The life and death of the Mac hobbyist: Is it time for a new HyperCard?

A couple of years after I got my first Mac, Apple introduced a really innovative tool called HyperCard, which made it possible for you to create programs without having to know how to program. There's really nothing like it today, and I think the Mac is lesser for it.

Back in the day

I'm lucky enough - or old enough, depending on your perspective - to remember (and have been a part) of the first wave of personal computer users who came up in the 1970s and 1980s. one thing that's changed in the intervening decades is that that the hobbyist has largely gone by the wayside. Now you're either a user or a full-fledged developer, and the gulf is wider than ever.

Let me rewind the clock back to the early 1980s, even before the Mac came out. Back then, you bought a computer, often connecting it to your television using an RF modulator, and then fired it up. The first thing that you'd see would be a flashing cursor on a command line. And that would be it.

Initially, you had to know how to program to get the computer to do anything. And early computers shipped with reams of documentation to explain how to use the BASIC programming language that most of them came with, or various aspects of how the device worked.

As a 12 year old in 1982 with my first personal computer, I copied BASIC code out of the back of computer hobbyist magazines and then tinkered with it. If it was a Colossal Cave-style text adventure, I'd write my own dialogue. If it was a simple Asteroid-style game, I'd tweak the colors of the rocks or their shape, just to see what would happen.

The commercial software market followed the introduction of personal computers almost immediately, making it possible for people to do things like balance a checkbook or play a game without having to know how to program. But even in those days, that flashing cursor offered a world of possibility to anyone with imagination and the impetus to get started.

Enter HyperCard

HyperCard that would take this self-reliance concept even further: instead of having to know how to write commands and make sense of data strings and complicated programming operations, you could use a visual language to create applications which you could use or share with others. You could create something as mundane as a recipe book with relatively little effort; but with skill and knowledge you could create wonderful, complicated things (Myst, the legendary graphical adventure game, famously started life in HyperCard).

HyperCard inspired a generation of Mac users. Many would go on to become developers themselves, and some are still making Mac (and iOS) products today. It also informs the design language and concepts we see in modern-day products like Apple's own FileMaker Pro, which makes it possible to create complex and visually rich databases without knowing a thing about programming. HyperCard's own programming language, HyperTalk, would become a early template for many plain-language programming and scripting languages.

Sadly, Apple lost the thread with HyperCard some time in the 90s, though it would take until the mid-oughts before the company killed the product outright. And nothing since then has really taken its place. There have been commercial, open source and online efforts to duplicate or replace HyperCard's functionality, but nothing's stuck.

Why it's important

The first Mac operating system, and Microsoft's early attempts with Windows, represented an inflection point where the task of getting a computer to work became progressively more complicated, and that's continued over the last 30 years. As computers have gotten easier to use, they've also gotten markedly more difficult to program.

The net result is that we're creating generations who can use computers to do what they need them to do, but still a precious few who can actually get them to do those things in the first place. More people than ever use these devices, but tinkering with code just isn't a thing that most people do.

Don't get me wrong - I don't think most people should have to learn to code. The vast majority of us can get through our lives just fine without ever knowing anything about how the applications we use work, and that's just as it should be. What I regret is that it's gotten progressively harder to break into that field, if you do.

You can still tinker, but...

There are certainly tools out there to help people - especially kids - get started down the path of programming. MIT's Scratch is one such effort, for example. CodeAcademy is another. But the days of getting both the computer and the tools to create something from scratch are long gone. There's a big barrier to entry now.

One can argue that the "hobbyist" programmer is alive and well, represented by tens of thousands of applications in the App Store. The efforts of amateurs and tinkerers are all readily available to us now, made by people who have other full time jobs that may have nothing to do with programming at all.

But I posit that it's a lot more difficult to get started down that road than it used to be, and I lament that change. That flashing cursor - the implicit question of what to do next, and the world of possibility associated with it - isn't part of our collective computer experience anymore. Now you have to seek it out if you want to do it.

I'd love to see Apple bring that spirit of independence and creativity back to the Mac by developing tools that non-programmers can use to create really compelling and interesting experiences, without involving the structure and rigamarole enforced by a formal pipeline like Apple's current developer program. Do I think it'll happen? No. But I can dream.

