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The Business Case for HyperCard

Our article "Alas, HyperCard!" in TidBITS-453 brought in numerous messages ranging from expressions of support to stories about how HyperCard remains in constant use even today. Most of the projects mentioned were not the multimedia projects that some people assume when they think of HyperCard; as Geoff noted, HyperCard doesn’t compare with full-fledged multimedia programs like Macromedia Director.


But I don’t want to recap Geoff’s history and explanation of HyperCard’s woes. I’m more interested in what HyperCard could have done for Apple, and what it might still be able to do.

To Compute Is to Program — Most people these days probably wouldn’t agree with that headline. After all, we spend our time in word processors, spreadsheets, graphics and layout programs, and of course, in email clients and Web browsers. However, in the relatively recent past, when our applications weren’t as capable, being able to create a tool to perform a specific task was a prime force in attracting people to the Macintosh. TidBITS Contributing Editor Matt Neuburg, then my Classics professor at Cornell University, categorically refused to buy or use a Macintosh (the source of many after-class debates) until the release of HyperCard. Matt wasn’t interested in an appliance – he wanted a construction set. He appreciated HyperCard’s cleverly concealed power, which provides geeky concepts like dynamic typing of variables, object-oriented messaging, and an environment with no modal distinction between executing and editing. You can read some of Matt’s opinions in his HyperCard 2.2 review in TidBITS-213 from February of 1994.


But more to the point, when we install contextual menu utilities, play with Kaleidoscope themes, or even carefully arrange icons in a specific window layout, we are programming our computers. We’re using tools, admittedly high level ones, to create unique, customizable environments. I don’t much like using Tonya’s Mac, for instance, because I think it’s set up "wrong," and of course, it is – for me. For her it’s perfect. On our kitchen Mac, we compromise and leave it in a more or less stock configuration.

HyperCard fulfilled similar desires for many people. It was more work than arranging your desktop, but those who learned to use ResEdit to modify the startup screen moved on to HyperCard quickly when it came out, and one of the reasons was the promise of sharing, of increased community. Suddenly others could share your "programming" efforts. Stacks abounded and somehow managed to travel around the community, despite a rudimentary Internet. Sharing was in.

A few of last week’s messages made an interesting point. People still think of HyperCard in much the way they think of a person. Many programs have personality, but HyperCard went beyond that, because it was a conduit for so many personalities. Each stack reflected the individual who had written it, and the fact that the interfaces were awful and the graphics were ugly merely reflected the fact that these were real people, warts and all, who were writing the stacks. Even more important, those stacks provided a pipeline to funnel a person’s expertise and knowledge into a Macintosh for others to use.

The Business Case — This is all very touchy-feely, but what about the business case? Although the vast majority of HyperCard stacks were frivolous, repetitive, or otherwise pointless, many others solved complex, highly specific problems. For example, after I graduated from Cornell, I wrote a HyperCard-based front-end for Cornell’s public laser printers. It started as a way to solve the file format incompatibilities between versions of Microsoft Word, but evolved into a full-fledged dedicated print interface, information resource, and service logging application.

But my work was small potatoes compared to other serious HyperCard-based projects. Harry Stripe <[email protected]> is Manager of Line Maintenance Automation at Northwest Airlines in Minneapolis. He uses HyperCard to interface with the airline’s mainframes, and has set up Mac systems all over the world specifically to run his custom HyperCard solutions:

"HyperCard is being used to support over 75 processes, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. One example is a mainframe paper-based system that would print an alert any time an aircraft maintenance item was signed off in our mainframe system. It was replaced by a much more flexible HyperCard networking solution, saving over $500,000 per year for the last three years. HyperCard is one of the main reasons Northwest Airlines still has over 375 Macintosh computers in more than 25 locations. Without HyperCard as a fully supported product, Northwest Airlines will have one less reason to continue to support the Macintosh."

The non-profit Hippocrates, Winslow, and Babbage Foundation collects clinical data pertaining to trauma care diagnoses, treatments, and complications from university-affiliated health care providers. The foundation provides the health care organization with necessary hardware and software, then makes the collected information freely available in aggregate form via the Internet to facilitate improvements in medical education and practice. According to William Burman, M.D.:

"On the strength of HyperCard, we have introduced the Mac OS into total DOS domains and won hard-fought battles with hospital information services which would not permit AppleTalk on their networks. HyperCard enabled us to demonstrate the capability of the Mac OS, leading to the purchase of hundreds of thousands of dollars of Apple hardware. Now, this hardware runs and provides a vital service in front of medical students, interns, residents, and attending physicians in emergency rooms, operating rooms, clinics, and wards in major teaching hospitals in the United States.

