Whimsical 'screen saver' is the toast of personal computerdom


December 30, 1991|By Lee Gomes | Lee Gomes,Knight-Ridder News Service

Every now and then a piece of computer software comes along that is so thoroughly over-engineered, so utterly mission-uncritical and so manifestly productivity-diminishing that it can't help but become a major smash hit best-seller.

That's certainly the case with After Dark, a $49.95 offering for both Macintosh and Windows-based computers that uses whimsical humor and some slick software coding to tackle one of personal computerdom's more obscure problems.

Since its introduction two years ago, After Dark has zoomed to a seemingly permanent spot atop a number of software best-seller lists; has won a cult-like following, especially among hard-core // computer users; has given rise to an entirely new class of programs, complete with me-too imitators; and has transformed a small company in Berkeley, Calif., into a powerhouse in a fast-growing segment of the personal computer software market.

The particular market segment that After Dark dominates is that of screen saver programs. OK, so it's not quite spreadsheets, but with sales of the program estimated by industry sources at more than 10,000 units a month, things do add up.

That After Dark is turning into a smoothly revving cash engine for the privately held Berkeley Systems Inc. is all the more remarkable because the whole point of a screen saver program is, in a sense, to do nothing at all.

Screen savers are designed to prevent the "burn-in," or dark spaces, that can occur when a single fixed image is kept on a computer monitor for too long. Burn-in is often seen, for example, ATM terminals, which usually display the same few lines of text while waiting for a customer to walk up. Many computer users leave their machines on all day -- and sometimes through the night -- because they worry, often incorrectly, about the wear and tear on switches and disk drives that could result from turning their system on and off.

Just about any skilled programmer can quickly churn out a tiny bit of software that darkens a computer screen if the keyboard is not touched for a while. As a result, primitive, if completely effective, screen savers have been staples in free "shareware" libraries almost since personal computers were invented.

You leave your computer, and after so many minutes -- you determine the number -- your screen goes blank, or perhaps begins drawing fancy patterned lines. Return and touch any key, and the screen instantly pops back to how you left it.

Well, very nice, thank you very much, but that was a wee bit too simple for the more-is-more tastes of the average personal computer owner. Around 1987, a Macintosh

program called Pyro came along that shot off animated fireworks when no one was doing anything.

Then, in 1989, After Dark was introduced, and it quickly did for screen saver technology what P. T. Barnum did for small troupes of wandering acrobats.

For example, Version 2 of After Dark, introduced last year, allows the user to pick from more than 30 effects, complete with sound, to fill the screen during idle time.

Some of them are practical -- you can float the company logo or a message to a colleague. Some are meant to be eye-catching, like moire patterns and bouncing balls, and others humorous, such as an aquarium. And some are downright Dada-esque, such as the winged flying toasters that have become Berkeley's System's unofficial mascots.

After Dark also allows users to have several modules on the screen at once, making it a tinkerer's delight.

The appeal of the program is such that for the past year it's been hard to find a computer-equipped office that doesn't have a copy of After Dark somewhere. That should alarm bosses, because the program is addictive, almost like a video game.

In fact, Nicholas Rush, Berkeley System's sales director, said the biggest complaint he gets from users is that they end up wasting too much time playing with it.

Berkeley Systems President Wesley Boyd said that coming up with screen saver ideas is a collaborative process at the 50-person company that includes everyone, not just the firm's six artists.

Most ideas are rejected, he said. Those that pass, such as the one to make the contents of the screen look like they are going down a drain, are those that meet some ineffable, if instantly recognized, notion of "cool."

L "We don't do a lot of market research on this," he conceded.

The company also gets ideas from users via contests. Its current one, which ends April 1, has a $10,000 grand prize.

The flying toasters were a bit of programming expediency. Jack Eastman, Berkeley System's engineering director who wrote the core of After Dark, was working on a piece of animation software at his home computer one day and needed something to bring to life. He looked up, and since his computer was in his kitchen, saw a toaster.

Mr. Eastman drew a crude toaster, slapped a pair of wings on it, and sent it flapping into software history. (The actual toaster in the finished After Dark was drawn by Tomoya Ikeda, a company artist.)

After Dark's success has attracted the inevitable competitors, most notably Intermission, sold by Icom Systems of Wheeling, Ill. Intermission appears to have borrowed a number of generic ideas from After Dark, such as an aquarium, though it presumably reverse-engineered its animated fish to avoid legal challenges.

Other companies have gotten into related fields. For example, Borland International is now selling Screenery, which puts a user-selected picture as a background to a Windows "desk-top."

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