What about you? Are you an old-school Mac user who remembers HyperCard as fondly as I do? Or is it good riddance to bad rubbish? Let me know what you think in the comments.

Peter Cohen

Managing Editor of iMore, Mac and gaming specialist and all-around technologist. Follow him on Twitter @flargh

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There are 41 comments. Add yours.

Rene Ritchie says:

If you listen to the episode of Vector with Chris Harris, I think his Glide platform could be a modern version of Hypercard in some ways:

stevesup says:

Yep. Let's hope to gets out of the starting gate.

RedSheffy says:

Peter/Rene,

Have you ever heard of LiveCode? See more info at http://livecode.com. It has its roots in HyperCard and has been around for quite some time now. It recently (last year) went open source with the help of a huge Kickstarter campaign (http://tinyurl.com/k9h2ygb). A commercial version is also available for those who are serious about making some money from the apps they develop.

Definitely worth checking out.

glenturpin says:

I'd be first in line to buy something that made simple iOS and OS X apps as easy to create as a HyperCard stack.

While I had access to early Apple and Atari computers, the blinking cursor wasn't an invitation to me. I didn't really care about computers until I saw HyperCard and realized that I could easily make things that were useful and relevant to me. Nobody would ever care about any of the stacks I created, but they made my early computing experience more personal and rewarding. HyperCard made me feel powerful in a way that tools like AppleScript and Automator never have. I know that I'm looking back at those days through rose colored glasses, but I will always remember HyperCard with fondness.

SockRolid says:

I heard about HyperCard, but never actually saw it.
I sure wish I had though.

Tricorius says:

I agree that a modern "HyperCard" style tool would probably be something more like a simpler XCode that manages the project and all of the code for you and only exposes the pieces you need to worry about. It would be able to compile to an iOS / OS X app binary (similar to how HyperCard created its stacks).

As a ten-year-old I wrote a bunch of HyperCard stuff for my mother (who was a 2nd grade Elementary school teacher). They did various things from implementing flash card stacks to a rudimentary early student records system. Most of it though was early computing aids to help solidify lesson plan concepts in students' heads.

I'd say this and the ol' Logo Turtle http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logo_%28programming_language%29 were probably the main factors in me learning to love creating content on computers, contributing to my selecting software development as a profession.

sunhou says:

This is a huge wish for me, but with two key differences:
1. I never used HyperCard, but instead started out with an Apple ][+. (You didn't mention what your first personal computer was, but from the description of hooking it up to a TV and getting the flashing cursor, I'm guessing it may have been the same?) I spent tons of time programming the thing, mostly in BASIC, but eventually a bit of machine language too (I didn't have an assembler!).
2. Given that iOS devices are in so many more hands now than Macs, I think we need a software environment for that platform that lets people get a gentle intro to programming. I do a bit of iOS programming, but as you said, the barrier to entry is so high. It would be nice if there were some simple way to write simple code which did simple graphical things, like you could do back in the old days in BASIC. All those millions of iPads could potentially be inspiring people to explore simple programming. If the simple 40x48 (lo-res) and 280x192 (hi-res) graphics captivated my attention for so long, imagine how much more could be done with an iPad!

Unfortunately, Apple forbids apps which can do full-on code interpretation and saving/loading from the App Store, don't they? Otherwise, it seems like there would be tons of apps out there enabling things like this. Instead, we have a handful of things like Hopscotch and Kodable to play with.

d ha says:

Why?
Why is everything nowadays a 'REMAKE, SEQUEL, UPDATE, REDO?"
Hypercard was cool in the day but for christ sakes we don't need it recreated.
At LEAST name it something else so people can THINK there is some sort of NEW IDEALS out there in this crappy world of MEDIOCRITY AND CRAPPY REAHASHINGs by those that couldn't create a better PAPER BAG!

Peter Cohen says:

Who said anything about a remake? I'm looking for a creative tool built with the same spirit and design ethos, but I'm not talking about making HyperCard 2014. Times have changed, sensibilities have changed and technology has changed. But a tool to stimulate creativity and a new breed of developer would be awesome.

d ha says:

You didn't say remake. You're right.
But let me ask you this Peter.
Say you worked for Apple and Steve was still alive and you sent out an email along the lines of this story...

