What happened to hypercard?

Hypercard was released 25 damn years ago.  Has it been that long?

Back in college, I spent a lot of time screwing around on the Mac, and there were certain programs that welded that old-school 68K Classic Mac experience in my mind.  One of them was Aldus PageMaker, which was the desktop publishing program of the day. This was in the very early 90s, in the days of DOS and WordPerfect 5.1, when the most advanced publishing work you could do on the WinTel side of things was using italics.  But the Mac had this funky and advanced program that enabled you to create page layouts and cool newsletters and even newspapers.  I saw many a journalism student slaving away on those old black-and-white Apples with the tiny grey screens, tweaking layouts and dumping fantastic publications to postscript printers.  I later learned PageMaker by doing the last issue of my old zine Xenocide in it, spending months tweaking page borders and reflowing columns.

The other program I messed with endlessly was HyperCard.  This was something included on all of the old Macs, and it was incredibly interesting to me.  Basically, you created a stack of cards, and each card could have a mix of text and clip art graphics on it.  But you could also plop controls on the cards, like links or text boxes.  You could then hook up those controls to link cards to each other, or do other freaky stuff like run scripts.

This sounds pretty pedestrian compared to what we do daily on the web.  And it sounds disturbingly like PowerPoint, which is probably one of the most evil things created in the business world. But back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, these concepts were absolutely revolutionary.  And even better, the interface to HyperCard was not that intimidating.  If you could make basic art in MacPaint or write a paper in WordPerfect, you could easily create a HyperCard stack.

I remember spending a lot of time at work creating a choose-your-own-adventure game using HyperCard.  I forget exactly what it was – I think it was a game about trying to score drugs on a college campus, and you could click on various pictures to move around.  It wasn’t exactly as sophisticated as the Zork series, but it was something I could do at work, under the guise of “learning more about HyperCard.”  I never learned much about the scripting language, but I did work with some people who did pretty sophisticated stacks.  The system was widely used by education majors, I guess to develop learning tools for kids.  I guess the original Myst on the Mac was written in Hypercard, each of the worlds a Hypercard stack, interlaced with heavy-duty graphics and audio, presented with custom plug-ins.

Like I said, the web came along, and HyperCard more or less vanished.  It was one of the products developed by Claris, which was spun off from Apple and then later re-merged.  The last version of HyperCard came out in 1996, but it was one of the projects killed by Steve Jobs after his return.  You could run old versions for a while, but it did not survive the jump from OS9 to OSX.  You could get it to work in Classic emulation on newer systems, but it only worked on PPC Macs.  On today’s Intel-based machines running later versions of OSX, it doesn’t work at all.

Its one big legacy on the Mac is that the HyperTalk scripting language was adapted and added to System 7, and called AppleScript.  It’s still around in modern versions of OS X, and is even more interesting, now that you can run unix commands from within AppleScript.  It influenced the development of HTTP, JavaScript, and Ward Cunningham said the whole idea of wikis goes back to using HyperText.

To me, HyperCard was always a bit of a missed opportunity.  I think it would be very easy for casual users to create HyperCard stacks and then use some kind of tool to push them to a web site; it would potentially be easier to create high-quality interactive web sites with something like that.  There are probably many programs that you could buy to do that, but none that come with your operating system and follow its UI paradigm.  It would also be great to develop mobile apps.  I could see creating a stack, testing it out on your computer, then pushing it through a compiler and shooting out a binary that could be run on a phone or tablet.  You couldn’t write the next Skyrim that way, but for simple stuff, like interactive kid’s books or multimedia guides, it would be great.  Same thing for interactive books on the Kindle or iPad.

I know you can do all of these things with XCode or by hand or whatever, but there’s something about the ease of use by a non-programmer, and the availability on every Mac, that make this a different paradigm.  There are some conspiracy theories that Jobs killed Hypercard in order to solidify the division between creator and consumer.  I don’t know if that’s true; I think he killed it because Apple had eleventy billion disparate things going on when he returned, and none of them were getting the company closer to profitable hardware sales or a decent operating system.  It’s too bad we don’t have something like this anymore.

