 2.4.1 since January, 1998.

Unsheathing the Open-Source

If Apple has no interest in pulling HyperCard out of the lake of obscurity, then why not make it an open-source project? It makes perfect sense to do this because every HyperCard "stack" is like an open-source program: users can easily poke through HyperTalk scripts in a stack to see how they work, copy some of the code for themselves, or change the scripts to work differently.

If HyperCard has no potential profit, then Apple has nothing to lose by handing it over to a group of aspiring developers who are eager to keep the program going. A modern version of HyperCard could still draw new users to the platform, and it would keep users who rely on HyperCard from leaving the Macintosh Kingdom. Apple has nothing to lose because the software will be developed by third parties instead of Apple's own developers.

A Happy Ending for this Tale

Apple's Excalibur has grown a bit rusty as it lay forgotten on the bottom of the lake, but it could still slay dragons once more. Now is the time for Apple to wield that sword again and perhaps inspire some other 11-year-old to start creating the next Myst.


Author's Background: Matt Johnson is a graphic design student and a Mac-user of seventeen years. He enjoys creative writing, drawing cartoons, and maintaining a list of free Macintosh software on his web site.