25 years of HyperCard—the missing link to the Web

Before the World Wide Web did anything, HyperCard did everything.

Even before its cancellation, HyperCard’s inventor saw the end coming. In an angst-filled 2002 interview, Bill Atkinson confessed to his Big Mistake. If only he had figured out that stacks could be linked through cyberspace, and not just installed on a particular desktop, things would have been different.

“I missed the mark with HyperCard,” Atkinson lamented. “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.”

.. In his 1974 book, Computer Lib/Dream Machines, he defined hypertext as “forms of writing which branch or perform on request; they are best presented on computer display screens.” By simplifying the process of dispersing and accessing information, hypertext and hypermedia could liberate society from what Nelson saw as an overprofessionalized digital information elite.

.. Fearing antitrust reprisals from the government if it strayed into the software marketing business, AT&T leased UNIX to colleges and universities at bargain basement rates. Those schools, supported by grants from the National Science Foundation, built hundreds and then thousands of ARPANET “nodes” through the 1980s.

.. “We could not have created a business around Erwise in Finland then,” one of the team members explained. But other developers had also downloaded Berners-Lee’s code. These included Pei-Yuan Wei, working on UNIX X-terminals at UC Berkeley’s Experimental Computing Facility. Where did Wei derive inspiration for his “ViolaWWW” web browser? He took his lead from a program that he found fascinating, even though he did not have a Mac of his own.

“HyperCard was very compelling back then, you know graphically, this hyperlink thing,” Wei later recalled. “I got a HyperCard manual and looked at it and just basically took the concepts and implemented them in X-windows,” which is a visual component of UNIX. The resulting browser, Viola, included HyperCard-like components: bookmarks, a history feature, tables, graphics. And, like HyperCard, it could run programs.

.. Admiring all this activity was a young developer named Marc Andreesen of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois. Andreesen’s team launched Mosaic in January of 1993; it was the first browser available on PCs, Macs, and UNIX systems. Mosaic morphed into Mosaic Netscape a year later.

Not long after that, I downloaded a copy of Netscape onto a Dell PC. “Wow,” I thought, as I surfed various sites. “This looks like HyperCard.”

.. As late as August 2002, there were probably 10,000 HyperCard developers.

.. programmers for the Cyan software company originally wrote their hugely popular puzzle/adventure game Myst as a HyperCard stack.

.. When Tim Berners-Lee’s innovation finally became popular in the mid-1990s, HyperCard had already prepared a generation of developers who knew what Netscape was for.