In search of Easter Eggs

Hundreds of software titles feature hidden messages or other tidbits their manufacturers never intended In Search of Easter Eggs

April 17, 2000|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,Sun Staff

Pity the poor unknown programmers of the world.

They toil for months, even years, to cobble together our spreadsheets, our video games, our Web sites. For this, they are lavished with lucrative stock options and more dough than most people earn in a lifetime.

But for some, it's not enough.

How else to explain why, hidden inside a Microsoft word processor, there's a pinball game and scrolling marquee that displays the names of the program's developers? Or why, if you press the right combination of buttons on a particular Hewlett-Packard scanner, you'll hear Beethoven's "Ode to Joy"?

They're called "Easter eggs," and they're some of the computer world's worst-kept secrets.

Like the colorful orbs parents will scatter around living rooms and lawns this weekend, these clandestine bits of computer code lurk inside hundreds of well-known products-- from buttoned-down business software to best-selling games.

Some are sly jokes planted for the amusement of colleagues or customers. Others satisfy the impulse of artists across the centuries, once they've carved their cabinets, scored their symphonies or sculpted their vase, to leave their mark.

"Easter eggs are a way for programmers to sign their work, the same way artists sign their paintings," says David Wolf, a 24-year-old programmer in Redmond, Wash., who has documented more than 1,700 digital buried treasures on www.eeggs.com.

An Easter egg can be as simple as a list of programmers' names, or as complex as a 3-D flight simulator, such as the one stashed inside Microsoft's Excel 97 spreadsheet.

Some are just wacky. Microsoft's now-discontinued Wine Guide is reported to have contained a snapshot of a shirtless Bill Gates. The photo popped up to the tune of "Oh Pretty Woman."

Computer companies don't like to talk about Easter eggs. And, after many years of looking the other way at this nerdy rite of passage, some are sweeping the eggs from their software and firing programmers caught creating them. In today's litigious world they're too worried about lawsuits and other problems.

Last week, for example, Microsoft had to explain why its programmers had put a "back door" in one of its Web authoring software products, accessed with this gibe at the competition: "Netscape engineers are weenies!"

But getting rid of Easter eggs can be toough, because programmers have been found creative ways to leave their marks since the dawn of personal computing.

Engineers who create computer chips have long etched their microscopic initials and other tiny graffiti on the thumbnail-sized silicon wafers. But the first rue Easter egg is thought to have been created in 1979 by a 27-year-old programmer at Atari named Warren Robinett.

Robinett's job was to design games for the company's flagship home video game system, the Atari 2600. In those days, Atari paid its programmers less than $20,000 a year and gave them little credit for their long hours of work.

"Each 2600 game was designed entirely by one person. But on the package it said basically 'Adventure, by Atari.' And we were only getting salaries, no cut of the huge profits," Robinett recalled in the book "Halcyon Days" about the early days of computing.

Inspired by the cryptic messages musicians such as the Beatles, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were hiding on their records, Robinett decided to plant a message inside a game he was working on called "Adventure."

To succeed in the game, players navigate a maze-like dungeon and complete a series of challenges. Without telling his boss, Robinett added a secret room in the maze with this message in glowing letters: "Created by Warren Robinett."

"It was a signature," Robinett recounted.

Eventually a 15-year-old Atari junkie from Salt Lake City discovered the room. Afterward, Robinett was hounded by other programmers who wanted to know how he did it.

Today Easter eggs are everywhere-- and spread beyond the computer industry.

On some newer pinball machines, players who hit the flippers in the right combination are rewarded with secret messages. Musicians plant hidden audio tracks or computer files on their CDs. And Hollywood has started using Easter eggs as a way to generate buzz about its DVD releases.

"They just want to give people a little additional value," says Guido Henkel, editor of the online magazine DVD Review, which lists more than 100 egg-bearing movies.

On the DVD of the James Bond movie "Dr. No," for example, MGM has stashed the Bondian Martini recipe (as in, "shaken, not stirred") and a short essay on the history of the cocktail. New Line Cinema's "Rush Hour" DVD, a kung-fu flick starring Jackie Chan, contains a concealed martial arts spoof called "Evil Luke Lee." The video was made by director Brett Ratner on his camcorder as a teen-ager.

"It's the coolest egg I've seen yet," says Henkel.

Even some commercial Web sites have them.

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