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

Mark Hachman | April 9, 2014
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.

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.

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 the woman who eventually became his wife, Daphne. 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 narrow 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."

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 to hop on an airplane with the original transparency, and accept a hefty check for his work. O'Rear can't disclose the amount, but said it would be an acceptable amount back then — and remains so today.

How to find the site

Since then, the location of the "Bliss" photo has been disclosed: about here, on Highway 12 (overlapping with Hwy 121) in Sonoma County. If you're driving from Napa east to Sonoma, it's little more than a mile or so past the magnificent Domaine Carneros. The safest way to visit the spot is to find a spot in town to park, then hike back. But an alternative is to find a place to turn around, then park next to a call box while driving east to Sonoma. Then carefully walk back a quarter mile or so, crossing the highway only when no cars are coming. It's a busy, busy road. You've been warned.

 

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