They Hacked Real Good, For Free

Those who pulled themselves away from reruns of "White Christmas" to surf the Web last week were treated to a different sort of heartwarming story. Told publicly for the first time at, it's an 11-year-old tale set in the snow-free zone of Cupertino, Calif., home of Apple Computer. The author, Ron Avitzur, was a 27-year-old programmer on contract with Apple back in 1993. His project had just been canceled. Part of it involved creating a powerful computer version of the calculator high schoolers use that draws graphs of mathematical functions. He thought that the world should see this illuminating "Graphing Calculator."

In part, this was because he was dating a math teacher at the time and was aware of the educational value. But mostly, he thought it would be an unspeakably cool addition to Apple's major development at the time, a faster computer to be called the PowerMac. So instead of handing in his badge, Avitzur began six months of intensive unpaid labor under the radar of Apple's leaders. He recruited Greg Robbins, a similarly dislodged contractor, to participate in this skunkworks project (the term denotes an initiative, often too risky for official approval, undertaken sub rosa). Working in unoccupied cubicles, they avoided detection by muckety-mucks. "It didn't seem extraordinary [in the then chaotic Apple environment]; getting past security wasn't hard," says Robbins. Slowly, actual employees stealthily lent their expertise. The pair almost got caught when Apple moved new people into its "officially empty" work spaces. But then the company laid off hundreds of workers, freeing up plenty of room. Ultimately, the guy in charge of determining what shipped with the PowerMac made a 2 a.m. visit to Avitzur's hideout, and agreed to include the Graphing Calculator.

More than 20 million Macs later, the labor of love still ships with every unit. (At this point, it's tucked away in the secondary "classic" operating system; Avitzur sells a deluxe version from his company Web site.) It has crunched numbers and plotted sine waves for an entire generation.

In the days since Avitzur posted his tale, it's been a buzz object of e-mailers, bloggers and the popular Slashdot Web site. Everybody (including Apple's official spokesperson) agrees that something like this could not occur at the company today, which is a much more disciplined place. "I couldn't even get past the receptionist now," says Avitzur. Many have noted that similar geek altruism is very much alive in the Open Source Movement, where programmers donate their time toward the free Linux/GNU software platform that's threatening Microsoft's dominance. I would add that a great example of a company embracing an engineer's desire to work on pet projects is Google, which allows employees to use a fifth of their paid time on self-directed ventures.

While the Graphing Calculator story works in one sense as a "Dilbert"-esque parable, it's ultimately a reminder that what drives our very best work is not necessarily the almighty buck. Yes, both Avitzur and Robbins were young and mortgageless in those days and could afford to embark on their task. And they did wonder whether working their butts off for a multibillion-dollar company was a form of willful servitude. But they were enjoying the best experience of their, um, professional lives. So much so that Avitzur thought lucre might sully the venture's purity. Once Apple agreed to ship the program, the company arranged to pay the two developers for the rights. When they got the check (for a sum in the low five figures), Avitzur said, "We should just frame it." Robbins (who now works at Real Networks) stared at him and said "No." There's passion, and then there's lunacy.