How Have Easter Eggs Evolved?

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by Barbara J. Feldman on September 14, 2008

Easter eggs are not always about brightly dyed and then hidden eggs during the Easter season — in software programs, an Easter egg is a hidden program or application that the programmer or developer puts into a movie DVD, software program, music CD, or any other application that requires programming.

Easter eggs, which derive their name from the Easter eggs that are hidden during Easter, serve no real purpose in the software and don’t cause any harm to the program. If a suspected Easter egg causes any kind of crash or deletes a program, then it is more likely a virus or other type of malware, and not an Easter egg.

Easter eggs are used primarily for entertainment for not only the developers and programmers, but the people who find them. Easter eggs can take the form of messages embedded in the program, hidden levels within video games, tracks in music CDs, or a number of different things planted just for fun.

Some of the more well-known Easter eggs include a full-length video game in Atari’s Pitfall II: Lost Taverns, which was said to be better than the actual game; a way to get an automatic win in Microsoft’s Solitaire, and a hidden developer credits page in Microsoft 3.1.

Where did Easter eggs come from?

Now that you know what Easter eggs are, you may be wondering where they came from, or who started them. While Easter eggs are mostly used for harmless fun now, originally they served a specific function. Easter eggs began as a way to track people who were copying the copyrighted software.

By writing these hidden applications and then hiding them on chips in the program, it made it easier to catch copyright infringers who were trying to copy mask work programs illegally. However, after certain copyright laws were modified, giving mask works exclusive rights, so after this modification took place in 1984, Easter eggs no longer were necessary for protecting or catching copyright infringement.

Since then, Easter eggs have gone from useful to purely fun. Now, however, most companies do not like the idea of Easter eggs hidden on their programs and will remove them if they are found. Some companies will discipline the programmers who are responsible for Easter eggs, while others don’t seem to mind. Because of the great number of Easter eggs found on Microsoft, Microsoft is said to have taken a more relaxed stance on Easter eggs.

Today, Easter eggs are found through word of mouth, by Internet searches, and through following a specific set of instructions to find the Easter egg. Most Easter eggs have very specific sets of instructions for finding them, so if you happen to stumble across an Easter egg that isn’t really “hidden,” chances are that it’s not an Easter egg. For example, if you are looking at a DVD and it says “hidden features” as a selection in the menu, then it’s not an Easter egg. An example of an Easter egg would be in Microsoft (prior to the release of XP). If you enter the word “volcano” into the 3D text section of the screensavers, a list of all the active volcanoes in the world comes up. This is not something you would easily stumble across.

Easter eggs began as a functional way to catch those who were infringing on copyright laws; today, they are used purely for fun.


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