Why HyperCard Failed

Let’s be clear up front. The Daring Fireball has always disliked HyperCard. The reason is simple, and lies at the heart of why HyperCard ultimately failed:

HyperCard stacks smell funny.

Mac users have an innate sense of “Mac-like”; most Mac users can determine whether a particular software package is Mac-like within 60 seconds of launching it and poking around. And HyperCard stacks, at least the ones I encountered during HyperCard’s heyday in the early 90’s, never felt even close to Mac-like. It always felt like HyperCard was its own little GUI universe running within the Mac OS (even though we didn’t call it “Mac OS” back then). Stacks felt and looked consistent with other stacks, but never felt, looked, or acted like other Macintosh apps.

Not only did HyperCard stacks eschew the standard Mac OS GUI control widgets, but they even went so far as to hide the menu bar. Which is fine for games, but for just about anything else, it’s an outright insult to Mac UI sensibilities. Yes, yes, I know — there were ways for HyperCard programmers to keep the menu bar from vanishing. But in my experience, that was the default behavior when launching a stack, and the point is that it never should have happened at all.

Apple rightly decided to let HyperCard fade away (apparently by direct edict from The Man himself, Steve Jobs, back in the early days of his second turn at the helm in 1998). Most Mac users haven’t noticed, but ever since, there have been periodic clamorings for Apple to bring HyperCard back from the dead. (Of course, HyperCard isn’t really dead — Apple is still selling it. But it hasn’t seen an update in close to 10 years, which might as well be forever in this industry.)

This time, it’s a thread on MacInTouch. It can be summarized thusly:

  1. There are a bunch of actively-supported alternatives to HyperCard.
  2. None of which, however, are exactly the same as the real HyperCard.
  3. There exists a small number of vocal, annoying whiners who will never stop demanding that Apple rejuvenate HyperCard.

These HyperCard devotees are an easily insulted lot. The problem is that it doesn’t matter how good HyperCard was, how powerful, how easy, how intuitive. HyperCard’s demise is a done deal — it’s been four years since Apple announced there would be no future updates. Holding out hope that Apple will see the light and bring HyperCard back to life is like planning for the resurrection of 8-Track tapes.

It’s also worth noting that the only people clamoring for the return of HyperCard are HyperCard developers. Normal users don’t care, because normal users seldom used or liked HyperCard stacks. No one is denying that HyperCard was a visionary product. Its card-based metaphor was a direct influence on the page-based metaphor of the World Wide Web. But none of that changes the fact that HyperCard was a Macintosh developer tool that couldn’t generate real Macintosh software.

Side Note on REALbasic, and Recommendations Thereof

One product frequently mentioned as a HyperCard replacement is REALbasic, a product that Daring Fireball has used and recommended in the past. It is very interesting indeed that Matt Neuburg — who not only wrote the preeminent REALbasic book, but also wrote an article for O’Reilly’s MacDevCenter titled “REALbasic for HyperCard Users” — wrote to MacInTouch recommending not REALbasic, but instead another little thing from Apple called Cocoa.