Art suffers with death of ghosts in monitors

Images: No longer needed for protection, screen savers linger as a vision of creativity.

September 06, 1999

When home computers became popular, it appeared that they would give rise to an innovative art form -- the screen saver.

Sold as a way to prevent a persistent image from leaving a permanent ghost on your monitor, screen savers quickly evolved into clever, complex programs that were more fun than most of the programs you could run.

But now, the art form is languishing. Berkeley Systems (www.berksys.com), which built its reputation on toasters that fly across the screen when you weren't using your computer, has branched into other fields. New screen savers are rare, and many seem flat and unimaginative.

There's no sign of a renaissance on the horizon. Blame it on the Internet, blame it on Bill Gates, and, ironically, blame it on improvements in monitor design.

"Screen savers were originally meant to save your screen. Now, with better monitors that don't burn in an image, there's no practical reason for them," said Julie Kanarowski, an associate product marketing manager at Berkeley.

You can blame it on Gates because Microsoft made a handful of screen savers standard equipment on Windows 95 and Windows 98. Why pay $60 for an innovative package of screen savers when you got some with Windows?

At ScreenSaver.com (www.screensaver.com), a newly renovated Web site that boasts 200 screen savers, you can see how the art form is still a long way from its potential. For example, there is a Garfield screen saver in which the cartoon character simply takes an object out of a refrigerator. The screen goes blank, then he's seen taking out something else. It's free, but it is an example of "you get what you pay for."

On the other hand, I liked the quirkiness of the bouncing sheep screen saver, which is free, and the "Attack of the Y2K Bug," which sells for $10.

Eric Robichaud of ScreenSaver.com said many of the screen savers floating around are garbage.

"We post maybe 8 percent of all the screen savers we see," said Robichaud, who also runs R.I. Soft Systems, which makes some of the better screen savers. "Anybody who buys a compiler can go out and build one. But there are very few people who can write a screen saver with enough depth."

It's not that consumers are not looking for good screen savers, Robichaud said. When people search the Internet by topic, screen savers are right behind sex sites and MP3 music files in popularity. ScreenSaver.com gets about 1 million visits a month.

Good screen savers are hard to find on the Internet because browsers are not willing to pay for them -- and the best ones cost a lot to create.

"When we did the 'Terminator 2' screen saver back in '94, it had 10 different modules. You could watch them for hours and not see something twice," Robichaud said. "But it was extremely expensive to produce. It took us six months to develop it with four people really pushing."

Because consumers "are looking for something for free or at low cost, a lot don't have the same depth" as a few years ago, he said of screen savers.

Perhaps because the typical Internet screen saver is so bad, Berkeley Systems still gets a lot of mileage out of its older products. It sold 82,000 copies of "After Dark 4.0" in 1998 -- two years after its original release.

This month, Kanarowski said, Berkeley will release its first new screen saver product since 1996. Celebrating the 10th anniversary of its flying toasters, the release is a repackaging of its most popular screen savers, plus two new ones.

Berkeley has branched out by featuring its screen saver characters in a collection of mini-games, a few of which are surprisingly addicting. "After Dark Games," which sold for $30 when it was released a year ago, is down to $20.

Robichaud said the screen saver will thrive again as an art form as more artists develop programming skills, or when building one requires fewer programming skills.

"Computers have only been around for 20 years and screen savers for 10," Kanarowski said. "Although the category went through a much bigger peak and has declined, I don't see screen savers totally going away. People will always enjoy screen saving. People like to be entertained, and the screen savers will keep getting better."

Pub Date: 09/06/99

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