Originally published in the Wall Street Journal on November 16, 1987, Section 2, Page 27.
Last August, Apple Computer Inc. introduced a computer program called HyperCard for its popular Macintosh computer that was so unusual even the company's usually glib publicity machine admitted having trouble describing it.
Undaunted, John Sculley, Apple's chairman and chief executive, confidently predicted then that within a year, HyperCard - a program that makes it so easy for computer users to organize and sort through huge amounts of information - would spawn a new genre of software.
"In many ways, HyperCard is just as important as the personal computer itself," Mr. Sculley gushed. To help HyperCard and his bullish prediction along, he pledged to give away the program with each new Macintosh, and to sell it to current owners for less than $50.
Now, the Cupertino, Calf.-based computer company still has a hard time describing and explaining HyperCard. But while Mr. Sculley's prediction hasn't yet come true, the program is a major development in the industry, changing the way information is organized and used.
Computer enthusiasts are already exchanging and selling hundreds of "stacks" - programs designed to tap HyperCard's ability to instantly search through and link vast volumes of information. A bimonthly magazine called HyperLink will debut with its January issue, and a $29.95 book called "The Complete HyperCard Handbook" has sold more than 100,000 copies.
"I was skeptical at first that a single program could have such a ripple effect, even if Apple gave it away." says Stewart Alsop, publisher of PC Letter. "But if that many stacks are already out there, and that many people are buying an expensive programming handbook, then Apple, for once, may not be guilty of over-hyping" in its promotion of HyperCard.
What makes HyperCard so engaging and useful, ans so difficult to explain, is its ability to do so many things. It's partly a word processor, a data base, a graphics system, and a calculator, among other functions. But its most unique and important feature is its ability to link different kinds of information - whether it's pictures, words or even music - so that a user can follow his own interests when browsing through electronically stored information.
For example, a professor at Stanford University Medical School, who has never programmed a computer before, is putting together a stack that shows various anatomical structures. A student using the stack can choose which part of the body or organ he wants to study simply by pointing a cursor at the general area of the body displayed on the screen. HyperCard then will find the appropriate picture and description and go into as much detail as the student wishes to view, right down to the activities in individual cells.
Before HyperCard, only a very skilled programmer starting from scratch would have been able to write a similar program for a personal computer, and it's doubtful one would have even been written. Moreover, the students would have to read through several sources, jumping back and forth as they pursued different types of information in order to gain access to the same information the professor's stack will allow them to find in one place.
To visualize HyperCard, imagine a person reading a book. Normally, there are two ways to find something: flipping through the book page by page, or scanning the index to find the subject and then turning to that section. With HyperCard, it's as if the person reading the book could find desired information simply by turning to the next page. And if that stimulates yet another idea, that information could be on the following page, and so on.
"What most people need from their computers now isn't another application, but interactive information, " says Bill Atkinson, an Apple computer scientist who created HyperCard. "Word-processing creates a document that just sits there, but HyperCard introduces more interaction."
One of the first commercial stacks, Activision Inc.'s "Business Class," is a HyperCard stack that provides currency, climate, local customs and other travel information for most countries of the world. The user simply points at a country on a map on the screen to get the information. Another example: The Los Gatos, Calf., library uses a Macintosh fitted with HyperCard to help borrowers find their way through the bookstacks by flashing maps that detail areas in the building.
Using HyperCard, information is placed on a "card," which is the space defined by the Macintosh computer screen. The cards re then arranged into stacks, which are grouped by whatever common characteristics the user chooses. For example, a user could create a stack detailing a record collection, with each card describing an album. So far, the most common cards look like other familiar information sources, such as address books and recipe cards.
The idea of using linked cards and stacks isn't entirely new or unique to Apple. It springs from a concept called "hypertext," developed at Stanford in the 1960's as a format to allow more creative ways to group information. But until personal computers became fast and powerful enough, hypertext as a popular medium for information was just a pipe dream.
Now, however, Apple and several other companies are out to make hypertext as common as financial data bases. Lotus Development Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., recently unveiled Agenda, a $395 program for International Business Machines Corp. PCs and compatible machines to help people handle and organize personal information much like a financial spreadsheet can correlate numbers. Owl International Inc. of Bellevue, Wash., sells a program called Guide for both Macintosh and IBM compatible computers that enables users to build hypertext files. And Affinity Inc. of Boulder, Colo. makes a program for the Macintosh called Affinifile that automatically connects related documents by scanning them for content.
None of them go as far as HyperCard, however, with its built-in programming language called HyperTalk. This is what provides users with the flexibility to create or customize their own programs.
Apple's Mr. Atkinson, decrying what he calls the "professional programming priesthood" that seems intent on keeping programming an arcane science beyond most computer user's grasp, believes HyperCard will help make it less cryptic. "I don't say that HyperCard is the humane answer to programming a computer, but it's a step," he says.
It may not be a step everyone will take, however. While Mr. Alsop, the newsletter publisher, is enthusiastic about HyperCard, he isn't convinced many "average Joes" will become programmers. "I really doubt if most people will do more than change the appearance of a card or maybe add a new link between stacks," he says.
Moreover, HyperCard has some drawbacks. For one thing, it uses so much of a Macintosh's memory that it doesn't leave much room for operating another program at the same time. And the size of cards are limited to the Macintosh's tiny, nine-inch screen - one screen, one card.
Even so, computer hobbyists have taken to HyperCard's programming language. Ray T Heizer, president of Heizer Software, says the mail-order distributor of no-frills software will list 100 HyperCard stacks in its next catalog. "It's phenomenal," he says. "We must be getting two or three new stacks submitted each day."