Apple's lost decade, HyperCard, and what might NOT have been if Apple then was like Apple is today

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: 1991. Thinking about those days gives me a headache. Back then, I was all Apple, all the time. It was not necessarily a good thing.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

Yes, boys and girls. Back in 1991, I was an Apple guy.

1991. Thinking about those days gives me a headache. Back then, I was all Apple, all the time. It was not necessarily a good thing.

I had two roles back then. I was the founder of Hyperpress, one of the first major add-on developers for Apple's HyperCard. Today, that'd be like being one of the big iPad app developers or Facebook app developers. HyperCard was essentially the first app-building environment, and Hyperpress was one of the key players.

I was also the head of Apple's Educator HomeCard project, where I had been given the somewhat unusual title of "Godfather". This was a big project with a number of teams, all working together to essentially create a suite of apps for teachers -- tools for managing grading, seating charts, various activities, and so forth.

The idea was Apple was going to distribute Educator HomeCard to schools everywhere, make it easier for teachers to teach and manage the day-to-day minutiae of teaching, and therefore make them want to use Macs to do it all.

At this point in our retrospective, it's probably a good idea for me to explain HyperCard to you. HyperCard was introduced by Apple in 1987. It shipped for free on all Macs. HyperCard was difficult to explain then, and -- to some degree -- remains so today.

At its most simple, HyperCard was an interactive MacPaint, with buttons, fields, and scripting.

Written by Bill Atkinson, the guy who wrote the original MacPaint (the forerunner of all "paint" programs including Photoshop), HyperCard was used to build "stacks" of "cards". Each card had buttons, graphics, and text on it, and you could move between cards to show different types of information.

Sound familiar?

If you substitute "page" for "card" and "site" for "stack", you get surprisingly close to the modern-day Web site concept.

Except for, well, the network.

HyperCard didn't know of networks. We didn't have much of an Internet back then, and -- of course -- we also didn't have a Web. Remember, this was the mid-1980s.

When HyperCard was released in 1987, the Mac was only three years old. It had been a tumultuous three years, with the most notable event being Steve Jobs leaving the company for his years in the NeXT wilderness.

By the time HyperCard came out in 1987, John Scully (formerly of Pepsi) was in charge of the company. The Macintosh II was the Apple color machine, and Apple was slowly losing its way. HyperCard was symptomatic of that loss of direction.

Because HyperCard was, at its core, a building environment, many managers within Apple didn't know what to make of it. Although Apple had made its name by including the BASIC language with the old Apple II machines, by the time the mid-80s rolled around, the middle managers at Apple had pretty much forgotten that end-user development could be a big business driver.

Even so, HyperCard became part of the core Mac OS offering. It was shipped free with every Macintosh, and so Mac users across the world started building stacks using it. It was highly versatile, easy to modify, easy to learn, and reasonably robust. Schools used it, businesses used it, government agencies used it, and plain ol' users used it.

The breadth of stacks was almost breathtaking. For example, while I ran the Educator HomeCard project building tools for teachers, the guys at Cyan used HyperCard to build the first version of a little program called Myst. Until The Sims unseated it, Myst was the best-selling PC game of all time -- and it started as a HyperCard stack.

HyperCard stacks, distributed both on floppy disks and on the new-fangled technology called CD-ROM, made it possible to produce deep multimedia technology including things like encyclopedias, interactive medical charts, and even stacks that helped you understand bird anatomy.

Next: Apple had changed »

« Previous: About HyperCard

Stack distribution, of course, was old-school. There was no real Internet (even online services like AOL didn't exist, although AppleLink, a precursor for Apple developers, was quite popular).

To distribute stacks, you'd sell them in boxes in brick-and-mortar stores and mail them on disks via snail mail. You had to load the stacks you wanted to use on your Mac, rather than visit them through a browser.

But, by 1991, things had changed.

