Programming for the rest of us

I could say that HyperCard changed my life. Like many of my generation HyperCard was the vehicle that got me into what I still like to call hypermedia. So I was a bit sad, but not surprised to see that Apple had finally withdrawn all support for their unloved baby.
One of the reasons why HyperCard was unloved by Apple was the difficulty in finding a neat, simple description of what it was. As Tim Oren says in his “A Eulogy for HyperCard” – “What was this thing? Programming and user interface design tool? Lightweight database and hypertext document management system? Multimedia authoring environment? Apple never answered that question.”
It was, of course, all those things and more. Perhaps the best description was Bill Atkinson’s, its creator, who wanted to create a programming tool “for the rest of us.”

This was perhaps what Apple missed. Bill Atkinson had joined the honour roll of people like Alan Kay with SmallTalk and Seymour Papert with Logo, who believed in trying to promote a genuine computer literacy. As Alan Kay said not so long ago:
“No media revolution can be said to have happened without a general establishment of “literacy”: fluent “reading” and “writing” at the highest level of ideas that the medium can represent. With computers, we are so far from that fluent literacy — or even understanding what that literacy should resemble — that we could claim that the computer revolution hasn’t even started.”
HyperCard was perhaps the nearest we have got to a computing environment, which could act as a foundation for this kind of literacy. At the simplest level it was a simple to use tool that enables people with a limited knowledge of computers to create useful things on them. (Even I, who is at a practical level technically incompetent, was able to make some things that were useful for me using it.) But it also offered a graduated route to doing increasingly sophisticated things with it and in the process taught people some fundamental programming concepts.
But that aspect of HyperCard very quickly got lost. Instead it was seized on as a tool for creating interactive multimedia products. There was a slightly earlier alternative, Peter Brown‘s “Guide”, which in some ways was more sophisticated and was multi-platform, but HyperCard became dominant because, at first, it was free and bundled with every Macintosh.
There were some very good products produced using HyperCard, I think particularly of some of the stuff published by Voyager. But because of the relatively neglect by Apple in further developing it for this area, professionals began to switch to more sophisticated development environments, such as SuperCard and later Macromedia’s Director.
This left HyperCard hovering in a kind of no man’s land; there were better tools for professionals and there was little promotion and development of it as a programming tool for the rest of us.
Perhaps, as Tim Oren suggests “HyperCard could have been forked into several related products, each tailored to a specific market.” But as it was, it wasn’t and a great opportunity was lost.
One day another Alan Kay or Seymour Papert or Bill Atkinson will come along and produce something that will act as the foundation for a genuine computer literacy. It probably won?t look like HyperCard but will be equally simple and equally deep only better. Then we will be able to claim that Alan Kay?s computer revolution really has arrived.