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HyperCard is an application program and a simple programming environment produced by Apple Computer which runs only in Mac OS Classic. It most closely resembles a database application in concept, in that it stores information, but unlike traditional database systems HyperCard is very flexible and trivially easy to modify. In addition HyperCard includes a powerful and easy to use programming language to manipulate that data, one that is so easy to use that most HyperCard users used it as a programming system as opposed to a database. The Hypercard concept is actually now familiar as it is essentially that of the World Wide Web, albeit confined to a single machine. In this respect it may be another example of being too far ahead of its time - had it been a network-based system from the start, the story of the internet may have been very different.
HyperCard was created by Bill Atkinson and initially released in 1987, with the understanding that Atkinson would give HyperCard to Apple only if they promised to release it for free on all Macs. Originally called WildCard during its development, the name was changed to HyperCard before official release due to legal issues. The HyperCard application and its associated files retain a creator code of
WILD, reflecting this period of development.
HyperCard was a huge hit almost instantly. No one had seen anything like it on any machine prior to its release, and the power and ease of use was unmatched even today. A huge number of people who thought they would never be able to program a computer started using HyperCard for all sorts of automation and prototyping tasks, a surprise to even its creator.
Apple itself never seemed to understand what HyperCard was. Management saw that it was being used by a huge number of people, internally and externally, and bug reports and upgrade suggestions continued to flow in from a wide variety of users; clearly people were interested in it. However it was also free, which made it difficult to justify dedicating engineering resources to improving it. Unwilling, or unable, to see that HyperCard was making the Macintosh platform as a whole much more interesting to the market, management let it languish.
Things started changing in late 1989, when internal politics (largely the efforts of Kevin Calhoun, a programmer at Apple) finally gained enough momentum to start an upgrade process. This resulted in 1990's HyperCard 2.0, a massive improvement on the original.
Then, seemingly to add insult to injury, Apple decided that all software including HyperCard should be a part of their Claris division. Many of the developers refused to move from Apple. Claris, in the business of selling software for a profit, also never understood HyperCard.
At Claris, a "viewer" only version, the HyperCard Player, was created. Claris would sell an editor product, whereas Apple would include the HyperCard Player in order to keep their original promise to Bill Atkinson. People would now have to pay to use the product which many considered to be a basic part of the Mac.
Despite new revenue, Claris did little to market HyperCard. Development continued, with minor upgrades as well as the first failed attempt to create HyperCard 3.0. Claris released upgrades to version 2 including a method to colorize stacks. HyperCard continued to be popular and used for a widening range of applications, from the game Myst, to corporate information services and many thousands in between. More than two years after transferring HyperCard to Claris, Claris returned HyperCard development to Apple.
Several attempts were made to re-start HyperCard at Apple. The product was eventually rolled into the QuickTime group as it seemed to have something to do with multimedia, and a new effort to allow HyperCard to be used to create interactive QuickTime movies started under the direction of Kevin Calhoun. The resulting HyperCard 3.0 was first presented in 1996 when a beta-quality version was given to developer's at Apple's yearly trade show, WWDC. Demos were made throughout the late 1990s, showing every feature one could ask for, color support, internet connectivity, and the ability to be displayed in a web browser with no effort. For some reason the product was never released, and Kevin Calhoun, the real force in the effort, left Apple in 2001.
This, after years of continued on-again, off-again upgrades and general mismanagement, was enough to finally kill the product. What started as a groundbreaking effort that seemed to be changing the world died the death of a thousand cuts and slowly disappeared as users grew fed up with what was now an outdated product.
Other companies were quick to see the power of HyperCard and offer their own versions. SuperCard was essentially a color version of HyperCard on the Mac, and Toolbox was a Windows version. Oracle purchased a cross-platform clone and released it as OracleCard, renamed Oracle Media Objects, used as a 4GL for database access. Most recently RunRev's Revolution incorporates all of HyperTalk, the HyperCard scripting language, and a large part of the feature set.
