Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hypercard, Hyperstudio, and why Revolution Can't, or Won't, Compete

It's an interesting component of modern culture that views anything that didn't hatch yesterday as completely obsolete, foreign, and useless for study. This regrettably leads us to recreate the wheel over and over again, and sometimes what results is simply NOT superior to that which preceded it in ways we should have seen coming but didn't because we decided it was uncool to look back in time.

Thus is is with the the Hyper-word that must not be uttered. If all you can look back and see are 1-bit icons and the floppy-swap and are willing to dismiss it at that, then you never really did ever "get it." And, btw, those 1-bit icons were and still are vastly superior to the load of 256-color icon crap that shipped with MetaCard and is shipping still with Rev. You think the Stack - Card metaphor is an embarrassment? Have any of you even LOOKED AT those MC icons?!? They look like they were drawn by 5-year-olds on a few too many acid drops. And, btw, we're talking 5-year-olds with ZERO artistic talent. On acid.

But I digress. When reminded that, at its height, the Hyper-thing was quite possibly THE most popular development environment (Can Rev say that now?) and attracted probably the greatest numbers of non-/novice programmers than any development environment before or since (does anyone even come close btw?), people's responses are: 'but where are they now?', or, 'oh, but those were the days of the floppy-swap,' or the subtly-deceptive argument-changing dismissal that such is the realm of the geriatric set that's clearly not with the program (pardon the pun).

The point that lots of people are blissful to ignore is that Hypercard (there, I've said it!) got lots of things right that, 20 years later, nearly everybody else, including Rev, insists on getting wrong by design (except for a certain competitor whose product sells extremely well). Hypercard succeeded wildly in getting people -- normal humans even! -- to use their *programming* product in a very short period of time. While other people wonder, 'where are those people now?', I wonder, 'how the hell did they do that?!'

And that's why HC is not irrelevant: how the hell did they do that, indeed! We like to think that todays user is so much more computer sophisticated than was the typical user 20+ years ago, a bit of back-patting that study after study indicates is simply dead wrong. We may have more computers in more homes and more schools but, other than surfing the web and sitting on Facebook all day, today's computer owner doesn't use his/her computer for anything markedly more complex or different than did the typical user of 20+ years ago. So, the idea that we need to explain things less because "they" know more? Fail.

20+ years ago the HC team understood that they had to make programming look fun and attractive, with a gentle learning curve and lots of ready-made things to copy <--> paste into new stacks, replete with clipart so that the user didn't get distracted when going off and ending up chasing the pretty butterfly while looking for artwork.

Today many consider such things to be coddling, and new Rev users with questions are tersely told to go read the documentation. I'll say it again: without a printed set of language documentation (WITH AN INDEX), online docs are of EXTREMELY LIMITED VALUE because you can't look up what you don't know to look up. The language model is sufficiently different from other programming languages that even programmers coming from other languages find using the documentation difficult, and people who lack a programming background altogether are likely to find the docs entirely unusable. Which means they drift away, because there's no substantial explanation of how to do things that anchors them. Buh-bye, new user. By design. Because we think they need to grow more hair on their chests and suck it up and become "real" programmers.

Trevor's lessons stuff is a HUGE step in the right direction, but consider this: you have to (a) know they exist to (b) go find them (no small feat, given how wildly Rev's website changes with each new rebranding) and then (c) search them, at which point you've likely lost considerably more than 50% of those new users. Considerably more. Do I need say it again? CONSIDERABLY MORE, like, nearly all of them. The HC dev team knew to have stuff up-front and visible, always and obviously accessible. They even recognized this importance after the development of that new-fangled internet thingy that people keep telling me about (I think I need to go swig a bottle of Geritol before I can grok that whole thing).

So, it would seem that there's a few things we can learn from 20+ years ago -- Don't intimidate people and make them feel stupid; DO give them a small subset of all the things they need to get started without leaving the IDE; DO provide a printed set of language and learning materials; make all this stuff obvious and visible; and speak to them in their, not your, language.

