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Remember that Windows XP background that was on everyone's computers? Here's the story of how one random photograph ended up on a billion computers.

Here’s how to visit the iconic hill in the Windows XP background

Yes, it’s real. The CGI-looking hilltop that graced your screen when you turned on Windows XP back in the day is a real location and one you can visit. Does it look like the oversaturated blue & green landscape you saw when you opened your laptop all those years ago? Let’s take a look. Cue the Windows XP music! 🎵

How Bliss Hill got to your XP desktop

National Geographic photographer Charles O’Rear drove by Bliss Hill hundreds of times when he visited his girlfriend every Friday night. He would drive past it on the journey from St. Helena to Marin. “I always had a camera with me”, he recalled. 

O’Rear spent over twenty-five years shooting photography professionally, and two of his photographs made it on the cover of National Geographic while he took pictures for them. However, his iconic shot of Bliss Hill would eclipse his career at the prestigious wildlife magazine. 

One day in 1996, on his way to see his then-girlfriend, now his wife, O’Rear pulled over and snapped Bliss Hill. He took it on a medium format Memiva RZ67 with Fuji film, “a film type known for its luxurious colors” per a video from Pseudiom. He used a tripod to capture the shot. The photo turned out “perfectly” per Pseudiom, and O’Rear snapped four shots in a sequence. 

After digitizing the image 90s style (for the younger folks here, he developed the film and scanned the resulting photo), he then uploaded the image to two stock photo websites: one he co-founded, and another frequently used by Microsoft, Corbis. O’Rear uploaded the photos in 1996 but ended up getting his break from Microsoft in 2000. 

Stock footage to Windows XP background

Apparently, Bill Gates or someone at his company saw the photo and fell in love with it. They paid Charles O’Rear a nice little sum – reportedly in the low six-figures – to use the photo. O’Rear can’t say the exact sum thanks to a non-disclosure agreement he signed back then. After he signed the rights away, his pic got to be the Windows XP background and part of a billion-dollar marketing campaign for Microsoft. 

While no one knows exactly who came across the now-famous background, Bill Gates himself was reportedly looking for a simple image he could use as a background for Windows XP. Rather than use a simple blue or beige background (when us older folks think about old backgrounds, we can hear the dial-up), Gates reportedly wanted to change backgrounds up with an actual picture. 

Also, because Microsoft really, really wanted the Bliss Hill picture for their Windows XP background, they paid O’Rear to fly the actual photograph personally from California to their headquarters in Seattle

With Windows XP being a popular operating system, estimates put the number of eyes on this iconic background at roughly 1 billion. That means roughly 1/7th of the world has seen Bliss Hill without knowing where it was, what it was, or that it was a real place. 

“Fake photo”

Charles O’Rear said: “A majority of people who saw that photograph, billions of people, thought it was not a real photograph.” Understandable. The colors are incredibly saturated. The blue sky looks so bright and the clouds are so fluffy, how could it be real? 

Indeed, conspiracy theories abounded about the photo. “What is so blissful about bliss?” YouTuber Pseudiom asked in his video debunking the conspiracies surrounding the Windows XP background. Believe it or not, the photo was taken in January after a storm! “After winter storms in California, the grass looks particularly green”, Pseudiom explained in his video. 

Microsoft cropped the image to fit standard desktops at the time and edited the green to make it pop more. While those were the only edits reportedly done to the Windows XP background photo, other edits were rumored to be thrown into the photo, including subliminal messages. Apart from stated rumors that the clouds & mountains are fake, some people believe something is hidden in the grey shrubby area. 

Bliss Hill now

Bliss Hill still exists, and it’s still a beautiful, green hill. Being in or around Napa, however, it’s often covered in wooden posts & twine to grow grapes for, what else, wine. The little dirt road with a pull-off where O’Rear stopped twenty-five years ago is also gone, replaced by “a bustling highway” according to SFGate

However, if you’re ever in or near Sonoma, California, Bliss Hill can be found by plugging in these coordinates to Google Maps: 38.249069, -122.410126. 

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