Microsoft’s classic Windows XP desktop background is an image that has adorned countless computer screens worldwide since the operating system’s launch in 2001. However, the story behind this famous image involves an unexpected twist—thanks to an insect infestation in Napa Valley.
During the 1990s, Napa Valley was grappling with a devastating pest called phylloxera, which had wreaked havoc on its vineyards. By 1999, nearly 50,000 acres of grapevines had been decimated, causing immense financial losses for growers. However, amidst this agricultural catastrophe, a picturesque transformation took place in Northern California.
The once lush vineyards, now ravaged by phylloxera, gave way to a carpet of vibrant green grass and wildflowers. It was this picturesque landscape that captured the attention of Charles O’Rear, a professional photographer renowned for his work in publications like National Geographic and the Los Angeles Times.
In 1998, while on a personal trip to visit his then-girlfriend, O’Rear couldn’t help but notice the region’s resplendent rolling hills. He was particularly struck by the sight in January when the winter rains had transformed the landscape into a lush and vibrant spectacle. O’Rear recalled thinking, “My God! The grass is perfect! It’s green! The sun is out, there’s some clouds.” He promptly pulled over, took out his camera, and captured the scene, unaltered and untouched by editing.
These brilliant greens and pure blues made their way to Corbis, a stock photo and image licensing site founded by Bill Gates. A few years later, Microsoft reached out to O’Rear, seeking to use his photograph as the default background for their latest operating system. While Microsoft never explicitly explained their choice, O’Rear speculated, “Were they looking for an image that was peaceful? Were they looking for an image that had no tension?”
The result was a desktop background that Microsoft dubbed “Bliss,” and it became a global icon, seen by at least a billion people since the release of Windows XP in 2001. The image exuded a sense of tranquility, grounding, and simplicity, making it a fitting choice for the backdrop of millions of computer screens.
O’Rear agreed to sell Microsoft all the rights to his photograph, marking the most significant payment he had ever received for an image. Its value was so high that even shipping companies couldn’t provide insurance coverage for the negatives. Consequently, O’Rear personally delivered the photograph to Microsoft’s headquarters in Seattle.
The image “Bliss” resonated with people across the world, but many were left guessing its actual location. Some speculated it was taken in France, Ireland, or New Zealand, while others within Microsoft believed it was a local scene near Seattle. The truth was, the image wasn’t far from reality; it was shot in Sonoma County, California.
Despite the passing years, Bliss’s iconic hill has been replanted with grapevines, altering the once-famous landscape. It’s remarkable how a single image came to symbolize an era when a standardized background was prevalent on almost every computer, long before the era of the social web and its algorithmic personalization.
Even after Microsoft phased out Windows XP, a significant number of computers worldwide continue to run on the operating system, keeping “Bliss” alive on screens. Charles O’Rear’s photograph, once capturing a moment of tranquility amidst agricultural challenges, continues to be a timeless and recognizable presence in the world of technology.