Think I'm going overboard a bit with the clipart & stuff? How many teachers do you think choose Hyperstudio ( at US$90 over Rev Media, which is FREE? Seems insane, doesn't it?! Visit their website and you'll see why they pick Hyperstudio. In droves. Look at the screenshot: Hyperstudio's not too embarrassed by the blast from the past of using a hand versus an arrow to indicate one particular state or modality over the other, because Hyperstudio knows that you don't use two very similar-looking icons to indicate two very different states. And Hyperstudio knows it because HC knew it. And because Hyperstudio has decided not to be embarrassed by yesterday's truth, they sell way more licenses to normal humans than does Rev, even though I think educators would be better off using Rev.

Hyperstudio also boasts podcasting support, importing from iTunes, Keynote, and YouTube, easy card navigation in its production environment, and text niceties such as kerning (how long have people been drooling for that in Rev?!). Like Rev, it has a plugin allowing Hyperstudio projects to be run in Safari. But, more significantly, it includes 1,300 clipart images, 500 background images, 200 animations, 280 sounds, and 30 movies, including QTVR; it imports PDF, PNG, JPG, TIFF, GIF, BMP, PICT & PSD for images, and MP3, AAC, WAV (I'll bet it's wayyyy less wonky than Rev is with WAV files), AIFF, M4A, M4B, M4P, SND, CDDA & AU for audio, and MOV, AVI, MPEG and QTVR for movie/video. Now I'm not claiming that Rev needs to match them, number for number, on included media, but it really does need to not be a string of 0s in all those categories if Rev wishes to compete in the educational market. Hyperstudio was smart: It looked at what worked for Hypercard and then did that in spades. It wasn't too cool to look back in time. And it shows because it sells.

And, another reason why educators take to Hyperstudio in droves? It has something else that Hypercard had and Rev sadly does not: a passionate former and current userbase with an emotional connection to the product and the willingness to be unpaid evangelists for the company and the product. And this is a company/product that really doesn't badly need such a thing, having few to no real competitors, unlike Rev, which is up against a bazillion other programming languages, most of which have been around longer and have significantly more adherents. And, as its wiki entry notes, Hyperstudio and its users aren't too proud to acknowledge Hyperstudio as a Hypercard clone. Indeed, on the webpages of Hyperstudio fans you will find frequent mention of Hypercard, and not in a negative manner either. Oh, and did I mention that Hyperstudio is wildly popular? Hmmm.... wonder why.

Higher education, teacher ed programs, and K-12 in general *lurves* Hyperstudio:
--this site has an example of menus that make sense to educators.
--this site explains in copious detail why the edu community likes Hyperstudio.

Check out the testimonials and endorsements, and, ask yourself what does Hyperstudio do for $90 that Rev Media, for free, couldn't do better, and then consider why it is Rev currently cannot compete in that market, despite everything we've been able to observe about such software and the success of similar products over the last 20 years.

But, of course, few here care about the education market, so let me appeal to your base, my-bottom-line instincts: how many of your bugs might get fixed with the additional income brought in by hundreds of thousands of teachers buying a slightly modified Studio, based upon what went right with Hypercard?

Is it really worth it to diss Hypercard and its model? I think not.


Mark said...

Great article. I fully agree that HyperStudio is a very attractive product and might be considered a HyperCard descendant, together with SuperCard.

Revolution's predecessor Metacard was never meant to be like HyperCard, though. Metacard was an alternative for unix geeks who wanted an easy and quick programming tool with all the geekiness. HyperCard users had no need for geekiness, simply because they were no geeks (and no unix users).

You write: "You have to (a) know they exist to (b) go find them (no small feat, given how wildly Rev's website changes with each new rebranding) and then (c) search them, at which point you've likely lost considerably more than 50% of those new users. Considerably more."

I would like to add that (d) you need to know what you're looking for! I see increasingly often new RunRev users asking the question "how to I get 'hello world' from new box" whereas they actually mean to ask: "how do I put the text of the last field into a variable"? Likewise people look for "picture" in the dictionary while they need to search for "image" or "graphic". In the HyperCard reference stack, this problem simply didn't exist. How is this with HyperStudio?

