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A Brief History of Screensavers

Old Computer
©Konrado Fedorczyko

The first screensavers were developed to minimize screen "burn in" on CRT (cathode ray tube) computer monitors similar to television sets. A simplified explanation is that the front inside of the tube is coated with a phosphor compound which illuminates when hit by high speed electrons shot out by the electron "gun" at the back of the tube setup. The phosphor, when hit by the speeding electrons, turns the kinetic energy of the electrons into light. A general slow degradation of the phosphor compound's capacity to illuminate over time was known but the problem was the accelerated local degradation or "burn in" caused by a static image displayed over a prolonged period of time. This loss of the illumination capacity of the phosphor compound prematurely was the big concern.

Minimizing this degradation of the monitor screen was the idea behind a screensaver program. The very first and still most effective is a black screen that comes on automatically after a set time of inactivity. Black means no light which equals no possible damage. The Windows monitor sleep function does that for you now.

Then the idea came about for images that moved around on a black background. Amusing images would move around the screen instead of displaying a plain black screen. One example from 1989 was images of flying toasters on a black background. It became very popular and soon every computer monitor had something like it on. The race was on to develop even more amusing, amazing images. The next step was animating images instead of static images moving around the screen. They ranged from cartoons to psychedelic patterns and visual effects.

Next to come were 3D animated images. One of the first was Steve Gibson's ChromaZone from the mid 1990's. It is still a remarkable program for its 132 KB size and capabilities. Another breakthrough screensaver was Glacier Point Software's tour de force Night Bird. A flying bird in dynamic 3D environment for the first time at only 334 KB in size, sadly company information and products are no longer available on the net. Another company that specialized in dynamic 3D screensaver that were very small in size was Netherlands's Shortcut Software. Its Gizmozone screensavers were ahead of the pack in the early 2000's. However, they too have moved on to other endeavors and their screensavers are no longer available.

Now the majority of 3D screensaver environments are huge in size by comparison. They average over 2 GB in size and go all the way up to 47 GB for the Flight Sims demo. This would have been absurd or not possible for the average person in the 1990's to download via phone lines at sub 56 kbps speed.

The size of a screensaver depends mostly on the programming language used and the type and size of the graphics involved. The languages can all do basically the same thing but some can do it easier or in a much smaller size. Resolution of an image is the number of pixels used to display it and as resolution increases the image size increases correspondingly. A slide show screensaver of high resolution photographs can be quite large in size compared to line drawings like cartoons or patterns. Typically, the more detailed a scene is the larger the screensaver size. However size does not equate quality content.

File size of screensavers used to matter but with today’s technology it does not have too much significance when compared to downloading movies, music and videos. Even Flight Sims can seem relatively insignificant. However many developers take pride in their ability to produce lean and trim programs and that is a good thing.

Even in the mid 1990's a hard drive with a 1 GB capacity was an expensive top of the line product considered huge. It looks as though capacity has doubled every couple of years since and now 250 GB is considered mainstream. Developers used to fret and struggle mightily to keep screensavers under 1.4 MB so they would fit on one floppy disk. Now it is just a funny anachronism.

As the popularity of computers grew so did screensavers. In the late 1990s computers became main stream and nearly every household, student and workplace had one. That correspondingly spawned thousands of screensavers produced by hundreds of developers.

Owing to the immense popularity of screensavers, some time at the turn of the millennium marketers began to use screensavers as one of the internet vehicles for advertising and market research. The screensaver’s advertised functionality became secondary to the hidden agendas of marketers unbeknownst to the end users.

Many varieties of popular applications were turned into adware and spyware delivery vehicles that were offered attractively as free or a demo. For the consumer it was bad news, their rights had been thrown out the window by big moneyed marketers. They induced many, including screensaver developers, to bundle their software with adware and spyware. Efforts to combat this unfortunate turn of event and the consequent surge of consumer abuse lead to the birth of a subset of the anti-virus industry, the adware and spyware detection and removal programs. That function now however is being shifted to be part of the operating system's security suit.

Like any other commodity there are true gems among the mass of the undistinguished. Some are from years ago that are classics and as such remain independent of time and technology. By that I mean the basic programming languages have not changed over the years and elements like animation, color and graphics are only enhanced by new technology. If animation ran well on a Pentium 100 machine over ten years ago it should run fantastic on a dual core machine now and red is red and blue is blue then and now, a more powerful video card can only display the colors better.

There are great developers and companies from all parts of the globe that produce safe and wonderful screensavers today. Some of the most innovative and fun programs are produced by individual programming buffs who do it for the joy of creativity. They are all out there for you to enjoy.



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