Could the iOS app be the 21st-century HyperCard stack?

Could the iOS app be the 21st-century HyperCard stack?

Summary: Longtime Mac fans are celebrating the 25th anniversary of HyperCard, Apple's groundbreaking rich-media content platform. But what format has replaced it?


HyperCard was amazing, especially when we remember what computing was like in 1987. It was certainly the first popular hypermedia program on the market. It combined database features in "cards" that supported clickable regions that could link to another card, or play an A/V file, or execute some function, or even launch en external program. The collection of cards was called a "stack." Even better, the content was created in HyperTalk, an object-oriented scripting language that was aimed at the novice programmer.

Yes, it was Mac-only and initially designed for the small, monochromatic screen of the Mac Plus. But you can't imagine the impression this program made. It was the future of computing, hypermedia, but in the hands of anyone. There were kids books written in HyperTalk. Multimedia titles combined music, poetry, games, puzzles and lessons. Amazing.

Remember that in 1987, PC users were still running MS-DOS in the command line. The world was text and more text. The Mac with its graphical windowing environment was considered heretical for business computing. And it had HyperCard.

A Mac longtime Mac developer happened to write me the last week about HyperCard:

The other historical-slant story I've been obsessed with recently is the almost total lack of experience the current generation of teen-and-twenty-something product designers and engineers have with HyperCard. It is unbelievable to me that there is so much incompetent reinvention going on, when if HyperCard was at least included as part of the history of computing curriculum, there would be some more shoulder-standing going on.

But what's the current choice for rich-media programming today? HTML5? After all, it includes new <audio> and <video> tags and strives to create a rich environment that can run on a wide variety of platforms. And it's all over the web.

Or perhaps some flavors of PDF might be the choice of publishing or academic professionals. Acrobat supports a wide range of rich media, Flash integration, media and programatic elements and various functions. So, it certainly fills the bill, although the full platform doesn't run unaltered on iOS or most mobile platforms.

But I would suggest that iOS apps seem to best fit the bill as the modern stack. The programs are self contained and can reference internal and external resources. Many individuals and companies are offering books and other dynamic reference works in the format. And as of the end of March, there were some 365 million devices that can run an app. It all stacks up.

I offer a few HyperCard memories:

Upgrades. I remember attending a meeting of the Berkeley Macintosh User Group in 1986, around the time of the Mac Plus and before the release of HyperCard. The then leader of the group Reese Jones, now a venture capitalist, observed that anyone needing more storage capacity than the 20MB hard drive (yes, that's megabyte) that shipped with the Mac Plus must be a software pirate. Following the release of HyperCard, that maxim changed as everyone wanted to access to rich-media content (okay, the arrival of CD-ROMs helped).

Early Mac adopters were caught a bit flat-footed by the memory requirements of HyperCard: One Megabyte. Wow! However, I had purchased a Fat Mac, a 512K model. So, with the cost of RAM in those days, hard-soldered on the logic board, I spent $1,000 for an additional 512K upgrade card (yes, kilobytes) to run HyperCard in 1987. And I bought a 300MB hard drive (also costing $1,000) for my then Mac IIci just a year or two latter.

Smut Stack. One of the first commercial stacks available at the launch of HyperCard was Smut Stack, a hilarious collection (if you were in sixth grade) of somewhat naughty images that would make joke, present a popup image, or a fart sound when the viewer clicked on them. The author was Chuck Farnham of Chuck's Weird World fame. 

How did he do it? After all, HyperCard was a major secret down at Cupertino, even at that time before the wall of silence went up around Apple.

It seems that Farnham was walking around the San Jose flea market in the spring of 1987 and spotted a couple of used Macs for sale. He was told that they were broken. Carting them home, he got them running and discovered several early builds of HyperCard as well as its programming environment. Fooling around with the program, he was able to build the Smut Stack, which sold out at the Boston Macworld Expo, being one of the only commercial stacks available at the show.

HyperCard also suffered one of the first virus attacks. It was released in 1988 and called the HyperAvenger virus. It was written by a teenager as a prank virus and mostly “harmless” since no actual damage was done to disk or data. But since there were no commercial antivirus programs, the removal was mostly manual. The virus displayed the message:

“Greetings from the HyperAvenger! I am the first HyperCard virus ever. I was created by a mischievous 14-year-old, and am completely harmless. Dukakis for President in ’88, Peace on Earth, and have a nice day.”

Topics: Apple, Apps, Consumerization, Data Management, iOS, Operating Systems, Software Development

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • HyperCard Was User-Programmable ...

