When Computer Programmers Were Heroes: Bill Atkinson and Hypercard

Bill Atkinson demonstrating Hypercard in an episode of Computer Chronicles

Bill Atkinson demonstrating Hypercard in an episode of Computer Chronicles

In this post I’m going to talk about the golden era of computer, when programmers where heroes.
They spent their days crafting great software, putting all their skills at work to create the most enjoyable and innovative products to run on computers.
They simply loved what they were doing, just for the sake of building quality and innovative products.

Today, what are we doing as computer people?
We have huge computational power, great machines, all the documentation we need, but we don’t use it at all.

Furthermore, it seems  the majority of software companies are driven only by money and profit, despite of programmers creativity and software quality.

Go back to the 80’s: introducing HyperCard

Wow, such a lot of time has passed from 1985, when Bill Atkinson started the development of HyperCard.
That time, HyperCard was a disruptive innovation. It was a software built for the Apple Macintosh and the Apple II GS.

The idea at the heart of HyperCard was simple and  clever: a stack of virtual cards. Each card contained interactive objects like hyperlinks, text, images, buttons and others stuff like tables and charts. By clicking on an object, user could perform an action, like executing a piece of code or navigating to another card (this was the principle behind the hypertext).

With HyperCard, users could navigate from a card to another to extract information, do some calculations, interact with cards to show images and text.
For the time, it was impressive. Think: how long did we go far since then? Not so much.

HyperCard was such a cool piece of software that originated a whole ecosystem of developers and a huge commercial market.

Why the name HyperCard? The name came from the rolodex, a popular object with a stack of circular cards where people could write informations.

One of the crucial features of HyperCard was the script section, where a user could write instructions to the software. Instructions were in plain english, making the task of instructing the system very natural and easy.

I saw a video presentation of HyperCard (link is provided below) where Bill Atkinson queries HyperCard by writing “find horse” and the system returns the first card with an horse on top of it.
I got impressed by the high level of User-Experience quality that emerges  by that video. For example, once you find a card, if the user clicks on the top of the card then the system presents the next card, and so on.

Simple, clever, amazing.

Since HyperCard was a programmable system, a huge community of developers emerged, bringing to the light a whole ecosytem  of new software for various fields: accounting, quotations, retail and sales, even videogames!

The core language of HyperCard was HyperTalk, created by Dan Winkler, and it was object oriented and easily extensible. Hypertalk was thought for non professional, and its easy-to-use nature was the reason of its big success. Thousands of “stacks” (stack was the name of an a HyperTalk application) were written. All that software was known as “Stackware”.

A little bit of history

The work started in 1985, with the first release in August 1987. Apple managed to time the release of HyperCard to coincide with the MacWorld Conference in Boston, Massachusetts, and it was a staggering success.

Between 1989 and 2000, a couple of new versions were made (HyperCard 2.0 and 3.0), then the project was stopped.
Apple ceased selling HyperCard on March 2004.

A lesson of quality and creativity for today’s programmers and entrepreneurs

The story of HyperCard is one of passion and heart, that gave us more than a great software: a whole ecosystem of software, where other people could work on. It’s a story of success from a brand that made the excellence its core flagship, despite of costs.

In the official biography of Steve Jobs, I read that one day he decided to rewrite the heart of their operating system. Programmers told him: “Hey Steve, this is simply unrealizable. There’s high risk of errors, and it’ll take too much time to get done.”

Then, Steve simply said the guys: “Ok, I understand. We must do it”.
And today we have Apple OS X.


Computer Chronicles tv episode, HyperCard (on archive.org)

Wikipedia article on HyperCard

Wikipedia article on HyperTalk

Who is Bill Atkinson?

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