HyperCard is growing up.

The ingenious software programming package, distributed by Apple Computer Inc. with every Macintosh, is finally moving out of its promising but awkward infancy. Version 2.0 of HyperCard, the first major revision of the program since its introduction in 1987, has begun to reach Macintosh users.

After months of delays, Apple now is including the new release with all of its computers. Apple's Claris software subsidiary is shipping upgrades to customers who order them.

Version 2.0 of HyperCard offers dozens of new features that greatly increase its power, speed, usefulness and reliability. The new release represents an attempt by Apple to make HyperCard more of a mainstream product and signifies a broader role for the program in Apple's long-range plans.

Some aspects of the change are not entirely welcome, however, particularly a new distribution strategy that forces users to pay for upgrades.

HyperCard combines three very different functions:

First, it provides a way of organizing information, including text, sound or images, by putting it on the electronic equivalent of file cards. The "cards" can be linked together for easy recovery of related data.

Second, it allows users to develop computer programs very quickly in a language resembling English. In HyperCard jargon, these programs and the related data are referred to as "stacks."

Third, it includes an on-screen interface that can be readily customized by users. In effect, the program provides a way to tailor the appearance and operation of the Mac to individual taste or corporate needs.

HyperCard enthusiasts who want the full benefit of the new version will have to pay for it, a departure from previous practice. Several minor revisions to HyperCard over the last few years were distributed through Apple dealers, like improvements in Apple's system software, without charge.

For users of previous versions, an upgrade to HyperCard 2.0 costs $49. For those who need more extensive reference materials, Claris will begin shipping a developers' kit for $199 next month.

Macintosh owners routinely spend significant sums for software, so the price shouldn't be a serious obstacle. Within the Macintosh world, however, HyperCard has come to symbolize a less commercial, more idealistic approach to computing. For some, the new strategy departs from the original spirit of the product.

There are "two valid sides" to viewing the change in policy, said Danny Goodman, author of several books on HyperCard. "People have had the privilege of HyperCard being bundled for free. Such things come to be perceived as right."

Some in the user community are angry about the policy of charging for Version 2.0, he said, while Apple has very valid business reasons for the move.

When programming guru Bill Atkinson created HyperCard, he argued against conventional commercial distribution of the software and persuaded Apple executives to include it free with each Mac. Apple promoted HyperCard as "programming for the rest of us." The company probably has distributed 2 million copies.

HyperCard quickly won an enthusiastic grassroots audience. Because stacks could be written so easily, many HyperCard authors shared their work freely with others.

Many Mac owners used the software to learn programming skills. HyperCard readily allowed people to take stacks apart and look inside to see how developers put them together.

Although Mac owners found the program to be fun and useful, they quickly encountered its limitations. HyperCard could display information in a window of only one size. It did not allow for a range of options in styles and sizes of type. Graphics had to be in black and white, not color. Different stacks could not be opened and used simultaneously.

The early outpouring of homemade stacks included a flood of poorly crafted junk that tarnished the perception of HyperCard as a serious programming tool.

The history of HyperCard is like the history of the Macintosh itself, said Michael Holm, product manager for the program. The original implementation of each was underpowered and undersupported. The first version of HyperCard "wasn't all the way there," Holm said.

While Apple moved quickly to beef up its first anemic Mac, the company never really threw all its weight behind HyperCard. But as Apple continued to sell more computers to large corporations, HyperCard turned out to be wildly successful among an unexpected class of users -- managers of corporate computer systems.

The program, which was intended primarily for novices, never was envisioned as a tool for creating serious business applications. Nevertheless, corporate information managers found it to be an effective way to address their huge backlog of requests for custom software.

During the past few years, Apple has received thousands of requests for improvements in HyperCard. Corporate users in particular have asked for more features needed by professional programmers.

Apple reworked HyperCard to accommodate this wider range of users. The new release includes the same features that made it appealing to novices while overcoming many of the limitations of the original. The program now allows windows of variable size, typefaces in different styles and sizes, incorporation of color images and simultaneous use of different stacks. Most of these features will allow users to improve the appearance of their stacks.

Apple's HyperCard team developed a set of "power tools" to assist software developers. Professional programmers also will be able to hide the nuts and bolts of their work from curious novices. Corporate information managers and developers of commercial software need such security features to prevent accidental or deliberate tampering with their work. But in the process, another element of HyperCard's initial appeal is diminished.

With Version 2.0, HyperCard programs will run an average of two to four times faster than before.

All the changes "legitimize" HyperCard as an environment for developing important business and commercial applications, said Bill Duvall, a programmer who was named last month to oversee development of future versions.

But Apple and Claris will be unable to continue to improve HyperCard and increase support for users without passing along more of the cost, Holm said. A team of 20 people worked two years to create the new version.