Tuesday, April 13, 2021

The story of the Windows XP ‘Bliss’ desktop theme—and what it looks like today

Editor’s Note: PCWorld originally published this story in 2014. This year, 2021, marks the 25th anniversary of Charles O’Rear’s iconic photo in 1996, which became the basis of the Windows XP desktop wallpaper. The vineyards are still there today.

It’s not too far-fetched to believe that a billion people have viewed the “Bliss” image that defines the desktop view of Windows XP, the seminal OS that Microsoft is retiring Tuesday. But you’d barely notice the real-world “Bliss” scene if you stepped out of your car and gazed at it today.

Driving anywhere in California’s wine country can be treacherous. Roads curve back and forth, well, drunkenly. Bicyclists are common, and the next bend could hide an entrance to one of Napa’s finest wineries, a tour group jaywalking across the road, or even a couple on horseback, exploring the area.


A Windows XP desktop, with the “Bliss” image in the background.

In 1998, photographer Charles “Chuck” O’Rear was driving from Sonoma County through Napa on his way to Marin County. His mission was to meet Daphne, the woman who eventually became his wife. In January, as most California natives know, the rains come, and the hills explode into green for a few months before the withering summer heat browns them once again.  

O’Rear, a 25-year veteran of National Geographic, drove down the road, then pulled over. That stretch of Highway 12 is narrow and windy, with only a slender shoulder for stopping one’s car. At the bottom of a steep embankment is a barbed-wire fence. And in 1998, when O’Rear took his famous “Bliss” photo, all he could see was an emerald-green hill, a ridge behind it, and a few puffy clouds. 

“I got out, took a couple of pictures, and kept on going,” he told PCWorld in an interview on Monday. “And the rest is history.”

Windows XP Bliss 2014Mark Hachman

What the “Bliss” site looks like, today.

Fast-forward to the year 2000. Microsoft was about to launch Windows XP. The company had designed the new operating system with the stability of its corporate OS, Windows 2000, and the consumer features of Windows 98 and Windows ME. O’Rear was one of the first photographers to use a service called Corbis to digitize and license his photos. And Corbis was owned by Microsoft’s chief executive at the time, Bill Gates.

“How many pictures they looked at, I have no idea,” O’Rear said. But what he did do was hop on an airplane with the original transparency and accept a hefty check for his work. O’Rear can’t disclose the amount, but he said it would be an acceptable amount back then—and remains so today.

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