"If this software went away, it would be a disaster for us and the patients we are trying to serve. The fact HyperCard has been available and stable for over a decade (a practically unheard-of longevity in the computer industry) has enabled us to keep rewriting and refining our software to the point where it is now a nearly indispensable clinical tool. We need to bring some Apple executives on rounds with us so they can better understand what is at stake here."

These projects may not have been widely advertised commercial products, but they solve real problems, and what’s more, they solve them in such a way that requires the presence of a Macintosh. When HyperCard was free and came with every Mac, organizations were willing to pay someone to write a custom HyperCard stack because they knew they didn’t have to buy any more software. Whenever pressure came to switch to PCs, it was easy to point to the custom HyperCard stack and say, "No, I’m sorry, we can’t switch, since our software runs only on the Mac." In all those years of PC users blithering on about the Mac not having much software, did anyone ever count the HyperCard stacks doing yeoman duty?

HyperCard was the glue that held Macs in place. The PC had word processors, spreadsheets, and so on, and there were even some HyperCard clones. But none of them were free, and none of them shipped with every Macintosh.

This trend was tremendously diminished by Apple’s poor development record with HyperCard and by the fateful decision to make HyperCard a commercial product. I said this was a mistake back in 1990’s TidBITS-21_, and expanded on it in an article that included fascinating messages from HyperCard’s product manager and lead engineer in 1992’s TidBITS-106. I’m usually quite embarrassed by articles from our early issues, but I think it’s telling that my opinions have remained so constant over so many years.



Despite these obstacles, HyperCard stacks have kept the Macintosh in places where it would no doubt have fallen during Apple’s past few bad years. For instance, we heard of a recording studio in the San Francisco area that created a custom contact database in HyperCard. Trivial, perhaps, but this one included not just artists’ names and addresses but agents, agencies, rates, instruments, discographies, references, skills (instrumental or vocal arrangements, orchestration, dialog looping, impressions), location, travel fees, and even a collaboration finder, so you could see on a time-line who worked with who when, where, doing what, and for how much money.

And, Avi Rappoport <[email protected]> wrote to TidBITS Talk:

"My husband, Ed Allen, has been working with HyperCard for ten years, and, like Geoff, uses it in real life for serious projects. Right now, he’s working at the Stanford Genome Sequence Center, part of the Human Genome Project, using HyperCard as a link between sequence analysis and a Sybase database back end. They just bought 20 new high-end Macs as part of this work."

Show Me the Money — Although Apple PR never responded to my request for sales numbers for HyperCard, I doubt they were all that impressive and undoubtedly declined as time went on.

But we have examples right here of places where HyperCard resulted in Macintosh sales. Apple makes real money on the sale of 20 high-end Macs, and although there’s no quantifiable benefit to Apple in an organization sticking with an existing Macintosh, the fact is that HyperCard stacks continue to run on today’s fastest Power Mac G3s, where their performance rocks.

The presence of HyperCard in these situations actually lowers the cost of buying a new Macintosh because the alternative, buying a Windows-based PC, would require not just reprogramming time and effort in Visual Basic, ToolBook, MetaCard, or whatnot, but also downtime and conversion headaches. The much-vaunted PC price advantage disappears quickly when your custom applications can’t move over.

Do It Again, Steve — I’m going to go one step beyond the call to send politely worded snail mail notes to Steve Jobs about this situation. I suggest that in those letters, you make the argument that Apple should not only resume HyperCard development but also once again ship it with every Macintosh for free. I’m not talking about HyperCard Player here – I think HyperCard could pick up where it left off if the full program were once again made available.


There have been naysayers in the TidBITS Talk discussion on this topic, but most were introduced to HyperCard after it ceased to be free and ubiquitous, a compelling combination. Even releasing HyperCard’s code to the HyperCard community wouldn’t have the same effect as bundling it with every Macintosh and shipping with every release of the Mac OS. Only then can HyperCard return to its task of making the Mac indispensable.


I’m aware that this move won’t make Apple any money up front, and for that reason, it won’t be an easy decision. But many necessary expenditures don’t make money up front. Marketing and advertising are pure money sinks, but as everyone knows, without them, it’s almost impossible to have a popular consumer product. Feed the HyperCard team from one of those budgets, Steve, and think of HyperCard as a person that argues for every Macintosh on which it’s installed.

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