Apple had decided that rather than sell its own software (programs like MacDraw, AppleWorks, HyperCard, and FileMaker), it would create a stand-alone subsidiary company called Claris.

The bizarro nature of this, to anyone familiar with Apple's current policy of centralized control, should be apparent.

It'd be as if Apple decided to spin out a company called iTunesCo, and let them run the music business, letting them set all their own prices and policies. It'd be as if Apple spun out another company, called AppsCo, and let them choose their own prices and policies. It'd be as if Apple suddenly turned its back on Final Cut, GarageBand, and the iLife software.

To today's Apple, the idea would be nuts.

But back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Jobs wasn't around to ride herd on the company, and so Pepsi-style management policies were in force. As a result, Claris found itself "owning" HyperCard.

Instead of continuing Apple's policy of distributing HyperCard free with every Mac, Claris began charging hundreds of dollars for the program.

Suddenly, this incredibly useful tool that had come free on every Mac became an expensive product you had to purchase. As we all know, once something free and universally accessible becomes expensive and you have to jump through a hoop to buy it, a lot less people get interested in it. We're all holding our breath today, as we wait to see if the New York Times' new plan to start charging will pay off for them, or fail like most other pay walls have failed over the years.

So, as you might imagine, the HyperCard market suddenly tanked. Hard. Off a cliff. With weights tied to its ankles. HyperCard sank.

Again, let's put this in modern perspective. It would be as if, once Apple developed the App store for the iPhone and iPad, the company decided it didn't like Apps anymore, so, well, let's not make them available to iPad and iPhone users.

Of course, back then Apple didn't make 30% off of every stack sold.

By 1991, HyperCard was effectively dead. The company kept it on its price list for years, but that was about all.

Next: 1991 sucked »

« Previous: Apple had changed

For me, 1991 sucked.

It was the first time I'd experienced what happens when you put all your eggs into one company's basket and then that company burns the basket.

I survived, of course. HyperCard introduced one of the first plug-in architectures and Hyperpress had taken considerable advantage of this to make and sell many different plug-ins. There was a particular development approach to making plug-ins and we were very good at that methodology.

So, when HyperCard tanked, I pivoted the company, renamed it Component Software, and began making and selling plug-ins for other multimedia environments, most notably Macromedia Director. I introduced the FileFlex database engine, which became part of Director in the mid-1990s, and at one time was the most popular multimedia database engine on PCs.

Back then, I learned a lot of my early lessons about how to create an agile, flexible company. After successfully conducting my first business model "pivot" (back before that term had entered the startup lexicon), I documented the lessons learned in my book, The Flexible Enterprise (free PDF download).

I eventually sold the plug-in business and went on to start ZATZ Publishing, the Web company that's been my "day job" since 1998.

The lost decade

For Apple, 1991 was right in the middle of its lost decade without Jobs. Apple stock climbed to a historic high, then plummeted. This is also the time when Apple moved off the original 68000-series processors for Macs, and moved to the IBM-designed PowerPC processors.

Although it was a rough time for Apple and Mac users and -- especially -- developers, this was one of the first times a platform as big as the Mac migrated underlying processors. As we all know, it was not to be the last.

Because Apple virtualized many of the old 68000-based functions to ensure compatibility on the PowerPC line, 1991 was also one of the first widespread deployments of virtualization technology -- one of the most mission-critical technologies of our modern, 2011 IT departments.

Our 1991 project seems to have made an impression on our ZDNet bloggers. Jason Perlow, for example, has spent hours (and perhaps days) digging through old copies of tech magazines archived up on Google Books. Jason found an InfoWorld article from March 25, 1991 that details Apple's decision to license its Mac OS to other OEMS. This, of course, ended badly. Just as soon as Steve Jobs retook Apple's helm, the companies who'd licensed Mac OS were summarily put out of business.

1991 was also the year Apple got into practical notebook computing, with its release of the PowerBook line of laptops. Of all that Apple did back in 1991, even without Jobs' day-to-day sense of design philosophy, the one felt most by today's Apple customers has to be the PowerBooks.