How fast would you be fired?
lol

... not too mention the nation going to a common core curriculum. Perhaps you're right. Hypercard might just be the development tool for the moron masses coming out of schools in the future.

Dev from tipb says:

My youngest loves scratch. I just introduced her to Karel the Robot under Xcode, and she made him do a few things on the iPad, but there is a gulf between simple projects and hardcore coding I am not sure how to bridge for her.

Sent from the iMore App

Peter Cohen says:

Yeah, scratch is really good at a few things, but you're right - it's not a good intermediate platform that enables users to take their skills up to the next level.

Dev from tipb says:

Oh, and to echo your point - HyperCard did fit that niche well for old farts like me, so I'd love for my daughter to have something similar

Sent from the iMore App

d ha says:

... lets remake better SCSI! YEAH THAT WOULD BE SOOOOOOOO BITCHIN!!!!!!!!!!!!

d ha says:

... HOW ABOUT THIS?
A CONE SHAPED PAPER CUP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

d ha says:

How about one of you GENIUSES invent a solar power system so I don't have to pay for electricity out here in sunny Arizona that doesn't cost a mint and I don't need to tie into the grid...?

Just a thought.

LeFrancoy says:

I’m usually of the patient type, but dude get a grip!

I think that everyone here has understood your point: You think that making something that would be a today’s version of Hypercard is a bad idea. WE GET IT!

d ha says:

No I don't think you get my point.
There is a pervasive lack of real CREATIVE in out modern day society.
The mere IDEAL of hypercard, and stacks being used, updated and implemented in today devices, is like playing PONG on a 80" LED 4k television.

Steve has got to be rolling with laughter over this article.

LeFrancoy says:

"...is like PONG on a 80" LED 4k television."

Have to admit that, that sounds quite nice ;¬)

d ha says:

Yeah, there is always one in the group.

Sloppyjm says:

Isn't it illegal to use off grid power ?

SockRolid says:

"I'd love to see Apple bring that spirit of independence and creativity back to the Mac by developing tools that non-programmers can use to create really compelling and interesting experiences, without involving the structure and rigamarole enforced by a formal pipeline like Apple's current developer program."

Agree. Simplifying complex creative tasks is baked into Apple's DNA. It's like their Prime Directive, and it has produced apps like iMovie, Garage Band, iWeb, etc. And yes, programming is also an expression of creativity. I'd say that Xcode, Objective-C, and Cocoa have made many formerly tedious and painful programming tasks easy and fun.

But no, OS X and iOS programming is still far too complex for the casual user to throw together a fun little app the first time they launch Xcode. And why is that? Well, to begin with, there are hundreds of concepts and theories to learn first. Everything from object-oriented programming basics like encapsulation and inheritance, to Cocoa concepts like model-view-controller, to Objective-C syntax like for loops and blocks, to multithreading and memory management ad nauseam. You could spend years studying all that.

The bottom line is that there are what, about a million iOS + OS X apps on their respective App Stores now. The current Apple development environment, as complex as it is, seems to be better than others in many ways, and developers have piled on. Apple doesn't need to create a beginner-level programming tool. It looks like 3rd party apps will need to fill that gap.

Peter Cohen says:

Apple doesn't need to create a beginner-level programming tool. It looks like 3rd party apps will need to fill that gap.

My concern is that the third party tools that have come haven't had staying power, and lack a good pipeline for getting your skills to the next level. That's one reason I'd like to see Apple own this - a soup to nuts approach to stimulate the next generation of developer.

yourdigitaldave says:

I also have fond memories of both BASIC programming on the Apple IIe and creating HyperCard stacks. The exercises in logic and the tremendous feeling of achievement when you got your computer to do what you wanted it to are definitely experiences I'm glad I had - and one I believe would be beneficial to younger users today.

We may not be able (or want) to turn the clock back to a time where a user HAD to know commands and how to program at least a little, but I'm wholeheartedly in favour of any platform that bridges the gap between casual user and hardcore coder to make developing more accessible.

Great article, Peter.

Ry4n_P says:

Hey Peter, how did you get Mac OS 9 or your macbook Pro? I know it could be Sheepshaver, but I'm not exactly sure.