 

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I’d hate to be a piece of furniture in Steve Ballmer’s office this week

The Mac App Store launched Thursday, and Herman Miller stock went up two points in anticipation of all of the chairs Steve Ballmer has probably been throwing at people this week.  There’s no way the sweaty-pitted Microsoft CEO isn’t beating his middle managers like red-headed step-children after the news came out that people downloaded a million apps in the first day, with 10,000 apps available at launch.  The Mac App Store changes things in ways that people in Windowsland cannot even contemplate, although when Win7SP2 launches with the MSFT half-ass attempt of the same concept, I’m sure we’ll hear all about the greatness, just like we’ll hear about how great judicial advocacy is from Teapotters that have railed against it for the last two years when they need it to keep Guantanamo bay open.

The Mac App Store changes things in a big way, both good and bad.  Back when I got started in this industry, if you wanted to write and sell an application for a Mac (or a PC), you rode your dinosaur to work, hired a bunch of people to put your crap on floppy disks and into boxes, and then either sold it yourself in your local computer stores (kids younger than 20: imagine a Best Buy with only a computer section, that didn’t suck), or you got your retail boxes dumped into the channel and flushed out to big stores and catalogs.  (Catalog: a paper version of Amazon, but it took 4-6 weeks to get your stuff.)  Then the internet happened, and people sold software on web sites, where you somehow sent money and either got a download or got a CD-ROM sent to you through the pony express for later installation at your own leisure.

But if you had this great software package, you had this huge list of problems.  Gotta set up a web site.  Gotta get a shopping cart system in place.  Gotta take credit cards and get a merchant account and whatever SSL nonsense your ISP wants you to get.  Or, gotta bend over and spread for PalPal’s cut of the vig.  Gotta find a way to have a download center that isn’t just at widget.com/dontlookhere/dl/product.zip so the first person that buys your crap doesn’t just spam the magic link to the world and let everyone download.  Gotta come up with come crazy system of software enablement, serial numbers you type in and send securely, whatever obfuscated nonsense you need to keep the world from just emailing your ZIP file to all of their friends.  Gotta find a way to drive traffic to the site.  Gotta find a way to get people to return to the site for upgrades and new versions.  There are a lot of moving parts, a lot of things to consider, and either every software reseller reinvents the wheel, or you join some tribe or cabal or commune or collective or whatever else to use one common set of machinery for everyone’s releases, and you pay for the privilege.

So now you avoid all of that.  Pay Apple a hundred bucks to join, upload your DMG file, and you’re in a searchable, centralized catalog of apps.  When a new Apple user fires up their iMac for the first time, there’s a pretty little icon to click that brings them to a huge store filled with games and productivity apps and stuff people can click on without scrambling for their credit cards or signing up for yet another e-merchant account that will probably eventually get hacked, with your password and Visa number and home phone ending up in a torrent sent out to every script kiddie in the world.

There’s also the issue of central maintenance.  When you have to push out a patch, you don’t spam out emails, and you don’t have to write complicated code to beam back to the mothership and check if the latest version is installed on the user’s PC. You tell Apple you have a new version, and let them do the dirty work.  And when a person bricks their MacBook or spills juice in their iMac and has to go get a new machine, they just plug in their username and all of their apps magically download again.  There isn’t a two-month process of trying to remember all of the crap you installed, or a weekend-long backup and reload on an external drive or a pile of DVD-Rs.

Yeah, there are downsides.  You’re paying Apple that hundred bucks, and they’re also skimming 30% of the take on your sales.  But do you know how much banks take from mom and pop companies on merchant accounts?  I’d tell you, but there are like 79 different surcharges and monthly fees and address verification fees and machine rental fees and every other nickel-and-diming the banks can think of to hit you with.  That 30% erases a lot of headaches.  And compare it to how much of a discount you’d give in channel sales, and it’s not a bad deal.

There are all of the “walled garden” arguments you’ll hear from the Microsoft camp.  You’ve heard the same arguments since the App Store showed up on the iPhone, although you haven’t heard as many of them since Windows Phone 7 adopted the same exact strategy for their app store.  And you probably won’t hear much more about it after that Windows 7 Platinum Home Deluxe SP2 Zune Marketplace shows up in the next rev of their OS, providing the same exact walled garden, albeit with a lot of the wall’s pieces removed to appease any of the big software makers that balk.

