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.

Is the web dying? The state of affairs in 2016

  • Ads only take up 9% of the surface of the average webpage in the US
  • But the time needed to load ads represents over 50% of the total load time of page
  • On average, 53 third-parties are involved behind the scenes of a page, syncing data, cookies, etc.

.. On the mobile web if we add this up to slow connections, latency and slower cpu’s, a full page refresh on each click, it’s just not going to work.

.. Our performance measurement models need to get updated, many companies are still too focused on total page load time as the main performance metric. We need to look at first meaningful paint and time to interactive as our main metrics. These are the ones that have the most impact on user experience.
Also runtime performance is still mostly ignored, the fluidity of animations and scroll is of major importance.

  • .. Focus on the user; the end goal isn’t to make your site perform fast on any specific device, it’s to ultimately make users happy.
  • Respond to users immediately; acknowledge user input in under 100ms.
  • Render each frame in under 16ms and aim for consistency; users notice ‘jank’.

.. In the launch of instant articles, Facebook stated that, on average, a link to an external website on your newsfeed, takes 8s to load.

Is this a statement saying that we as developers can’t do web performance right? Is the future of publishing in this platforms?

.. And universal links are a way to link directly to a web app without going through the web.

Apple: Support Universal Links

When you support universal links, iOS 9 users can tap a link to your website and get seamlessly redirected to your installed app without going through Safari. If your app isn’t installed, tapping a link to your website opens your website in Safari.

Universal links give you several key benefits that you don’t get when you use custom URL schemes.

50 years ago today the word “hypertext” was introduced

So for me it was an important rollout, a rollout of my ideas. And I took it very seriously. And because of my partially theatrical background, I was very conscious of giving a good show.

.. I saw it as my major career rollout, daring and intense. I wasn’t so much scared as excited and keyed up. I was going to tell the world, from a literary and philosophical point of view, where interactive documents would go. I was about to tell a technical group that their whole world would be redefined.

.. What kind of reaction did you get from others?

 No one, absolutely no one that I met, could imagine interactive computer screens. Whereas I could see them with my eyes closed, practically touch them and make them respond. It was very sensual.
.. My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.
.. My great-grandfather, for example, who was a very smart man, a science teacher—he couldn’t understand what I was talking about. No one could imagine what an interactive screen would be. No one I talked to could imagine what an interactive screen would be, whereas I saw and felt them sensually in my mind and at my fingertips. Yet to me this was an extension of literature as we had always known it.
.. I never got leverage. Neither did a lot of other people; Jobs grabbed a brass ring and knew what to do with it.
.. Unfortunately I overemphasized the jump link, jumping from page to page, which is all the Web does. (Along with the regrettable emphasis on fonts and layout, foisted on the public by Simonyi and Warnock.) [Charles Simonyi, who oversaw Microsoft’s development of Word, and John Warnock, the co-founder of Adobe Systems.]
.. And software—interactive software—is events on a screen that affect the heart and mind of the user, and interact,and have consequences. So understanding the theatrics (some say rhetoric, some say cascading) of interaction is the real issue, not just making the wheels go around.
.. I came to see that the issues I was facing for electronic documents were not algorithms but data structure.
.. I submitted five papers to conferences that would meet in 1965; all were accepted! But the biggie was to the ACM National Conference.
.. I’d been reading a lot of journal articles, so I knew how ACM people thought: they were interested in files and operating systems and the like.
.. I spent a great deal of time and work on it. And, as I recall, my great-grandfather died while I was working on it, and that was a great sorrow to me, but I had to keep on it.

.. And while I respected them very much, I also thought that I was opening a new chapter into a new part of the world.

.. I was by no means modest. Although I wasn’t telling anybody about it, I thought hypertext would lead to a millennial system of changes, and so it has, but much less influenced by my own work—my designs and ideas—than I’d hoped.

.. The written paper is in academic style. It bears almost no relation to the oral presentation I gave, which was intended to be rousing. I was used to off-the-cuff public speaking, but I scripted this one tightly.

.. I know I have a tape recording of the talk, and I know I have the original artwork and slides, so if anyone wanted to put it all together and restore it to an audiovisual presentation, it could be done.

.. Did you get in touch with Doug Engelbart?

Yes. The next year, 1966, I flew out to see him with William Jovanovich, head of Harcourt, Brace Publishers, where I worked at the time. He showed us the mouse, and I was instantly converted.
.. You could say it was the high-water mark of my career, just as Engelbart’s 1968 demo was the high-water mark of his.
.. I hardly understood academic politics. Underneath the handshakes and overt appreciation, everyone is backstabbing for the same money.

.. I got a call from the Central Intelligence Agency—at least the guy said he was from the Central Intelligence Agency—and he intimated that they might back me, and I said, “sure.” That conversation went on for several years, but no backing appeared. I actually did go to McLean to meet there once, so it had been an authentic call.

.. The surprise at the meeting was that I was attacked by several Artificial Intelligence guys in the room. It was years before I understood that there was a dog-and-cat relation between AI and hypertext—AI guys thought we were stealing their rightful territory. (I was actually followed at one conference by a famous AI guy who began, “Hypertext is evil.”)

.. Not only did the AI guys hate hypertext, but it turns out that everybody has a different notion of what hypertext should be. For example, HyperCard on the early Macintosh. I couldn’t understand it then; I still don’t understand it now. A very strange system. But that just shows the kaleidoscopic variety of thoughts that these concepts engender.

.. My motto is, you can’t think new thoughts in old words.

.. In what sense did you think “hypertext” was hyper?

 “Hyper” in the sense of extended and generalized, as in “hypercube” and “hyperspace.” My father-in-law was a psychologist, and he was disturbed at the word because he thought “hyper” meant pathological and agitated.

.. I didn’t choose the name “Xanadu,” I don’t think, until ’66 or ’67, when I was at Harcourt, Brace Publishers.

.. The fundamental notions haven’t changed—parallel pages with visible connection.

.. whereas I consider it essential to see pages side by side, as in the Talmud, as in medieval manuscripts, as in any number of documents over the centuries. This is an essential part of the electronic document which we don’t have yet.

.. My team—I don’t take any credit for it, but the guys I was leading—came up with a brilliant system of addressing, based on what is now called tumblers.

.. in the last of those two years, Tim Berners-Lee created the Web. So we might well have been the hypertext system of the world if we had stuck with the original 1979 design.