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

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.”


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