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 double-edged sword

Here are some recent headlines about Twitter, culled from the technology site slashdot:

What strikes me most about this collection of stories is how difficult it is to run a journalistic enterprise. Twitter, like any company, is fundamentally in the business of making money for its employees and stockholders, but I’m sure the Twitter brain trust believe they have a somewhat higher calling. Twitter is justifiably proud of its role in the Arab Spring and other revolts against oppression, but the dividing line is often a blurry and uncertain one. Do you let Thailand censor tweets in exchange for allowing the Thai people to use Twitter? Do you give a user’s tweets—all of them—to the US government just because it asks for them? After all, the courts have ruled that Twitter users have no expectation of privacy, thus there is nothing to keep secret. Not all questions have a right or wrong answer.

Twenty-three centuries ago, Ecclesiastes wrote “There is nothing new under the sun” and “There is a time for war, and a time for peace.” If Ecclesiastes were alive today, he’d probably nod and say it again. The technology has changed, but the human condition has not. The challenge is how we use our double-edged technology.

“I’ve just made a deal that’ll keep the Empire out of here forever.”

Way, WAY back in the day, Cisco bought Linksys. Linksys was a hacker’s friend…you could root the box and install your own router on it with greater customization and security. Everybody was doing it, and it built a pretty big fan base.

Today I read this. In a nutshell, the newest Linksys routers came with an “auto-update” feature turned on, and the routers did just that.  They updated themselves, and then changed how users authenticate to the device by integrating it with their cloud service. Users revolted, much backpedaling ensued. But what’s really interesting is this paragraph that used to be part of the EULA (since removed):

When you use the Service, we may keep track of certain information related to your use of the Service, including but not limited to the status and health of your network and networked products; which apps relating to the Service you are using; which features you are using within the Service infrastructure; network traffic (e.g., megabytes per hour); Internet history; how frequently you encounter errors on the Service system and other related information (“Other Information”).

That’s some nasty stuff you are trying to doing there, Cisco. Consumers have come to expect this kind of stuff from ISPs (which is also shameful, IMO), but not necessarily from the companies that provide widgets. The thing about widget ownership is that we all feel that, when we buy it, it’s OURS. We have paid a distinct price set by you, Mr. Manufacturer, and now that we own it, we can do whatever we want with it. We know that we may be giving up on the warranty, but we usually don’t care. The usefulness of the device will always outlive any warranty that’s provided anyway. And if I want to hack my Cisco router and make a blender and pancake maker out of it as well, then I will do that. What we don’t like is when you, Mr. Manufacturer, try to extend your ownership past the point of sale. Yes, this happens alot. That doesn’t mean it’s right.

As Lord Vader put it: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

This is precisely why we need investigative journalism. As you recall, journalism is dying because of the Internet, the very medium over which I am publishing this plea. On the other hand, journalism must be alive otherwise we wouldn’t have heard about this Cisco EULA. But I’m willing to wager that the person who uncovered the EULA isn’t getting paid what a former investigative journalists got paid. The money thingie still hasn’t worked itself out.