Through the PowerBook line, Apple moved into the mobile space and began to understand what consumers needed on the move -- an understanding that would lead to Apple's unquestionable dominance of mobile today.

Next: HyperCard's influence »

« Previous: 1991 sucked

HyperCard's influence

Meanwhile, HyperCard's influence has permeated almost everything we do online. Although there were some limited prototypes of GUI-based development tools, it wasn't until HyperCard that we started to build user interfaces by placing elements on screen, managing events, and scripting object-based UI elements.

This style of development has influenced all forms of rapid prototyping, agile development, and even much of the Web page development we do today.

In fact, the Web itself came about, in part due to HyperCard's influence. The scientists at CERN were heavy HyperCard users and they wanted to extend the hypertext concept they'd used with HyperCard across the network.

Scripting, too, was heavily influenced by HyperCard and its programming language, HyperTalk. If you use ActionScript in Flash, you're essentially programming in a derivation of HyperTalk. This, of course, is ironic, given Apple's current jihad against all things Flash.

JavaScript -- which is much like ActionScript -- was also inspired by HyperTalk. In Danny Goodman's JavaScript Bible, Brendan Eich, the guy who created JavaScript, talks about how HyperTalk influenced his design of JavaScript. As it turns out, Danny also wrote the definitive book about HyperCard, so you can begin to see the various connections.

Wikis, too, came about because of HyperCard's influence. Ward Cunningham, the guy who pioneered the wiki concept, built his first version in HyperCard. So if you like Wikipedia, you have HyperCard to thank.

Even Apps, like those found on iPhones and iPads, owe their genesis to HyperCard. Apps are often deep applications, but they're also often pinpoint products that solve certain problems. These are almost identical in spirit to the HyperCard stacks of the late 1980s and 1990s.

Sadly, Apple has strayed from its "maker" roots. Apple today completely disallows any application on the iPad or iPhone that creates or runs other software.

Nothing like HyperCard could exist in iOS. That's a shame, because a modern HyperCard would be ideal for students, teachers, and regular users to take control of their iOS devices and create wondrous tools for themselves.

Here's the object lesson of all this.

If Apple back then had the restrictive, draconian policies that Apple today has, we wouldn't have had HyperCard. Without HyperCard, we might not have the World Wide Web, wikis, JavaScript, rich-media Web sites, or even the iPhone and iPad.

If Apple back then had the restrictive, draconian policies that Apple today has, we might not even have Apple today. Apple today owes its iSuccess to the Internet and if Apple back then had been as restrictive as it is today, the Internet as we know it might not exist.

By squelching innovation and creativity the way it does today, what wondrous, transformative future technologies are we not going to have, just because Apple has turned into the one thing it railed against back in 1984: Big Brother?

Maybe it's a good thing Steve Jobs is on medical leave. There's no question that Jobs has been good for Apple, Apple shareholders, and Apple fans. But while Apple without Jobs was somewhat rudderless, it did allow innovation to flourish without central control -- and HyperCard, flawed as it was, is the perfect case in point.

I wish Jobs a long, happy, and healthy life. At the same time, I have to wonder whether he's been squelching a broader-based level of innovation for the selfish benefit of Apple and Apple shareholders.

Obviously, a company is allowed to make decisions for whatever reasons it wishes, but with Apple's track record of actually helping to change the world, you have to wonder whether a Jobs-less Apple would be better or worse for the world at large.

Perhaps now, with Jobs letting go a little more, maybe the great innovations that Apple used to inspire will have room again to breathe free, break free, and create lasting change.

It's kind of ironic. The man who invited John Scully to stop selling sugar water to kids and change the world has been selling a different kind of shiny, consumer-electronics sugar to the masses, and, himself, squelching change and innovation.

Perhaps we really do become that which we fear (or disdain) the most.

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