Saturday, January 15, 2022

prior-art-dept.: OWL Guide, early hypertext, and "replacing" the Web

I've been building up a few of these entries in my head as I run across things, so this will be the first of a recurring series of "prior art": technologies and ideas we use today that had earlier, different paths and implementations. For this inagural entry we'll be looking at OWL Guide, an early hypertext system for the Macintosh, and contrasting it with HTML and the modern Web.

Of course, hypertext didn't start with the microcomputer; one of the earliest document-oriented forms (as opposed to card- or frame-oriented like HyperCard or KMS, as well as other concepts) was the 1967 Hypertext Editing System, running on a partition on an IBM System/360 Model 50, contemporary with the baroque but much celebrated oN-Line System which formed the basis for the 1968 Mother of All Demos. However, the microcomputer was where it started to gain steam, with early text-only implementations like the DOS-based 1983 PhotoQuery, which became TIES in 1984. TIES' key innovation was advancing the convention that the text itself contained the links embedded within it, rather than navigating using external numbered menus, codes, icons or other gadgets. (TIES later evolved into HyperTIES, which in 1988 introduced early implementations of imagemaps and style sheets using its own "HTML" [HyperTIES Markup Language] for screen design, also based on SGML. HyperTIES was credited as the first instance where hyperlinks are blue.)

This was a natural fit for GUIs, and hypertext/hypermedia flourished on the early Macintosh. Naturally everyone remembers HyperCard and its various clones, the archetype (but not the prototype) of card-based hypermedia, but one of the earliest hypertext systems on any desktop computer was OWL Guide for the Mac, dating to 1986.