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The Role of Hypercard in Today's World

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Mark Guzdial

Georgia Institute of Technology professor Mark Guzdial

I loved HyperCard, the end-user programming environment that came free with every Apple Macintosh from 1987 through 1998.  My dissertation work focused on high school students who learned physics by building simulations in HyperCard.  I have heard that Apple estimated that one out of every three Macintosh users built something in HyperCard, which suggests that over a million people tried programming in HyperCard in pre-Web days.

HyperCard was quirky and weird.  There were objects (like buttons and text fields) and inheritance, but you couldn't define new classes so it wasn't really object-oriented.  Hypertalk, the programming language within HyperCard, was wordy and unusual.  Valid statements included put zero into counter and add one to counter and repeat for each word x in field 1...end repeat  and if field "name" begins with "Mr." then...end if.

HyperCard never really went away.  Commercial spin-offs of HyperCard for different operating systems have continued, still featuring HyperCard's odd object structure and unusual HyperTalk language. Probably the most successful of these is LiveCode. After a Kickstarter campaign, LiveCode has just released an open-source version which runs on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux and can produce iOS and Android apps.  HyperCard runs again, on modern machines.  

So what do we do with it?  We live in a Web 2.0 world, where we have an Internet of Things and many of those things are programmmable. Does HyperCard and HyperTalk still have a place?

The CEO of Livecode, Kevin Miller argues in his blog post "Six Reasons Why Computer Science Education is Failing Students" that LiveCode fills in the gap between graphical programming languages and traditional textual languages.  Primary and secondary school omputer science education around the world is dominated by tools like Scratch and Alice.  Professional programming languages (like Java, C++, and JavaScript) are textual and use more powerful computational mechanisms.  LiveCode (and tools like it) could fill in the gap, as a readable and English-like textual language to access more powerful computation.

I suspect that the real challenge that Hypercard faces in today's world is a perception that it's not solving an important problem.  It's a long-standing challenge. In an insightful 1985 article in Annals of the History of Computing, Ben Shneiderman asked about "The Relationship between COBOL and Computer Science."  Why didn't academic computer scientists take COBOL seriously?  Shneiderman write, "I suspect this prejudice [against COBOL] emerges from the bias of many computer scientists against the problem domain and the wordy, nonmathematical style of COBOL, rather than from any serious consideration of the technical weaknesses."  COBOL aimed to make business data processing more accessible to a broader range of people.  That wasn't an important goal to those Shneiderman interviewed.  The critiques of COBOL that Shneiderman quotes could just as easily have been about HyperTalk: "folly of an English-looking language."

We can still see a pushback against making programming more accessible.  A May 2012 blog post that was quoted widely begs, "Please Don't Learn to Code." Several comments to my blog post in response talked about the terrible code that novices write, and how they make more problems for professional programmers. Computer users are still seen mostly as consumers, and not creators of code.

I find the critique of COBOL's "English-looking language" and the many references I found on HyperTalk's "wordiness" fascinating because our empirical evidence says that the wordiness works.  Wordy languages are better for novices and experts alike.  Thomas Green and his colleagues found in 1977 (Sime, Arblaster, & Green) that conditionals in the form "if P; do A; not P; do B; end P" are easier for novices and experts to use, and novices corrected mistakes in their programs ten times faster with the wordy versions than the traditional "if P then do A else do B."  Research on how non-programmers specified tasks found that specifying iteration like repeat for each word x is much easier and more natural for novices.

In the most recent Communications of the ACM, I have an article about our Human-Centered Computing PhD here at Georgia Tech.  I argue that our modern computing environment is "Licklider's World." It's the world that J.C.R. Licklider's vision created.  Notably, Licklider was not a mathematician nor an electrical engineer.  Most of his degrees were in psychology.

COBOL was ahead of the game, in thinking about the end-user first, and it was rejected by academic computer science.  The challenge for LiveCode and other successors to HyperCard is to face the same prejuidice that Shneiderman described.  We may not recognize the features of programming languages that work to make programming more accessible, because they are not necessarily the features that professional or academic computer scientists most value.  We need to draw on Licklider's psychology and empirical evidence, because end-user programmers and secondary school computing students are not like those who use professional languages.  If we want to make programming accessible to them, we have to study them, not use introspection or design for ourselves.



Yes! And in a roundabout way I think you've gotten to the core of my whole relationship to code and semantics and power and education.

I learned in the era of basic and cobol. I got a Mac *for* hypercard. I used to go do workshops in junior high schools showing kids how to make stuff with Hypercard - so my whole bias toward people learning code was really forged in this in-between space between C (which I could never really do) and Logos (which I could never really get into because it was a closed world).

But the learning of the wordy computer languages is what gave me the perspective on programming as a *liberal art* that I'm finding so valuable as I think and evaluate tools and platforms.

-- Douglas Rushkoff (can't get account link to work)

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Mark Guzdial

I strongly agree about HyperCard and "wordy languages" being a path into computing for students from a liberal arts perspective. I wonder if that's part of the prejudice that Shneiderman described.

At Georgia Tech, we had a visiting speaker describe computer science as "part of the liberal arts," and my Dean at the time rejected that perspective. "I chose science, mathematics, and engineering my whole life. I did NOT choose liberal arts, on purpose. Now you're going to take away my field and give it to liberal arts?" Maybe part of the resistance to "wordy languages" is exactly that it lacks the spare aesthetics of mathematical notation, that it *looks* like a liberal arts language -- and some people will resist it explicitly because of that.

Alexander Repenning


about "Primary and secondary school omputer science education around the world is dominated by tools like Scratch and Alice. " I cannot speak about secondary schools as the focus of our Scalable Game Design project is almost 100% on middle schools but in our study with over 10,000 students all over the USA we have practically not found any programming in middle schools. As researchers going to SIGCSE and similar conferences we get to see the occasional presentation showing happy middle schools kids engaging in programming and getting a distorted sense that indeed there is programming in middle school but it just isn't.

best, Alex

Prof. Alexander Repenning

University of Colorado
Computer Science Department
Boulder, CO 80309-430

Mark Guzdial

Hi Alex,
There is very little programming in middle school in the United States, agreed. We know that there is some in Georgia because of our "Georgia Computes!" project. But from reports from Israel and the UK (in particular, through the Computing at Schools project), it's clear that there is some programming in middle school, and most of those reports are about Scratch. The recent blog post about computing in Vietnam from Neil Fraser (see describes use of Logo in grades 4 and 5.

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