Some creative programmers and artists are out to prove that the most fun you can have with your personal computer is when you’re not using it.
They create “screen savers,” those varied displays that kick in when a computer is idle to prevent images from burning into the phosphors of a screen. And, as more people are turning on to personalizing their computer, the work is getting more sophisticated, depicting everything from comic strip characters and old movies to national parks.
A whole cottage industry has started around the idea, with companies selling programs that make funny sounds--such as explosions or animal noises--when keys are typed. You can even buy cardboard frames that attach to a monitor with Velcro.
“Employees who are allowed to personalize their work space actually become more satisfied with work,” said Pat Field, spokeswoman for Screenies, a Sonoma, Calif. company that sells 56 kinds of cardboard frames. “There is a little more than fun to this.”
Several leading computer industry research firms say they haven’t followed the accessory market because it’s too small and dominated by just a few companies.
But more than 1 million copies of Berkeley Systems Inc.'s “After Dark” have been sold, and screen saver design contests by computer magazines have drawn hundreds of participants.
Earlier versions of screen savers included kaleidoscopic shapes, shooting stars and scrolling corporate logos, but the latest ones go much further.
For instance, Berkeley Systems has just launched one featuring Disney characters. Delrina Corp. has just started selling one featuring Berkeley Breathed’s characters from “Bloom County” and “Outland.”
One firm is developing custom screen savers to use as a marketing tool. And the biggest software company, Microsoft Corp., jumped into the market in July with screen savers depicting national parks, Impressionist paintings and scenes from space.
The niche faces a threat from newer monitors that are less susceptible to the damage screen savers were meant to prevent, and from a drive for energy-efficient PCs, which turn off when idle.
But Chris Doner, president of Access Softek, which sells screen savers based on old movie clips, said he’s not worried.
“People will continue to use screen savers just because they’re fun,” Doner said. “It’s really that simple.”
And there’s at least one company that is taking screen savers past diversion. Screen Team, an 8-month-old Los Angeles firm, makes custom screen savers that companies can sell or give away.
A pro sports team, for instance, could have one with pictures, logos and schedules with timed reminders on the day of a game, said Jeff Oster, a partner in Screen Team’s parent, Home Run Software Productions.
“When you give somebody a golf ball with your logo, they see it when they play golf,” Oster said. “But with a screen saver, you can time a message to appear on a desktop PC for a week in October. That is really a new vehicle for distributing information.”
Cartoonist Breathed said Delrina’s invitation to develop screen savers brought him into the PC world he had lampooned on the comic pages of newspapers.
His $45 “Opus ‘n Bill” screen savers feature 16 irreverent animated sketches, including Bill the Cat in a White House fling with First Cat Socks and Opus shooting down flying toasters, a popular “After Dark” screen saver. One even blows up Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates while he demonstrates a “Microsquash” product.