Now that Christmas is just about out of the way for another year, the great speculation amongst Britain’s shoppers will be how soon into the New Year will Easter eggs appear on supermarket shelves. The customary 3 months as with all that Christmas tat? We’ll just have to wait and see.

As a user of free and open source software, I’ve had an early – or late – Easter egg already courtesy of the VLC media player, as shown below.

screenshot of VLC media player wearing its Christmas hat

VLC media player wearing its Christmas hat

Unless you’re familiar with the language of tech aficionados, the previous statement and accompanying screenshot are probably incomprehensible.

In software an Easter egg is defined as “an intentional inside joke, hidden message, or feature in an interactive work such as a computer program, video game or DVD menu screen. The name has been said to evoke the idea of a traditional Easter egg hunt“.

One of the first occurrences of what are now known as Easter eggs appeared in the Atari video game Adventure, having been planted there by computer game developer Warren Robinett. It wasn’t too fancy or interesting, just a hidden object planted in the game that led to a screen that said “Created by Warren Robinett.” The developer had buried this object within the game code as Atari didn’t credit its games developers at the time.

Anyway, returning to the screenshot above, the Santa hat on the VLC program logo (the traffic cone in the middle of the window. Ed.) appears each year for the Christmas holiday period only; for the rest of the year, the logo is hatless.

Besides VLC, some well-known and widely used applications have also contained Easter eggs. For instance, Easter eggs in the 1997 version of Microsoft Office include a hidden flight simulator in Microsoft Excel and a pinball game in Microsoft Word, whilst on all Microsoft Windows operating systems before XP, entering the text “volcano” in the 3D Text screen saver will display the names of all the volcanoes in the United States. Microsoft removed this Easter egg in XP but added others. Microsoft Excel 95 contained a hidden Doom-like action game called The Hall of Tortured Souls.

Turning away from Microsoft, Apple is also not immune from Easter eggs. In 2012 an update to the Mac App Store for OS X Mountain Lion introduced an Easter egg in which apps, during the download process, were timestamped “January 24, 1984,” the date the original Macintosh went on sale. However, Easter eggs were not popular with Apple’s founder, the late Steve Jobs, who went through bouts of banning them.

In addition to being sophisticated and/or laden with deep significance, some Easter eggs can be very simple and bereft of any meaning, merely reflecting the playful personality of their creators. Here’s a prime example from the GNU/Linux apt-get command line tool used for managing software packages. Typing the command apt-get moo results in something similar to the following screenshot.

screenshot of apt-get moo command giving output of cow saying have you mooed today?

The output of typing the command apt-get moo in the Linux terminal

Anyway, I’m enjoying my festive Easter egg and I hope it’s not too late to wish all readers and visitors to this site the compliments of the season.