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Looking Back to the Future of Multimedia

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Looking Back to the Future of Multimedia

By Michael Cohen, author of the Multimedia chapter of The Macintosh Bible, 8th Edition

I wrote the Multimedia chapter in The Macintosh Bible, 8th Edition. The irony is, I really like text. Well, actually, what I really like is books. Which leads me to the long-standing connection between the two media...

Almost ten years ago, I worked at the now defunct but then coolest multimedia company in the world, the Voyager Company. Voyager had pioneered multimedia CD-ROMs a couple of years earlier, with the release of Robert Winter's HyperCard-annotated Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. What Robert had done was write a small book about Beethoven and his symphony, stuffed that book into a black-and-white HyperCard shell, and then--this was the cool part--included a commentary to the symphony that turned its pages as the symphony played. A lot of people bought Macs because of that CD.

When I arrived at Voyager, the first Apple PowerBook had just come out, and Bob Stein, Voyager's President, realized it was just that: a powered book. He put a bunch of book-loving geeks (including me) in front of some Macs running HyperCard, and we created what were probably the first commercial e-books: Voyager's Expanded Books. We published classics like Moby Dick and Pride and Prejudice, pop fiction like Jurassic Park, and social commentary like Amusing Ourselves to Death. The world's coolest multimedia company was publishing a whole line of multimedia books, books full of text.

Then came the Web, a globe-spanning network of interconnected documents called pages, and those pages were, and still are, full of text. But a Web page, even a whole lot of Web pages, is not a book. These days, multimedia pros spend a lot of time fiddling with video and sound and graphics and rendering and all sorts of special effects. And there are really incredible tools out there with which to do all that fiddling: Final Cut Pro, AfterEffects, Director, Photoshop, Flash, LiveStage Pro, and many, many more (see Making Books and Movies for a partial list).

Yet ten years after Voyager's Expanded Books made their Macworld Expo bow, there still isn't any multimedia authoring and delivery tool that can handle text with the grace and flexibility that HyperCard could. It could search, forwards and backwards, by word or phrase. When you clicked on text, HyperCard knew which word you clicked on. It let you set the font and size and style programatically, on the fly, in real time. There was nothing else like it, and there still isn't.

Time--and Apple's changing priorities--have passed HyperCard by. And though I love today's latest and greatest multimedia authoring tools, with all their amazing tricks and eye-popping power, I still deeply yearn for something that can work the humble hypertext magic of HyperCard.

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