Friday's story incorrectly stated that Uli's Talking Moose was
available for Mac OS X. A version for OS X is being prepared but
is not yet publicly available. Wired News regrets the error.
A cultural icon from the early days of personal computing is making a comeback.
The Talking Moose, an animated Bullwinkle that pops up unexpectedly to tell jokes
and deliver insults, is available as a free download for Apple Macintosh.
A big hit when it first appeared in 1986, the Moose is once again building a
loyal following upon its re-release.
When it first appeared, the Talking Moose was a tiny black-and-white animated
moose that popped up every few minutes to tell weird one-liners, pass comment on
what the user was doing or blurt out random pop culture phrases.
With its robotic, monotone voice, it sounded not unlike the physicist Stephen Hawking.
"The Moose quickly drove me nuts," said David Morgenstern, former editor of MacWeek.
"I could only take it for 10 minutes at a stretch. It was like having someone sitting over
your shoulder, looking and commenting on your work."
"It drove most people crazy," said its creator, Steve Halls. "In fact, most people
put it on other people's machines."
In the late 1980s, the Moose could be heard in schools and businesses
around the world. It was installed on just about every Macintosh Plus and Classic,
Apple's popular all-in-one machines.
For a whole generation, the Talking Moose was the first brush with irreverence
on these new, business-like machines.
"It was a cult hit," said Morgenstern. "The Talking Moose was the perfect
example of what the Mac was about and what the PC wasn't. Remember that this was
way before Windows, so all PC users had was a DOS prompt. The Moose showed that
computers were fun and personal. People could have business and fun in one machine."
Part of the appeal of the Moose was its wild unpredictability.
"Are you really sure you want to delete those files?" the Moose would ask as the
trash was emptied. "You are getting sleeeeeeepy," it would say after a period of inactivity.
Then, out of the blue, it might say, "I want a pizza."
"It seemed to have the knack of coming up at just the right time," said Roy Posner,
a fan of the Moose from the early days. "He would say, 'I think it's time for Star Trek,'
just as Star Trek was about to start. Or 'I wish I had a brain,' just as I did something
stupid or couldn't think what to do. One almost felt the Moose was psychic. Sometimes it sure
seemed like it."
Said MacWeek's Morgenstern: "Believe or not, but I heard it once compared
to the I Ching."
Under the hood, the Moose was monitoring the system's behavior. It knew what
applications were being used, what menus and dialog boxes were open, and how long it had
been since the keyboard or mouse had been touched.
"It was way ahead of its time in its ability to know what the user was doing," said Halls.
Halls programmed the Moose to do sophisticated things like crawl the memory stack, monitor
system calls, manipulate the screen directly and modify sound driver code on the fly.
"It worked in much the same way as modern viruses work," Halls said.
However, he had a lot of trouble tapping into Microsoft programs: It never worked the
way everyone else's software worked.
"It was quite a struggle to keep up with them,"
Halls, a medical student at the time, had no training
in computer science. Now a radiologist in Alberta, Canada, he taught himself assembly language
as he wrote the software.
Halls said he was often stopped at computer shows by
programmers who admired his work. At the time, most coders conformed to Apple's stringent
programming guidelines. The Moose, however, flouted every convention.
"I got a lot of respect from other programmers," Halls said. "That was the most
gratifying thing about it."
In 1991, Halls added lip synchronization to the Moose. The program monitored the
Macintalk speech synthesizer and changed the shape of the Moose's mouth to make smooth
transitions between vowels and consonants.
"Watching those lips was absolutely mesmerizing," said Halls. "I wish I had patented
it because later a company called BrightStar threatened to sue me for infringing their
patent on lip synchronization. Luckily, my code was 'prior art' and used a completely
Halls created the Moose because he wanted to find a novel use for the Macintalk
text-to-speech engine built into the operating system.
He was inspired by a Gary Trudeau Doonesbury strip featuring a talking
computer that commented on the characters' foibles.
Halls experimented with talking rabbits and rats. But he couldn't come up with a
recognizable animal for the Mac's small-screen resolution until he tried a moose sporting
a pair of distinctive antlers.
"Besides, I'm Canadian," Halls said, "and mooses are naturally comical."
Initially, Apple objected to the Talking Moose because it wanted to promote the
Mac as a serious business tool. Ironically, the Moose benefited Apple greatly by being
one of the first pieces of software to put the "personal" into personal computer.
Over the years, Halls created four versions of the Talking Moose, some free and some
commercial, but never made more than about $20,000 from it.
As well as inspiring countless programmers to create fun software, the Talking Moose
spawned a host of animated assistants, like Microsoft Bob and Clippy, the paper clip assistant
in Microsoft Office.
But the Moose slowly faded away. It had also become troublesome. As a system extension,
it sometimes conflicted with other system software, causing instability and performance problems.
But after nearly a decade, the Moose was resurrected by Uli Kusterer, a 20-year-old student
"Uli just went and updated it, which I thought was just tremendous," Halls said.
"The guy's got the right spirit. He just wants to amuse people like I did, so I gave him a
free license to do what he wants with it."
Now called Uli's Talking Moose,
the software is again proving a popular download.
Kusterer stumbled across the Moose by accident and loved its "depressive subtone."
"It is indifferent and sometimes downright insulting, and it has the weirdest sense of humor
you could find," Kusterer said. "But you can't be mad at it, for as annoying as it is, it has
this depressed tone to its words."
The new version includes many of the original 300 phrases. Users can also add new phrases.
Kusterer is working on a new version for Mac OS X.
"It's far from finished," said Kusterer, "but it already talks like there's no tomorrow."
Kusterer has received e-mail messages from Moose fans all over the world.
His favorite, posted on his site, says:
"I have downloaded the Moose! My computer and I are happy! My husband is miserable!"