Peter Cohen says:

It's just a screenshot, expanded to fill the screen.

(but I run vMac to run really old stuff on my rMBP)

benjitek says:

Evernote is the new HyperCard =)

Andrew Wickliffe says:

I can't remember what LiveCode used to be called but I used that for a lot stuff back in the mid-00s. RunRev maybe? It was for work and I needed something really simple.

Seemed surprising they were the only ones with that format--I was avoiding Flash for some reason, can't remember--because all the help files talked about Hypercard.

TazG says:

Great post. HyperCard was revolutionary in its day -- introduced the idea of "linking" to a whole generation of Apple users. Nice to give it a shout-out.

Arild Schonberg says:

FileMaker is the new HyperCard. It is also owned by Apple. Simple or complex, you don't need to know C or Pascal. Just add the code chunks from a library.

Peter Cohen says:

Yeah, I draw the parallel in the article. The problem is that FileMaker is priced like a pro application, and has a much narrower target.

swalmsley says:

Filemaker isn't the new Hypercard. It never was. It's a lot easier to use than it used to be, but it lacks the simplicity of Hypercard, especially in programming.
Also Revrun or its successor LiveCode mimics Hypercard in some ways, but it's incredibly expensive and again lacks the simplicity of Hypercard.
Peter is right--Hypercard should never have been abandoned by Apple, and while I thought Filemaker's intent for Bento was an updated Hypercard, it turned out to be just a watered down version of Filemaker.

jlc says:

I fondly remember HyperCard, in color on the ][gs. Roger Wagner's HyperStudio was the best clone version, IMHO. As you point out , HC allowed novices to create useful stacks yet it was powerful enough to be used to create commercial applications. It really is a shame Apple let it die. Imagine what could have been with OSX and iOS compatibility and a Windows runtime.

Jonathan Deutsch says:

A lot of my experiences using HyperStudio (a HyperCard clone) went into building Tumult Hype. I'd like to think in some ways it is a spiritual successor, even though the animation aspects play a much greater role in the app.

I find this statement curious: "As computers have gotten easier to use, they've also gotten markedly more difficult to program." JavaScript is available on every platform, and requires nothing other than a browser and text editor to start to code. Truly the web is today's HyperCard. JavaScript is today's HyperTalk. Beyond this, OS X comes with numerous free tools for scripting and application programming. Cocoa is more vast in scope than the Mac Toolbox, but a dream to work with and get apps up and running. Not to mention the days of needing to buy books and scouring through them to find a particular API are long gone with google and autocomplete at your fingertips.

maccast says:

Actually HyperStudio is still made and runs on OS X Mavericks, http://www.mackiev.com/hyperstudio/hs_features.html. Roger Wagner it's creator was just at the San Diego iOS Developers meeting (http://sdios.org) and still consults on the project.

GJNilsen says:

I used HyperCard back in the days, and switched to SuperCard when System 7 was released. SuperCard had full support for color and QuickTime, and it also exported stacks as stand-alone apps. SuperCard still exists, but the cost of it is completely ridiculous. I would never buy it today, now as there are so many Cocoa tutorials on the net, and Xcode is free...

David Neale says:

Like GJNilsen, I switched from HC to SuperCard, though only when OS X was released. A couple of very expensive updates later, I decided to drop SuperCard and found a good alternative in RunRev. Recently RunRev made its basic HC-like product completely free and now calls it LiveCode. It's about as close to HC as you can get and has a good user community to help, too.
But I still miss HyperCard!

streamlined says:

The same thing has kind of happened with cars. It used to be that if you owned a vehicle, you did a lot of the work on it yourself, you were a sort of "Auto Enthusiast". Now, cars are so complicated very few people even do minor maintenance. I think it's just the curve.

d ha says:

They're really not that complicated. To be honest with you, I used to feel the same way. Cars nowadays just require a diagnostic reader and the onboard computer tells you all you need to know about what is wrong with the car.

My problems is two things. BIG HANDS, and not having every tool needed to attack some of the problems.

Art Tabb says:

Whatever happened to plain old BASIC?
If nothing else, it was a great learning tool. What do youngsters learn on today? C++?