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
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.
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.
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 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.
At the bottom of the hill, you'll need to walk back and forth
until you find the right vantage point. As you'll see in my photos,
I never quite found a way to eliminate the ridge in the
What you'll quickly discover, however, is that the verdant green
hills have given way to the region's cash crop: wine. And the
grapes used to make them.The only grasses are those at the bottom
of a steep embankment, growing next to rosebushes that are being
established next to the fence. Unfortunately, the presence of farm
equipment—and a house that has been built onto the back side of the
hill—robs the new Bliss view of its natural beauty. But as you
already know from the drive, those green vistas are just a few
hundred yards away.
If the 2014 version of Bliss isn't your thing, more verdant
vistas are just a short walk away.
O'Rear swears the original Bliss photo appears as his camera
caught it. Sorry, everybody, it's the real deal, he said. Nothing
O'Rear himself has his own, separate technology connections. He
helped pioneer National Geographic's technology coverage.
It's his hand, he said, holding a Motorola 68000 chip on the cover
of the Oct. 1982 cover of the magazine. He shot photos for other
stories on advanced materials, as well as a coffee table book on
Silicon Valley. But Bliss remains his most famous work. And, most
likely, Bliss will remain his most famous work forever.
I got an email from someone at Microsoft—I suspect it was the
engineering department—saying, ‘We have a contest going about that
photograph,' O'Rear said. ‘Most of us think it was Photoshopped.
Some of us think it was taken out in eastern Washington in the
Palouse area. Tell us about it.' I wrote back and said, ‘Sorry,
it's the real deal. It was all there. The clouds were there, the
green grass was there and the blue sky.
So the next week I got a 100 8-by-10s from them saying ‘Please
autograph them and send them back.
But as Microsoft continues to rework Windows, so, too, do the
owners of the vineyard. Sixteen years later, Bliss is almost
unrecognizable. O'Rear said he used to know the landowners, but
they sold to a new owner a couple of years ago. And time marches