I missed this when it first came out, but Tim Oren’s eulogy to HyperCard– which Apple quietly let expire recently– is very interesting. (So is this follow-up.)

I used HyperCard when I was in graduate school, creating stacks of notes on things I was reading for my orals. It was fun, and my first exposure to hypertext.

Today, of course, HyperCard looks like a precursor to the Web; but as Tim argues (and as Chris Espinosa once told me), one of the curious problems with HyperCard was that it was so many different things, it was hard for Apple to position it:

HyperCard always had a marketing problem of not being clearly about any one thing. Since it was initially packaged with every Mac shipped, it’s likely the majority of buyers used it as a quicky Rolodex, if anything. But HyperCard’s biggest win was a very low entry threshold for those who wanted to build their own ‘stacks’ – combinations of user interface, code, and persistent data. There were plenty of examples to suggest ideas, and all the code was open for tweaking. This did enable a burst of creativity by users, many of them educators and artists with no training in programming or database.

The proliferation of ideas created its own confusion. What was this thing? Programming and user interface design tool? Lightweight database and hypertext document management system? Multimedia authoring environment? Apple never answered that question.

When, I wonder, is the “problem of not being clearly about any one thing” really a problem, and when is it not? It seems to me that there are plenty of technologies that are pretty open and extensible, and thrive because of that: think of the Palm Pilot, or the Mac itself. But maybe the problem that HyperCard faced was that it didn’t seem to have a couple things it did really well, which got people hooked on the program and interested in exploring it further.

[To the tune of Ahn Trio, “Oblivion,” from the album Ahn-Plugged.]