Eric Shapiro: The Oscar The Grouch MacHack Guy
By Laura Cowan
Laura K. Cowan is a tech editor and journalist whose work has focused on promoting sustainability initiatives for automotive, green tech, and conscious living media outlets.
Eric Shapiro poses outside popular Downtown Home and Garden in downtown Ann Arbor, where the first flowers of the season are for sale.
Do you remember that thing on old Macs where when you dumped a file in the trash, Oscar the Grouch would pop up and wave at you? If you were a kid in the 80s, I know you do. The man who developed that hack in 1989, once featured in The Washington Post, lives in Ann Arbor. He's an old-guard Mac developer, who has been working on Apple apps practically as long as there was such a thing, and has worked with traditional Ann Arbor-connected companies like Arbormoon, Scholastic, Irwin, and Widevine. Eric Shapiro has been a part of the popular Weather Underground weather app, and several other projects you would recognize but never know the creators.
"I think my [Oscar] hack encouraged kids to throw their parents' files in the trash," Shapiro jokes. "It may have had something to do with inspiring people to have more than one family computer in the home." Eventually, he got a cease and desist from Sesame Street for not following proper licensing procedures, but he won Best Hack Award at MacHack shortly after in 1991 for Video Beep, which would play StarTrek videos instead of just sound for system events. The second time around, he got the licensing.
Shapiro now works with AppVision protecting the security of mobile apps. He says he still likes working in small tight-knit groups of great developers. "A program is only as good as the worst person who works on it," he says. That sentiment is carried over from the days when he remembers Macs having a 60-day process for distributing fixes and needing to have the whole machine rebooted to deal with temperamental bugs.
You might think Shapiro prefers to work alone, but actually he discovered a passion for teaching and working with other Mac developers years ago when he started teaching programming for Apple. And then, he found himself working with Alan Steremberg on the then Ann Arbor-based Weather Underground weather app, named loosely after the historical civil rights turned domestic terror group also founded in Ann Arbor by the same name. The Weather Underground app started as a mere command line tool as an offshoot of the University of Michigan weather service, and quickly developed into the weather tool for the Associated Press, among others, and became the only decent native weather app on the new iPads when they first shipped. Shapiro said they packed 16-hour days into 3 weeks to make sure the app was ready before any iPads hit the stores, and on the first day the iPads were out, he was first in line to buy his. There it was.
Weather Underground was later sold to the Weather Channel in 2012, may it rest in peace. Weather geeks everywhere and northerners looking for proper snowfall forecasts reveled in and now miss its incredibly detailed functionality for a weather application. Shapiro now focuses his work on mobile security, because, he says, "most transactions are mobile, so hackers go after mobile apps. They're harder to hack, but there are billions of transactions. It's more profitable."
Shapiro tells me that it's never been a better time to be in Ann Arbor tech, even though he's sad to have seen some great Mac groups and events like MacHack come and then go over the years in Ann Arbor. Even so, when he graduated from high school, he lived in a world where "everyone assumed I would work for Chrysler," he says. He went to work for one of two Mac development companies in town instead, and the rest is history. He's glad grads today have many more choices.