I think by the fall, everyone at every point of the food chain is going to try to launch their PC app store.  Amazon’s probably brewing one; I’m sure all of the hardware manufacturers like HP and Dell are going to have a long, painful meeting this Monday where some idiot who has never installed software in his life but can wear a mean tie and gets all of the ZDNet headlines beamed to his Blackberry is going to pitch their genius idea to launch their own bundled crapware app store on their new computers.   App stores will be the add-on toolbar of 2011, just like they were for phones in the last 18 months.

Another argument that is a plus and a minus is what the hell this will do to pricing.  People are now used to paying 99 cents for a game on their phone, so good luck on putting your desktop game on the App Store for $79.99.  Sure, you can trim down that price a bit because you’re not paying $47 a copy in merchant account fees to Bank of America.  And your game is some one-gig DVD release and not just a two-screen screen-tapper you wrote in a weekend.  It’s going to cause unbundling of suites, like Apple is doing with iWork and iLife, where people will only buy the apps they want, at a lower price and a smaller download, instead of buying a full package of apps on a DVD.  I don’t know what the magic price point will become, although I’m guessing people will be less apt to buy a $99 app and more willing to pay something like $19 for Real Apps and $4.99 for games and entertainment.

I just got the update and installed the App Store, and gave it a quick drive to download the new Twitter client.  No problems, no surprises.  I haven’t bought anything yet, but when I get a free second (which will be in like June) I will probably hunt down the latest versions of some of the older registered payware/shareware I have, just to make the next update easier.  All I can tell you now is, I’m glad I’m not working at a hardware manufacturer that’s probably going to go on damage control and require all of its R&D center employees to waste a lot of their free time generating stupid powerpoints re-selling an already done idea.  Also glad I’m not driving across the 520 bridge every morning to potentially have a 57-pound Aeron chair thrown at my head.

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Requiem for an iPhone

Well, my must-last-two-years-according-to-AT&T iPhone 3G just crossed the magical Apple rainbow at nine months.  It was working fine, but it started developing a crack in the back case, just above the dock connector.  It probably could have lasted another year, but I figured I would make the trek to the Apple Store and see if they would swap it for a new one, even if I didn’t have AppleCare, and they did.

First, if we’re in a recession, it sure didn’t look like it in the Bay Street Apple store.  They were wall-to-wall with people grabbing Apple gear for the holidays.  I’m curious what their actual numbers are for sales in the holiday season, and also curious if these new Microsoft stores are doing anything comparable.  Anyway, I made an appointment for the genius bar, and managed to get in at exactly the specified time.  And the swap was no hassle.  Thanks to the whole iTunes-centric backup recovery paradigm and the fact that I backed up right before leaving, the whole thing went almost seamlessly.  (Only exceptions: my WiFi and voicemail passwords vanished and had to be re-entered when I got home.)  I also sprung for AppleCare, just in case, and a new screen protector, which they installed for me.  (It’s pretty much impossible to put on an adhesive screen protector in a home with a long-haired cat, unless you don’t mind staring at a few stray cat hairs on your touchscreen for the rest of the protector’s life.)

What’s weird is that while the Apple genius boxed up my old phone and got ready to pitch it off to whatever Chinese landfill/salvage dumping ground old iPhones go to at the end of their lives, I felt slightly emotional about seeing it go.  Granted, I got an exact clone of the old model, and it even looks identical because it’s in the same old case, but I still felt slightly sentimental about seeing it go.  I think part of that is because this is one of the first cell phones that wasn’t just a vague utensil I occasionally used to make calls, but an actual fully-fledged computer that I used for a wide swath of applications within my somewhat-connected life.  I mean, I really used the camera; I listened to pretty much every Rockies game I could this season, and when I couldn’t listen, I followed along in the MLB app; I sent and read many an email; I used it as a real web browser, not a postage stamp approximation of a web browser; I found myself texting a lot more than I typically would; I even wrote a few blog posts on it.