In addition, many of the basic concepts of the original system were later re-used in other forms. Apple built their system-wide scripting engine AppleScript on the HyperTalk language, but it too suffered from the same sort of mismanagement as HyperCard until recently. One of HyperCard's strengths was its handling of multimedia, and many multimedia systems like Macromedia Authorware are based on concepts originating in HyperCard.
HyperCard is based on the concept of "stack" of virtual "cards". Each card includes fields that store data, and the pattern for each card (its layout, as opposed to the data in the layout) is known as the "background". Backgrounds could include pictures (its original purpose, "background picture"), picture fields, buttons, text, text fields (editors) and other common GUI elements, which would then be copied onto new cards.
Users can construct databases by opening the Background editor and drawing items onto it to hold the various pieces of data. For instance, an address book could be easily built up by adding a few text fields to hold the name and address. Once completed, the user simply adds a new card (by typing command-n) and types into the fields. The background could be modified at any time, allowing changes to be made with ease – something traditional systems are very bad at. Basic operations such a search, add and delete were built into the HyperCard environment, allowing simple databases to be set up and used by anyone able to use the Apple Macintosh computer.
Scripting in the HyperTalk language allowed the system to be easily modified and extended. Unlike most programming languages, even those that claim to be easy to use, HyperTalk really was easy to use. Allowable syntax included all sorts of versions of the same statement, all in readable English, to avoid forcing the user to write their programs in a particular format.
put the first word of the third line of field 'hello' into field 'goodbye' would do exactly what it seems to do. Achieving this sort of simplicity and readability required considerable work. For instance, it required allowing numbers to be specified either numerically (1, 2), as cardinals (one, two), or as ordinals (first, second), a "bother" that most languages would ignore, but one that dramatically improves readability.
Since the HyperCard world was limited to those items supported on the Background, refering to objects and the items on them was very easy. The example above shows how to access data within a field on a particular card, but one could refer to any object in the same basic fashion – incluing the stack itself. To make things even easier to refer to, all objects could be named, as in the example above.
Of particular interest was HyperCard's
find command which would navigate to cards containing text. Whereas under a RDBMS something as simple as finding all records with the word "Bob" is a very difficult task, under HyperCard it was as simple as
find 'Bob'. This could then be made more selective with modifications such as
find 'Bob' in card field 'hello'.
Adding scripts was also easy. The user simply "option-clicked" on any element in the stack, and an editor would pop-up. The script could then be edited, saved, and used immediately. HyperCard 2.0 added a fairly powerful and easy-to-use debugger as well.
HyperTalk was so easy to use that one of the main uses was not as a database, but as a programming tool. Thousands of "stacks" were written and distributed in the few years when HyperCard was widely available.
The power of HyperCard can be increased significantly through the use of external command modules, or XCMDs. XCMDs are small code fragments packaged in a resource file that seemlessly integrate into the system and/or the HyperTalk language. During it's peak popularity in the late 1980s, a whole ecology of vendors offered thousands of XCMDs for everything from HyperTalk compilers, to graphing systems, database access, internet connectivity and practically everything else. Many of these had their businesses destroyed when HyperCard was handed to Claris.
HyperCard can be used for all sorts of hypertext and artistic purposes. Before the advent of PowerPoint, HyperCard was often used as a general purpose presentation program. Examples of HyperCard applications include simple databases, "choose your own adventure"-type games, and educational teaching aids. Through conversion to a related program called Supercard, HyperCard stacks can be placed inside Web pages and viewed by browsers with an appropriate browser plugin. The drawback to this is that only Macintosh computers can use the plugin.
A number of commercial software products were created in HyperCard, most notably the original version of the interactive game narrative Myst, the Voyager Company's Expanded Books, and multimedia CD-ROMs of Beethonven's Ninth Symphony, the Beatles' A Hard Days Night, and the Voyager MacBeth.