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There is a decent Wikipedia article on the "Feature Creep", but it doesn't state an origin. A Google search only leads to some vague article claiming "Earl Rich" coined the term, but there isn't much backup for that claim. There is a Dilbert comic from 2001 on the subject, but the tone seems to imply that the term pre-existed; more or less confirmed by the fact that Google has results pre-2000. However, finding the exact origin proofs difficult.

So, who, if anyone at all, coined the term "Feature Creep"? Where does it come from?

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The 1991 version of the jargon file doesn't show feature creep, but it does show "creeping featurism" and "creeping featuritis" which are precursors to the term. –  MichaelT Jan 17 '13 at 22:07
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@MichaelBorgwardt yep. I was working on an answer with that information before it was closed. So the answer appears to be "MIT in the early 80s or before". –  MichaelT Jan 17 '13 at 22:17
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Given the existence of a closely related term in such an early edition of the Jargon File, the best answer you're likely to get is "1970s MIT/Stanford hacker culture". –  Michael Borgwardt Jan 17 '13 at 22:20
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Interesting question. I had assumed that "feature creep" was derived from "mission creep", but "mission creep" only dates from the 1990s. –  Eric Lippert Jan 20 '13 at 0:22
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up vote 7 down vote accepted

The etymologic history of computer jargon is well documented in the Jargon file (current version as of this writing is 4.4.8).

The specific term "Feature Creep" is listed as "New in 4.1.0" in the change log. 4.1.0 dates to March 12, 1999 and is defined as:

feature creep: n. The result of {creeping featurism}, as in "Emacs has a bad case of feature creep".

While this is the earliest use of the word in specific context, there are indications that the phrase existed earlier in some form.

The begining of each jargon file has a section on the various non-word aspects of the use of language by computer types.

In an early version of the Jargon file from 1981:

Soundalike slang: similar to Cockney rhyming slang.  Often made up on
   the spur of the moment.  Standard examples:
    Boston Globe => Boston Glob
    Herald American => Horrid (Harried) American
    New York Times => New York Slime
    historical reasons => hysterical raisins
    government property - do not duplicate (seen on keys)
        => government duplicity - do not propagate
   Often the substitution will be made in such a way as to slip in
   a standard jargon word:
    Dr. Dobb's Journal => Dr. Frob's Journal
    creeping featurism => feeping creaturism
    Margaret Jacks Hall => Marginal Hacks Hall

The "creeping featurism" entry suggests that the term may have been used, if not in that exact form of "feature creep".

Thus, language the term existed for certain in 1999 in the hacker (realize that the term "hacker" in the jargon file is a different group than it is today) community.

Indications that the phrase existed, though didn't formally enter the lexicon show up as early as 1981 and may have been common usage in the MIT and Stanford communities.

The concept of "feature creep" can be documented in 1975 as part of the Mythical Man Month. In one of the essays within this collection, "Second System Effect" is described. From the Wikipedia summary:

The second-system effect proposes that, when an architect designs a second system, it is the most dangerous system he will ever design, because he will tend to incorporate all of the additions he originated but did not add (due to inherent time constraints) to the first system. Thus, when embarking upon a second system, an engineer should be mindful that he is susceptible to over-engineering it.

Realize the difference between the Mythical Man Month and the Jargon file likely represents two different cultures - the Mythical Man Month is from a project management perspective while the jargon file is more from the hacker/academic perspective.

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Feature creep

The phrase feature creep dates to at least 1990, as used in a comp.sys.mac Usenet post on the San Francisco MacWorld Expo of April 15, 1990:

As an industry 'matures' everyone starts to look the same and the shows get less interesting, fewer and fewer really wonderfully new and striking products (I think it's because all the relatively obvious stuff gets done). Everyone ends up playing 'feature creep' with their competitors.

Three months later in the same group, a reply to a "Finder 7.0 suggestion" on July 13, 1990:

There's really no need for something that specific: System 7.0's InterApplication Communication model already provides a foundation for doing this sort of thing. ... Apple hasn't actually designed a stream Manager with the functions that you describe, probably because they wanted to leave something for the developers to do. I also suspect that Apple System Software Engineers probably have better things to worry about than standardizing a Spelling dictionary. In a previous message, somebody mentioned Feature Creep, and I think it applies very well.

By 1993, it was more common in Usenet.

Creeping featurism

The earlier phrase creeping featurism shows up in Jargon File 1.1.3 (dated 22nd July 1981) as a form of soundalike slang:

creeping featurism => feeping creaturism

Feature creep itself doesn't show up until Jargon File 4.1.0 (dated 12th March 1999):

:feature creep: n. The result of {creeping featurism}, as in "Emacs has a bad case of feature creep".

Requirements creep

The synonymous feature creep shows up in snippets of the Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1985, published in 1984:

Experience has shown that longer production runs result in requirements "creep". To improve this estimate for budgetary purposes would require the Air Force to formally task the contractors to provide cost estimates detail keyed to a hypothetical production rate.

The following year, a snippet of Department of Defense appropriations for 1986: hearings before a subcommittee of the Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, Ninety-ninth Congress, first session, Part 2 says:

We have put a very solid reign on gold-plating, on requirements creep, and on engineering change orders. Everything that has any impact on the cost of a contract once signed, must be approved for a waiver by the CNO, by me or the Commandant if it is a Marine program.

In 1986 it shows up in IEEE documents about avionics, and in 1987 IEEE conference records, and from there into other software engineering books.

Mission creep

Feature creep probably isn't derived from mission creep, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

orig. U.S. Mil. slang a gradual shift in political or strategic objectives during the course of a military campaign, frequently resulting in an unresolved conflict or open-ended commitment; also in extended use.

Their first citation is from 1991:

We're going into a conflict with an ill-defined mission, there is mission creep in a much more compressed time frame, [etc.].

The earliest I found is in the Los Angeles Times of Sunday, June 27, 1993 ("Soldiers of the New World Order - Aggressive Peacemakers, U.S. Marines Draw Down the Warlords of Somalia and Write a Military Blueprint for Future Campaigns"):

But Abbot never did just the minimum in Somalia; he was singled out, in fact, by Gen. Johnston as one of the commanders who went beyond the Marines' primary mission of securing food-supply routes and neutralizing Somalia's warring clans and bandits--a task accomplished within two months of the Marines' arrival--into such development projects as rebuilding local police departments, schools and community centers. Johnston called it "Mission Creep."

Other creep

Here's a 1960 "nucleur creep" and a 1983 "speciality creep", both from Military Review.

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From Google Books, here's a possible 1988 and 1989 feature creep, but they're snippets so the dates could be wrong. –  Hugo Jan 21 '13 at 14:18
    
Here's a 1960 "nucleur creep" and a 1983 "speciality creep", both from Military Review. –  Hugo Jun 23 at 17:58
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