I guess there’s always been this lack of a suspension of disbelief in my use of a palm-sized computer, either because it didn’t do what I wanted, or it had such clunkiness in what it did do.  Like, I used to have a couple of Palm OS non-phone devices, and while those were decent phone books and occasional game machines (mostly Dopewars), there was a big line to be drawn with all things connected, because there was no way for me to surf the web or read emails on those things.  Yes, you could attach on some giant pack the size of the actual device and sort of use it as a crappy cell phone, and maybe run an email program that barely worked, but there was a pretty hard stopping point in the usefulness of these machines, and it was clear that I would also need to carry a cell phone and a laptop to be semi-functional in the field with these.

I guess now we’re truly reaching this age where we can have a palm-sized computer that can really run apps and really do things and because of that, I feel the same kind of emotional (and somewhat stupid) bond I feel toward some of the primary computers I have in my life.  I mean, when I finally kicked to the curb my entirely obsolete PC that was my primary writing machine from 1991-2001,  I felt a bit of remorse to see that beige rectangle go to the garbage, even if it was fully useless even as a doorstop by the time it went in 2005.  There were many good memories of that thing sitting on my desktop as I chipped away at various books.  And I felt the same kind of nostalgia as that tiny black piece of plastic and glass (which probably had more CPU and memory than said PC) got sent back to the void.

And a side note, iPhone wise – I was tapping away while standing in line at Taco Bell, and curiously got a WiFi connection and didn’t know why.  Then I realized I was standing next to a Starbucks, which has an AT&T hotspot, and at some point I logged in at a different Starbucks, and the new magical AT&T hotspot connector mojo worked without interaction.  That sure beats the old days of having to enter a thousand characters of login info, including a password you can never use or remember.

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iPod, CD binging

This iPod is incredible. It’s a great experience to have a big plurality of your music collection with you at all times, in a tiny little box as big as a deck of cards. And it’s great to listen to everything on shuffle, hearing old favorites next to new CDs next to things I cherished ten years ago but haven’t heard in ages because they were on a compilation CD buried somewhere in my apartment. I’ve been ripping CDs nonstop, and I’m barely filling up the 20 gigs of space. I’ve got about six gigs on there, and another gig or so of stuff I’ve ripped today.

I went to Best Buy today, the new one in Chelsea. It was a minor pain in the ass because there wasn’t an N/W train running to Manhattan, so I had to get on the 7. Then I got on an F, and it took me right to the door of this new place. The whole store is actually underground, and it’s big for a store in Chelsea, although it’s probably one of the smallest Best Buys I’ve been in. I went on a CD rampage, and here’s what I got:

  • CKY – Infiltrate, Destroy, Rebuild
  • CKY – Volume 1
  • Twisted Forever – A Tribute to the Legendary Twisted Sister
  • Iron Maiden – Powerslave
  • Iron Maiden – Piece of Mind
  • Iron Maiden – Somewhere in Time
  • Iron Maiden – Iron Maiden
  • Orgy – Vapor Transmission
  • NWA – Greatest Hits
  • Green Day – Kerplunk
  • Dead Kennedys – Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death

The Iron Maiden CDs are all the new “full cover” versions, with shitty bonus tracks available as multimedia only. I should’ve bought them all five years ago when they were in the cool Castle reissues with a bonus CD in a brilliant box, but I’m an idiot. I don’t have any of them on CD – all of my old Maiden stuff was on vinyl. The CKY is new to me, but I really like them a lot – I first heard them in the Jackass movie. The rest of the list were impulse purchases or stuff that was at a good price, so there you go.

I also picked up a copy of The Sims for PS/2, not really knowing much about it except that a lot of people like it. I played it for an hour or so this afternoon, and it is a total pain in the ass. You have to tell your dude what to do: eat, crap, bathe, watch TV, learn stuff, pick up the house, etc etc. If you don’t do stuff, your meters go down. For example, if you don’t talk to other family members, your social meter goes down. If you don’t watch TV or listen to the radio, your fun meter goes down. And you never, ever have time to do everything. So basically, it’s like real life. And I can’t manage to keep my own house clean or eat three square meals a day, so there’s not a chance I can do it on the computer. Despite this, it’s hard to put down. Go figure.

OK, gotta get out of here and get some stuff done.

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