HyperCard, Visual Basic, Real Basic, and Me

When the Mac first appeared it was a revelation. A computer with a powerful, consistent user-interface (with undo!) that allowed users to figure out most programs without ever reading a manual.

I can remember back in 1984 sitting outside the Hayden-Allen Tank (a cylindrical lecture theater on the ANU campus that tended to house the largest humanities classes and many featured speakers) playing with a Mac on display while Apple reps inside introduced the Mac to a packed house. (My friends and I figured we’d rather spend time with the computer than watch a pitch.)

How did undo work? It wasn’t immediately obvious.

When we quit an application or closed a document, how did the program know we had unsaved changes? We checked, if the document had no changes, or the changes were saved, the computer knew.

We were hardcore math and CS geeks but computers had never, in our experience, done these kinds of things before so it took us a while to reverse-engineer what was going on. It was very, fucking, impressive.

But it was also really hard to do with the tools of the time. Initially, you couldn’t write real Mac software on a Mac. At best, there was MacPascal, which couldn’t use the toolbox and couldn’t build standalone applications, and QuickBasic, which provided no GUI for creating a GUI, and produced really clunky results.

To write Mac programs you needed a Lisa, later a Mac XL (same hardware, different software). It took over a year for the Mac SDK to appear (via pirate copies), and it was an assembler that spanned multiple disks. Eventually we got Consulair-C and Inside Macintosh but, to give you an idea, the equivalent of “hello world” was a couple of pages of C or Pascal most of which was incomprehensible boilerplate. The entire toolbox relied heavily on function pointers, really an assembly-language concept, and in some cases programmers had to manually save register state.

No-one’s to blame for this — Xerox provided much cleaner APIs for its much more mature (but less capable) GUI and far better tooling — the cost was a computer that ran dog slow, no-one could afford, and which actually was functionally far inferior to the Mac.

The first really good tool for creating GUI programs was HyperCard. I can remember being dragged away from a computer lab at ADFA (where a friend was teaching a course on C) which had been stocked with new Mac SEs running HyperCard.

For all its many flaws and limitations, HyperCard was easy to use, fast, stable, and forgiving (it was almost impossible to lose your work or data, and it rarely crashed in an era when everything crashed all the time). Its programming language introduced a yet-to-be-equalled combination of being easy to read, easy to write, and easy to debug (AppleScript, which followed it, was horribly inferior). When HyperCard 2 brought a really good debugger (but sadly no color) and a plugin architecture, things looked pretty good. But then, as Apple was wont to do in those days, Apple’s attention wandered and HyperCard languished. (Paul Allen’s clone of HyperCard, Toolbook for Windows, was superb but it was a Windows product so I didn’t care.)

Eventually I found myself being forced to learn Visual Basic 3, which, despite its many flaws, was also revolutionary in that it took HyperCard’s ease of use and added the ability to create native look and feel (and native APIs if you knew what you were doing, which I did not). With Visual Basic 3 you could essentially do anything any Windows application could do, only slower. (HyperCard was notably faster than VB, despite both being interpreted languages, owing to early work on JIT compilers.)

After using VB for a year or two, I told my good friend (and a great programmer) Andrew Barry that what the Mac really needed was its own VB. The result was Realbasic (now Xojo) of which I was the first user (and for a long time I ran a website, realgurus.com, that provided the best source of support for Realbasic programmers). Realbasic was far more than a VB for the Mac since it was truly and deeply Object-Oriented and also cross-platform. I could turn an idea into a desktop application with native look and feel (on the Mac at least) in an evening.

When MP3 players started proliferating on Windows, I wrote an MP3 player called QuickMP3 in a couple of hours after a dinner conversation about the lousy state of MP3 players on the Mac. By the next morning I had a product with a website on the market (I distributed it as shareware; registration was $5 through Kagi — RIP — which was the lowest price that made sense at the time, I think Kagi took about $1.50 of each sale, and I had to deal with occasional cash and checks in random currencies).

Over the years, I wrote dozens of useful programs using Realbasic, and a few commercially successful ones (e.g. Media Mover 3,  and RiddleMeThis) and an in-house tool that made hundreds of thousands of dollars (over the course of several years) with a few days’ effort.

Today, I find Xojo (which Realbasic rebranded itself to) to have become bloated, unstable, and expensive, and Xojo has never captured native look and feel in the post-Carbon world on the Mac, and anything that looks OK on Windows looks like crap on the Mac and vice versa, which undercuts its benefits as a cross-platform application. Also, my career has made me an expert on Javascript and web development.

So my weapon of choice these days for desktop development became nwjs and Electron. While web-apps don’t have desktop look and feel (even if you go to extremes with frameworks like Sproutcore or Cappuccino), neither do many desktop apps (including most of Microsoft’s built-in apps in Windows 10). Many successful commercial apps either are web apps (e.g. Slack) or might as well be (e.g. Lightroom).

I mention all of this right now because it closes the loop with my work on bindinator — anything that makes web application development faster and better thus helps desktop application development. I think it also clarifies my design goals with bindinator: I feel that in many ways ease of development peaked with Realbasic, and bindinator is an attempt to recreate that ease of development while adding wrinkles such as automatic binding and literate programming that make life easier and better.