HyperCard: What Could Have Been

Sunday, May 25th, 2008

Leander Kahney talks to Bill Atkinson, the programming genius behind MacPaint and much of the original Macintosh operating system, about HyperCard: What Could Have Been:

Atkinson, now a successful nature photographer, created a string of groundbreaking applications during a long career at Apple.

But he feels that one of his greatest achievements, the HyperCard multimedia programming system, failed to live up to its potential.

HyperCard is a programming environment that can create applications as diverse as utilities and games by linking “cards” arranged into “stacks.” Commands are executed through a natural-language scripting language called HyperTalk.

The software has been phenomenally successful and highly influential. But Atkinson feels that if only he’d realized separate cards and stacks could be linked on different people’s machines through the Net — instead of cards and stacks on a particular machine — he would have created the first Internet browser.

“I have realized over time that I missed the mark with HyperCard,” he said from his studio in Menlo Park, California. “I grew up in a box-centric culture at Apple. If I’d grown up in a network-centric culture, like Sun, HyperCard might have been the first Web browser. My blind spot at Apple prevented me from making HyperCard the first Web browser.”

HyperCard was conceived and created in the 1980s, almost a decade before the explosion of the Internet.

“I thought everyone connected was a pipe dream,” he said. “Boy, was I wrong. I missed that one.”

Atkinson recalled engineers at Apple drawing network schematics in the form of a bunch of boxes linked together. Sun engineers, however, first drew the network’s backbone and then hung boxes off of it. It’s a critical difference, and he feels it hindered him.

“If I thought more globally, I would have envisioned (HyperCard) in that way,” he said. “You don’t transfer someone’s website to your hard drive to look at it. You browse it piecemeal…. It’s much more powerful than a stack of cards on your hard drive.

“With a 100-year perspective, the real value of the personal computer is not spreadsheets, word processors or even desktop publishing,” he added. “It’s the Web.”

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