Those of you who are old enough to remember Windows XP will immediately recognize the wallpaper we’re about to discuss in this article when we describe it. Those of you who are lucky enough to be so young that they can’t recall it might not have any idea what we’re talking about. We’d be amazed if you hadn’t encountered it, though. Windows XP lived far beyond its life expectancy and was far more popular than Windows Vista, which tried and failed to replace it in 2006. Even though Microsoft officially ended support for XP earlier in 2019, it’s thought that 4% of the world’s computers still run on the old OS.
If you remember Windows XP, then you probably don’t even need us to show you or tell you about the wallpaper we’re talking about. It’s the one which loaded by default the moment you turned on your computer for the very first time. For a whole generation of office workers – who didn’t have sufficient access rights to change the desktop wallpaper of their work computers – it was the sight that greeted them every day at their desks for years. It’s a simple picture of a soft, green hill rolling away into the distance, underneath an impossibly perfect blue sky with fluffy white clouds.
The image was so picture-book perfect that many people assumed it had been digitally manipulated in order for the colors to stand out, but it hadn’t been. Other people suspected that the location shown in the picture didn’t really exist at all and that it was either a total fake, or a composite picture made up of images taken in different locations. That isn’t true either. It’s a real picture of a very real location, but even knowing that, almost nobody would be able to say where the picture was taken.
Many people who’ve discussed the matter in internet forums have speculated that the picture was taken in Ireland. That would make a lot of sense. Ireland is known for its rolling green hills – so much so that they’re used as the backdrop for the hundreds of Irish-themed slots you’ll find on online slots websites such as Dove Casino. Choose any of the Rainbow Riches online slots, for example, and you’ll find a large green hill that looks very similar to this desktop wallpaper behind the reels. It’s possible that the picture even inspired the design of a few of those mobile slots, although that was never the original photographer’s intended purpose. To add to the confusion, the picture was actually labeled ‘Ireland’ in the Dutch release of Windows XP, which only served to propagate the myth further.
If you’ve never heard the story before, allow us to put you out of your misery. The picture wasn’t taken in Ireland, and nor was it taken anywhere else in Europe. It’s actually as American as American could be. Speaking exclusively to Time Magazine back in 2014 (after one of Microsoft’s several previous attempts to withdraw support for Windows XP), Charles O’Rear revealed he was the man responsible for the universally-recognizable image, and that he named it ‘Bliss.’ O’Rear was a photographer by profession and had spent years of his life working for National Geographic. He had an eye for a great photo and captured the image of the hill when he was out walking through San Francisco’s Napa Valley in 1996. Although it would go on to become possibly the most famous and widely-seen digital image in history, it didn’t start its life as a digital image at all. O’Rear still used a traditional film-based camera for all his work back in the mid-1990s, and so the picture had to be developed before he was able to appreciate how wonderful it looked.
O’Rear knew immediately that he’d captured something special, and so he added it to his professional portfolio – which would ultimately end up online at the end of the 1990s. He wasn’t the only person who liked the look of it. Someone within Microsoft’s design team found his website during the design stage of Windows XP and paid him a commission fee for ownership of the photo. At that point, it became so valuable that Microsoft chose to fly O’Rear to their offices to deliver the original photograph in-person rather than risk sending it through the mail, or even using a courier service. At the time he made the sale, O’Rear didn’t know how his image was going to be used. He knew that it had something to do with Windows, but he hadn’t even imagined that it would become the default background of their brand new operating system.
As well as being used as the default background, ‘Bliss’ was also used heavily in marketing and promotion in the build-up to the release of Windows XP. Microsoft’s statistics indicate that O’Rear’s image has been seen by more than one billion individual people, although it’s unclear how such a statistic was calculated. Much to the photographer’s amusement, he’s seen his picture appear several times when television cameras have been allowed into Government buildings around the world, including the White House, and the British Houses of Parliament. What started as a humble photograph of a scenic hillside while he was out walking ended up as a picture that’s arguably more famous than the Mona Lisa.
We understand that the way that Microsoft sources images these days is a little more refined than it used to be, so it’s probably harder for your own photography to be included in a future release of Windows than it was for O’Rear. The company does, however, use a lot more photographs than it used to. Windows 10 lock screen pictures are always stunningly beautiful, and more are added to the collection all the time. If you have a gorgeous picture you like to use as desktop wallpaper, why keep it to yourself? Why not put it out into the open for the whole world to enjoy? You never know – we could all be looking at your work the next time a new version of Windows is rolled out!