If RunRev made a tool that could be used to just make cool programmes, without having to worry about a wacky interface, platform specific issues, half-baked features (e.g. QuickTime, unicode, tables/datagrid, binary calculation, XML import, graphics import... oops that's almost everything), if RunRev users didn't need to find out how it works but could expect RunRev to just work, then I'm sure it would be a [any competitor's RAD tool here] killer.

Thanks for your great post.

George C said...

Very good and apropos article, Judy. As an aside, 'way back when, I wrote an Apple II program called HyperScreen, published and poorly marketed by Scholastic, about the time HyperStudio first appeared. It had lots of sounds, clipart, etc. which Scholastic decided to sell as extras rather than include. Anyway, I particularly agree with your comments on the new user experience and the almost complete lack of a graded, friendly, readily-found tutorial approach to using Rev, not to mention the lack of actually useful stacks one could adapt to educational purposes out of the box. The key is, of course, that Rev is convinced of what a recent improve-revolution list member said: you can't make money in education. I admit, it's hard to do, but I made a living at it. Instead, Rev wants to be a 'rapid development' tool for sophisticated programmers, who will use it to do all sorts of work for clients in database management or reporting or communications etc. That is actually a much smaller market than that of savvy teachers who want to make a quick stack in support of their current curriculum, or a set of tools specific to the needs of their students. But I don't think this attitude is likely to change. And the Rev folk have other, very serious things to think about these days.
--George Brackett

SteveM said...

From what I know about RunRev, this is a spot on essay.

I'm program in VBA, but I'm not a programmer. I was told about RunRev, decided to evaluate it as a possible replacement UI for MS Office apps.

But the RunRev tutorial documentation floating around pretty much stinks. I just want simple compact instruction for telling me how I can do arithmetic on fields, available math and logic functions, connecting to external data sources, etc.

Tutorials that notionally address those topics but in complex applications are meaningless because they are too dense.

So yeah, you're right. I'm a pretty smart guy, but that experiential barrier to entry is driving me away.

Daniel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel said...

I looked for a HyperCard clone for a long time. I'm happy to be able to say that I have found HyperStudio. It's easy to use. It can just about do anything. And I have become a part of a close-knit community of like-minded people. Stick with Rev, or whatever it is you enjoy. Some people like doing things the hard way. I don't; but that's just my personal preference. Talk at ya' later.

marksch said...

Some people like to do it the hard way... Daniel, you make it sound like all those tools, HyperCard, HyperStudio, MetaCard, SuperCard and Revolution/LiveCode serve exactly the same purpose. I just can't imagine writing a compression tool for multiple formats, a Color conversion utility with complex algorithms, or even a web server with HyperStudio. Similarly, I don't think it makes sense to put q lot of effort into making a neat presentation in LiveCode. I'd rather not say that one tool is generally better than another. It is all about finding the right tool for each different job.

Daniel said...

Actually, I couldn't agree more. Perhaps I should have elaborated a bit more on what I was referring to. I meant to convey that HyperStudio is great for beginners because it isn't intimidating and therefore much easier for the layman to get an introduction to programming. At the same time, it has a number of uses that make it an all purpose application for the average computer user, much like duct tape is for the backyard mechanic. I, myself, enjoy the challenge of making it do things that it isn't supposed to be able to do like math functions, communicating across stacks, and building databases; but I also have A.D.D. and find it difficult to focus enough to write and learn code. In the end, it's got to be the most useful program for making interactive projects that I have ever come across. I hope that clears up any miscommunication that may have happened earlier.

Daniel said...

I'd like to leave one more note. I just noticed that the price for the software has been dropped for a little while to 49 dollars.

Please read:

If you are a beginner to programming and you end up taking my advice about HyperStudio, then take this advice as well. Buy rev at 49 dollars while you can. Don't worry about being able to work it right off the bat. Programming is fun and you will eventually wish you had something like this to play with. Save yourself the 200 dollars and get it now. I know I will be. Oh, and happy programming. :)

marksch said...

Where did you read about that price drop Daniel?

Daniel said...

Uh oh. I followtoed a link to what I thought was the home page. Have I mentioned that I have A.D.D., 'cause if not, this would be a good time to do so. :) my bad...