As a kid, I wanted nothing more than to tumble down a rabbit hole or burrow through the back of a wardrobe and enter a strange and secret new world. As a big kid back in the early 1990s, I found that world in the Internet, which was maddeningly difficult to get into and inhabited only by wild and woolly creatures. But since e-commerce marched in, cyberspace has looked less like a private Narnia or Wonderland and more like a tourist-infested Disneyland. These days, I've found a a much better way to unlock secret digital worlds: Go on an Easter-egg hunt.
Easter eggs? Not the real ones, of course, but rather mischievous mini-programs tucked away by stealthy programmers inside millions of lines of software code, often unknown to the company whose name is stamped on the box. The result: treats for big kids in office cubicles around the world--if they have the courage and imagination to go after what this particular Easter bunny has sown.
Say you're tapping away at another dreary spreadsheet in Microsoft Excel. By accident, you hit a secret combination of keys. Phfft!--the spreadsheet is gone, and you're flying over a landscape of rolling green hills, guided only by your mouse. Find another hidden combo, and--this gets curiouser and curiouser--you're crossing a zigzagging platform with fiery death on either side. Admit it. That's a whole lot more interesting than accounts payable.
You'll find that most eggs end with a list of programmers who have found themselves otherwise uncredited. Their lack of official recognition could explain why some eggs take satirical aim at management. Some versions of AOL, for example, have been implanted with Scott's Winkie, a winking face that offers mock insider gossip, such as a forthcoming "big announcement involving Steve Case, the CIA and the former Soviet Republic of Georgia." Microsoft's Wine Guide--now discontinued, alas--contains pictures of a shirtless Bill Gates (real snaps taken at a company picnic) that slide by to the strains of Pretty Woman.
But Gates & Co. have clamped down on Easter eggs. The reason has to do less with the fear of seeing themselves in a state of undress than with the fear of lawsuits from corporations that want their software to undergo thorough quality control. You're not likely to find any eggs in Microsoft's post-1997 output.
Not to worry; there are still tons of them waiting to be rooted out. In the videogames industry, they've effectively become de rigueur. "There's not a producer in the industry who doesn't leave a little time for cheats and secrets at the end of building a game," says Scott Pease, a producer at games firm Neversoft. "It extends the life of the product because you have this community of people who want to figure everything out." South Park outtakes, naked Lara Crofts and NBA teams consisting entirely of chickens are among the joys waiting to hatch in a games console near you.
Intrigued? The best place to launch your hunt is eeggs.com run by Redmond, Wash., programmer David Wolf. Like Alice, Wolf had no idea what he was getting into when he started the site. "I thought there were maybe 10, 15 eggs," he says. It now gives instructions for cracking more than 1,500 software-based eggs. That's a heck of a lot of secret Narnias. And you'll never know how many more are out there until you start burrowing through that secret digital wardrobe.