Favorite software Easter eggs

The Easter holiday is still weeks away but with Peeps, chocolate bunnies, and plastic grass crowding store shelves, I'm finding myself getting in the mood. Fortunately for me, there are some Easter eggs that know no season -- and I'm not talking about last year's dust-covered unfound treats. I'm talking about the goodies that software developers tuck into their code.

If this all sounds like a hazy memory to you, or a meme that has died away, think again. Sites like The Easter Egg Archive and Egg Heaven are constantly posting their latest finds. And I'd be willing to bet that the Yahoo yodeler can still put a smile on your face.

[ More tech geek fun: Myths, gods, and titanic disasters: How servers really get their names ]

Easter eggs

Photo by RichardBH

8 Favorite Easter eggs

  • Yahoo's yodeler

    Click on the ! at the end of the Yahoo logo on Yahoo.com.
  • Google for h4x0rs (hackers)

    Go to 600673.com (Google spelled out in leet speak).
  • Firefox Book of Mozilla

    Type about:mozilla in the address bar
  • Google Earth flight simulator

    Press Ctrl + Alt + A (Command/Open Apple Key + Option + A on the Mac)
  • Firefox robots

    Enter "about:robots" in the address bar
  • Google Chrome tubes

    Enter "about:internets" in the address bar
  • OpenOffice StarWars game

    In an OpenOffice spreadsheet cell, add the following formula: =GAME("StarWars")
  • Mac OS X Emacs text game

    Launch Terminal and type "emacs -batch -l dunnet" and hit enter.

We all know too well the sinister side of Easter eggs: You risk losing customers; you risk introducing bugs; you risk slowing the software down; you risk looking like an egomaniac. Good points all. But where's the fun in that? So strap on your devil-may-care attitude and let's uncover some old favorites and new goodies worth trying.

12 bytes of vanity

Software developer Ron McMahon remembers his first Easter egg fondly: "It was in a game for the VIC-20, which only had 3583 bytes of RAM for programming. Our game, Meteor Rescue, was packaged on a cassette tape.  The coding was entirely in assembler and when the game was completed we had 12 bytes free. A long discussion amongst the three partners of the company ensued.  We debated adding a security feature in those remaining bytes, or signing our initials to the end of the program.  In the end, vanity won over security. With only 12 bytes to work with, we did not have enough capability to actually display the vanity content for typical game players to see, but anyone who would be pulling apart our code with an assembler would see our initials." (Ron's favorite Easter egg from the modern era is the flight simulater in Excel 97.)

Vanity won out for Jamie Wells too. Jamie worked for a small company that put an Easter egg in their software: "If you control-clicked anywhere in the 'About' box the contents of the dialog turned into a staff picture with our faces photoshopped onto Simpsons characters. Probably violated copyrights, but... oh well, it's an Easter egg, right?"

Too legit to quit

Much as I'm loathe to admit it, Easter eggs aren't just for yucks. They also can improve user engagement. In a venerable (dating back to 2005) blog post, Kathy Sierra extols the virtues of Easter eggs:

If user engagement is a Good Thing (and for what most of us are creating, selling, writing it is), easter eggs can be a powerful ally in making that happen. Done right, easter eggs can add value that (unless you're doing a mission-critical app where undocumented code is a security or safety risk) is worth it.

An interactive training company where Keith Vanden Eynden worked included Easter eggs as part of their development plan, and sold clients on the concept that "the more engaged users became with the application, the more time they spent with the content and would learn more. We explained that searching for Easter eggs kept users on the page longer and spiraled them deeper into the content." But, Keith admits, this "spiral design" was just "a marketing ploy to justify our need to goof around. The truth of the matter was that we wanted to be able to add Easter eggs to alleviate the boredom of late night coding sessions."

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