Last week on my Mac: who remembers HyperCard, and a ban on encryption?

Unless you used a Mac more than fifteen years ago, the name HyperCard may mean little to you. But this year it has been exhumed and brought the occasional tear to some ageing eyes.

This was all sparked off by Tim Cook’s announcement at WWDC of Swift Playgrounds for the iPad, and comparisons being drawn between that and the venerable HyperCard. One of the most interesting and significant of these discussions has been that of Adam Banks on Ars Technica. As he explains, HyperCard was actually several different things, none of which was anything like Swift Playgrounds. This inevitably brought me to reflect on HyperCard’s strengths, and how much better off we are today.

As a hypertext authoring environment, HyperCard was crude by comparison with Storyspace, which coincidentally was developed at around the same time. HyperCard was first released in 1987 (and had all but died by 2000); Storyspace was created during the mid-1980s, and first presented in October 1987. Unlike HyperCard, Storyspace has gone from strength to strength since then: I have several tutorial articles which show its ease of use and remarkable power, indexed here.

HyperCard’s programming language, HyperTalk, was in some respects a precursor to AppleScript, which was released in 1993. In its day, HyperTalk was cool, but it was also very limited and limiting, and AppleScript is a great improvement which now gives access to all the sophisticated features of macOS. Like AppleScript, HyperTalk was extended using external modules, and it was those which provided much of its limited power.

These modules were also a boon to malware, and sure enough, HyperCard grew its own viruses and other malware, long before there were serious attempts to discover vulnerabilities in HyperCard itself. In today’s threat landscape, HyperCard would quickly become dead meat, I’m afraid.

HyperCard was also a simple database, whose features regularly tempted its stacks to go further than they should. Thankfully we can now use FileMaker Pro, which is far more capable and robust, yet still remarkably easy for the development of full-featured databases.

This is not to say that HyperCard wasn’t revolutionary in its day, and a work of true genius (with the assistance of psychoactive drugs, too, it would seem). It was also free, until Apple hived it off into its software subsidiary Claris. It was around that time that it started to fall behind, never gaining the colour and media support which it so desperately needed. Like so many brilliant Apple products before and since, it was left to wither on the vine. Commercial competitors, such as SuperCard, came but could never really replace it, so when it was finally killed in 2004, few mourned its passing. And for some strange reason, even though my iMac could never run it, I still keep a copy to hand.

Lost in encryption

In amongst the huge political upheavals which have been occurring in the UK over the last month, it has been easy to lose track of the Investigatory Powers Bill. Now that its original sponsor, Theresa May, has been promoted from Home Secretary to Prime Minister, it looks certain that its staggeringly repressive measures will come into force by the end of the year.

Some small improvements have been made during its committee stage in the House of Commons, including an element of judicial supervision over powers which had previously been vested solely in the Home Secretary, but these have not come close to addressing the deep flaws which Apple and many others have already highlighted. Last week, as the bill neared the end of its time in the House of Lords, government representatives have once again shown themselves woefully ignorant of the issues at stake, as reported by The Register.

The gist of the government’s position is that it will require everyone involved in any way in electronic communications to be able to decrypt any and all of the traffic which they pass or enable. They are careful to claim that this does not mean that they will seek to ban any kind of encryption, just that they will expect service providers to build in backdoors, or do whatever else may be necessary to allow law enforcement and security agencies to snoop on everything that they wish.

This reveals that, although the government may have read Apple’s submissions and those of several hundred others, they are so profoundly disinformed that they have not understood what they have been told plainly. They may as well pass a bill demanding that they have absolute control over the tides or weather.

Theresa May’s government should heed the warnings that it has been given. One small and rapidly shrinking economy, already isolated from the much larger market of the EU, is not likely to fare well in battle against Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo.