Windows XP’s “Bliss” Background: A Blissful Happenstance

Windows XP's "Bliss" Background: A Blissful Happenstance

Most people who have been using PCs in the past decade or so have doubtless seen this image, the default background image on Microsoft Windows XP. “Bliss” it is called. I’ve always had a soft spot for this image, plus images like it for my desktops. To my mind there is something soothing about undulating fields of green grass under a bright blue sky. In the back of my mind I simply assumed that it was a tweaked photo taken somewhere in Washington, owing to the topography and proximity to Microsoft’s Redmond HQ.

More recently, however, while setting up an XP system for testing, my curiosity got the better of me, so I starting digging around on the internet to see what I could find out about the image, and my sleuthing led me to an artist site and a project called “After Microsoft”. As it turns out, there is indeed a bit of a story behind the creation of the iconic Bliss wallpaper.

In 2006, artists Simon Goldin and Jakob Senneby found the location of “Bliss” and re-photographed it for their “After Microsoft” project. The original photograph they researched was taken by a professional photographer, Charles O’Rear in 1996. “Bliss” was a hill located not in Washington, but in California. More specifically, it was a hill on a vineyard southeast of Sonoma, shown here using Microsoft Bing’s mapping:

Windows XP's "Bliss" Background: A Blissful Happenstance

Here is the photo taken by Goldin and Senneby in November of 2006:

Windows XP's "Bliss" Background: A Blissful Happenstance

There’s quite a bit of difference between the original photo and Goldin and Senneby’s. If the area is in Sonoma, a pricey real estate and packed with vineyards, why no vines in the first photo? From their site, the artists revealed how the original photograph came about:

The most distributed image ever is being phased out. What remains is a hill in Sonoma Valley, California.

Charles O’Rear used to pass that hill almost daily between his home in Napa and his wife, Daphne, who lived in Marin County. He always carried his medium format camera.

It was hard even to slow down on highway 12/121. But one day, it must have been in January, he pulled over. After about a month of rain the sun comes up, and there is beautiful green grass. The weather during the winter can change dramatically. A break in the storm. Intense blue sky with cumulus clouds. Maybe later that day it rained.

Blue was an important brand color already in ’95. Clouds and sky being a common theme in many aspects of the product’s identity and collateral. Illustrating potential and opportunity.

Continuing the cloud theme, but with added grounding. The horizon gives a sense of scale to the image. Makes it possible to imagine being there.

Because of the danger of that road and where he was standing, he didn’t take a tripod. His camera, when handheld, needed to be shot at least at a five-hundredth of a second. Whatever that translates into on a sunny day. Probably 500 at 5.6.

With property prices in Sonoma reaching $75,000 per acre for bare land, most hills were being developed into vineyards or homes. On this hill grapevines had been planted. But in the early 90’s a Phylloxera bug infested the grapes and made them unusable. The entire vineyard had to be pulled out. For a few years the hill was covered with grass. Green at the time of the photograph.

Green was the second main color in the branding scheme and in the User Interface. Running late in the product development cycle. Looking for a nature shot. “The reality of real life”. The image matched the brand colors. It fell completely into place, in terms of sky, clouds, blue plus the green field.

By the time the image was purchased, grapes had been planted again on the hill in Sonoma Valley.

Based on interviews with photographer Charles O’Rear and Microsoft Design Team representative Tjeerd Hoek, as well as email exchanges with Eileen Crane at the Carneros Wine Alliance, Susan Kim at Corbis, Denise Phillips at Microsoft Licensing, Christofer Björkvall at Microsoft Sweden, and Casey Boggs and Beth Naidis at Waggener Edstrom Worldwide. With additional information from Wikipedia and other web sites that I no longer remember.

A few of  you might remember my post about my X7501 thank you gift from Waggener Edstrom. Waggener Edstrom as Goldin and Senneby mentioned was also one of the groups involved. Also coincidentally, “Bliss” was photographed about the same time I started my job of the past 16 years at Advanced Computer Graphics, Inc., where I later began using Windows XP.

Goldin and Senneby’s description above is an amazing narrative about  how Charles  O’Rear’s serendipitous quick stop and shot became a brand marketing image and essentially an icon in its own right. I can’t help but shake my head in bemusement how merely being in the right place at the right time can have such unanticipated results.

One last observation. In the original 1996 “Bliss” image, observant folk might have noticed in the left center of the picture some parallel lines. A quick “Bird’s Eye” view with Bing revealed the culprit:

Windows XP's "Bliss" Background: A Blissful Happenstance

Note the power line tower. I wonder how many time XP users with the “Bliss” wallpaper had their electricity delivered across the very spot where their wallpaper’s picture was taken?

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