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

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

At the popular search engine Ask.com, for example, where visitors pose questions to a courtly English butler named Jeeves, anyone who types "Knock knock?" gets this reply: "Who's there?"

Proposition Jeeves with certain unprintable sexual acts and he demurs: "Wouldn't you rather take a nice, cold shower?"

In the computer game industry, players have almost come to expect Easter eggs.

"It's become part of the marketing plan," says Bruce Shelley, who designed the best-selling Microsoft game "Age of Empires II." Shelley says that during the last few months of development, game makers will typically brainstorm cool eggs to slip into their software.

But Easter eggs have come back to haunt some computer companies. And now some are starting to crack down.

Maxis Inc., maker of the hit SimCity strategy game series, wasn't amused when it found an Easter egg in its 1996 game "SimCopter" that caused several hundred half-naked animated men to prance across the screen puckering for a smooch. The egg was created by a gay programmer as a form of digital activism.

Maxis was forced to recall several thousand copies and fired the egg's creator.

Microsoft recently ordered programmers to scrub eggs from updates of popular applications such as Microsoft Office and banned them from future releases. Of course, it's no surprise that the world's largest software company is also the world's most prolific producer of Easter eggs. Creating easter eggs "is almost obligatory," says one Microsoft programmer who asked not to be named.

"Easter eggs are strictly prohibited as a matter of corporate policy," said a Microsoft spokesman.

Rumors swirled that anyone caught slipping an egg into the company's recently released operating system, Windows 2000, would be canned. Observers say the crackdown may have been related to an Easter egg in Microsoft's PowerPoint 2000 that reportedly caused bugs in the software and generated customer complaints.

"Fact is, for every customer that got a kick out of it, there were two who were a little creeped out by the concept of hidden or concealed functionality in the products," one Microsoft programmer noted in an online discussion group.

And Apple Computer CEO Steve Jobs, who encouraged the design team that created the first Macintosh to etch their names inside the plastic chassis, recently sent an internal memo asking techies to quit hiding credits or eggs inside every product.

Says Wolf: "It's a sign of the times. The industry is growing up."

Cracking eggs

To learn more about Easter eggs in computers and elsewhere, visit these Web sites:

Easter Egg Archive (www.eeggs.com)

Egg Heaven (www.eggheaven2000.com)

DVD Review (www.dvdreview.com)

Silicon Zoo (http://micro.magnet. fsu.educreatures)

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