The little program that foreshadowed the Web

On 10 August 1987—twenty-five years ago yesterday—Apple Computer unveiled a revolutionary new program called HyperCard. Tonight the Hillside Club in Berkeley hosted a 25th anniversary celebration of HyperCard, with BMUG co-founder Raines Cohen interviewing Bill Atkinson with a large crowd of grizzled computer geeks in attendance.

Soon after HyperCard’s Boston debut, developer Bill Atkinson demonstrated his new program to the Berkeley Macintosh User’s Group. At its peak, BMUG was the largest user group in the country with over 13,000 members, and gave away book-sized “newsletters” each year stuffed with free software. I was in the BMUG audience that night, inside the Physical Sciences Lecture Hall (now Pimentel Hall) on the UC Berkeley campus—the same cavernous room where I had taken chemistry from Dr George Pimentel a decade before. The image that sticks in my head was Bill displaying a picture of a fish and clicking on the fish’s eye, which immediately jumped to other eyes on other pictures.

Atkinson was already famous among Macintosh afficionados, as he had written both QuickDraw and MacPaint for the original Apple Macintosh in 1983. One might say that HyperCard version zero of the World Wide Web: a program whose raison d’etre was creating links between various elements in a database. Tim Berners-Lee drew upon this concept when he invented HTTP, and computing has never looked back.

My personal favorite stepchild of HyperCard was the game Myst. I’m not a gamer, but I was captivated by the evocative landscapes, steampunk and spaceships, all with a fantastic soundtrack. Atkinson’s own favorite stepchild was his iOS app PhotoCard, an attempt to save the postcard from extinction by offering a postcard delivery service. Bill is a talented nature photographer and edits many of PhotoCard’s images himself.

The Anatomy of Tech Fandom

This has been ruminating inside my head for a while, so I thought I’d post about it. That’s what this is for, right?

I am not the first to write about this, nor will I be the last. And it isn’t just tech, but fandom at large. However, this is prevalent inside of the tech industry, both on the consumer and business level.

What we are talking about here is…why? Why do we choose sides? Why do we align ourselves with companies and their products? What are the triggers?

It’s obvious that companies want to produce fans. With fans, you can withstand bad product cycles, because fans forgive. With fans, you can build hype around releases, because fans will buy and will influence their circles to buy as well. But why do we take part in this? Are we really doing ourselves any favors by being fans?

Case in point: The Apple iPhone 4s. What about this phone makes it worth the price of admission? Especially when you consider the technology you likely already had, which is the iPhone 4. It did not have what everyone really wanted in their new iPhone which was support for faster data (there is no 4G yet. It’s marketing. 4G will be MUCH faster than what we have now, but i’ll take 4G “lite” over 3G any day of the week, and twice on Sunday). It did have a dual core processor that no one cares about, and a slightly better crappy camera (there are no good mobile phone cameras. the sensors are too small. SIZE MATTERS). But I saw all the people line up to buy it, as did you. I saw and read the hype, as did you. The EXPECTATION was that this would finally catch up, speed-wise, to other phones on the market. The community expressed disappointment, surely, but they still bought the stupid thing. Because they are fans. And Apple KNEW they would buy it. And every other gadget/tech company in the consumer space is desperately trying to figure out how to build the same kind of fandom.

Look, I’m a fan of things too, so I’m not the dispassionate observer that you think I am making myself out to be. I’m just trying to figure this thing out myself.

Apple isn’t the only company with fans. Some companies have fans of only one product (Microsoft XBox) and some companies have fans only among IT sectors (Cisco).

So, back to the “why.” I think there are two main driving factors that build product/company fandom, and I think they work in tandem (see what I did there?). First is the positive personal experience. Every fan, at the very beginning, took a flyer on the product. They hadn’t experienced it before and they felt that they needed to. So, there is an initial risk, a very personal one. This is an exposure of vulnerability in order to fulfill a desire (that we often classify as need). This is non-trivial because it almost always involves more than just financial outlay. With phones, there are usually contractual obligations that tie us in for an extended time. Another risk is that, by choosing one, we automatically eliminate the alternatives. If that risk gets rewarded positively, then it triggers an association. We associate the positive personal experience directly to the company/product that provided the tech we chose. And companies LOVE it when this happens.

The second factor is community influence. This is made up of the fan’s relationships with other people (or advertising) that influence their decision. More on this later.

The May 14th issue of the New Yorker profiles Clayton Christensen, author of the 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma. Christensen sought to discover why large successful businesses could go from successful to bankrupt so quickly. I won’t retell the story here; please read the article. But there are clear parallels to what’s happened with the iPhone.

The revolution began with the iPod and, more subtly, with iTunes. The iPhone was just a big iPod with a phone and camera slapped on. It wasn’t very good phone service, and it was a lousy camera—but the point is, it was good enough, so people used it anyway. In particular, young people used it anyway, and with fandom it’s young people that matter. Low-end digital cameras have been in trouble for some time because of camera phones: sure real cameras are better, but it doesn’t matter because camera phones are good enough for what most people want (this is one of Christensen’s main points).

I’m one of those who went from a iPhone 3GS to an iPhone 4G. Why? Because my wife and I wanted to switch from AT&T to Verizon. Arlene is a realtor, and she spends all day on the phone; she needed better phone service. I’ve always been a Macintosh enthusiast (I’ve owned one since the very beginning, in 1984) but I’ve never stood in line for anything when it first came out. Not sure whether that makes me a fan.

Why Would Doves Cry? Who Wears Damask Clothing? Woodrow Wilson Doesn’t Capitulate?

I know. Best I can do under current conditions.

So, we’ve all been digesting the “news” that came out of the WWDC that started on Monday. In case you were wondering, I’m kind of the opposite of an Apple fanboy. Not going to get into it deeply today (I have already talked about some of it here), but I did want to talk about this.

One of the more interesting bits I’ve read came from this article at Business Insider. It doesn’t really talk about the tech, but more about the attitude at Apple. In a nutshell, Apple is still acting like the plucky young upstart trying to establish space. They aren’t that company anymore, but their language still sounds like the kind of competitive smack-talk that an aggressive start-up would use. Mr. Blodget (if he dropped the “d,” he’d have the near perfect name for the type of work he is doing) makes the point that it isn’t funny anymore…it’s classless. One of the things he brings out is the comparison to Microsoft back in the day, and how the FTC and EU ultimately responded to their arrogance.

I think that’s something Apple needs to be concerned about. You see, they are releasing bundled features (Maps, Ticketing, etc.) that compete with applications that already exist in the app store. So, you’re a developer that makes this cool little app, you run through the gauntlet that gets you inside the walled garden, and now you are reaping the rewards for your hard work, providing service and features that your users want. Then Apple comes along and does essentially the same thing. What do you do?  Because, since it is a walled garden, Apple reserves the right to completely remove your app without notice or recourse. And I’m gonna bet that this will happen. When it does, what is the government response going to be?And I also believe that Apple’s risk is much higher overseas than it is here in the US. Just having the bundled app may be enough for the EU to take action.