    ... while Apple doesn't allow that on IOS.

    Android does.

    Need I say more?
    • Still looking for it

      Why mess with IOS and Objective-C?

      HyperCard had a noble heritage, a large user base, lots of training wheels for users getting started, excellent Apple and third-party documentation, but didn't survive at Apple.

      In the mobile space, I've seen a few attempts . WAP and WML were poor rip-offs of some Hypercard concepts trying to fit into the limited resources of early digital cell phones. They sucked, and died an inglorious, but well-deserved, death.

      Hypercard was uniquely gifted at solving an important problem - no end-user development tools came bundled with the Mac. This problem still exists on mobile devices, generally.

      If you want HyperCard, check out runrev. If you're not satisfied, then try cloning your own. Just don't expect Apple to approve it.
  • Apple back then much as Apple is now

    Apple stole hypercard from Zoomracks.
    • Zoomracks was entirely character-based and not programmable

      so much for "stealing"
      • Ah, I understand

        So a GUI based card / stack / hyperlink / macro system is a totally different paradigm from a character based card / stack / hyperlink / macro system?
        • No, you don't

          As someone who did commercial development in both HyperCard and Zoomracks, I can say without hesitation that the two programs are utterly and completely different.

          Zoomracks was a lightweight rolodex-like database, like the hundreds of others that I used on both the Mac and Atari ST. It's only claim to fame was that the author managed to get a patent on the concept of "making things on the screen look like rolodex cards".

          HyperCard is not a lightweight rolodex-like database, it is a development environment that includes a a lightweight database, along with OOPs libraries, multimedia, and lots of other things. It does not look like, work like, or compete in any way with Zoomracks, or the hundreds of other similar products. One could use HC in that way, but one could also use C++ to do the same thing, or any other programming language.

          If this were happening today we would be dismissing the case as a painfully obvious example of patent trolling. But instead, we have an example that Apple haters who never used either program can put up as if they know anything whatsoever about it.
          Maury Markowitz
  • But You Can - Best Of Both Worlds

    How about the best of both worlds? There is an environment for building iOS and Android, etc. apps that is a grandchild of HyperCard called LiveCode at I've used it to build several iOS and Android apps - and it is so much easier to use than Objective-C is.

    It's by no means as easy as I want it to be, but it's still far easier.
  • LiveCode is the Modern HyperCard for iOS, Android and Desktop Apps

    LiveCode uses the same base programming language, so its very human readable. You can get creating applications without having to internalize all the specialized knowledge you normally have to learn if you are going to become a professional programmer. It is also extensible with a strongly supported component API, if you have special needs. For example, one of the fastest columnar databases - Valentina DB ( is available, as well as all the ones you probably already now. There's a free trial, and effectively the IDE is free, because you only pay when it comes to the royalty free deployment targets - and its very affordable, even for students.
  • ZAP

    I wrote an email program in Hypercard that ran on our corporate network (startup San Diego manufacturing company) for about a year. It was replaced when some company released an actual commercial email program. At the time, sending messages from one building or office to another was Serious Magic. This was years before anyone outside DARPA had wide-area networks.
    Robert Hahn
  • Simplicity

    The reason I bought my first Mac in 1987 was HyperCard. There has been nothing to replace it that embraced that simplicity and I can't understand why either. It must be very difficult to make something so simple to use, but powerful. My respect for Bill Atkinson and then Danny Goodman's wonderful book increasingly grows as time goes on.
  • Look At FileMaker

    For many of the capabilities of HyperCard, including ease of use but, unfortunately, not cost, take a look at FileMaker. It's as versatile and easy to use use as HyperCard was. Also, as you learn more about it you'll find many more advanced things you can do with it.

    You can also look at Bento, also from FileMaker Inc., as a starting point.

    I love it. And I''m not a great fan of large companies and expensive software.
    • Re: Look At FileMaker

      I had a friend who entrusted valuable company data to FileMaker once. Until the server crashed, and he discovered that the entire last month's worth of database updates had not been written to disk.
  • HayperCard comes back

    After HyperCard's dead some other companies continued: SuperCard (Mac only) or MetaCard (Mac and Win). MetaCard becames LiveCode and LiveCode is now to become open source. To give it a hand to start well, see here:

    Old HyperCard specialist agree: LiveCode is was HyperCard would be today... You create one stack and compile it for Mac OS X, Windows, Android, iOS, Linux, ...

    And you can import the old HyperCard stacks as well - may be some refurbish is needed ;-)
    Gurki Bär