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The photo was taken in Sonoma County, just west of the old Stornetta's Dairy along a treacherous stretch of Highway 121 south of Sonoma. And it was snapped by Charles O'Rear, a former National Geographic photographer who was trolling for green hillsides on a January day in 1998 and struck gold with one lucky shot.

"Bliss" is widely regarded as the most viewed picture in the world — up there with such iconic photos as the raising of the American flag at Iwo Jima — considering how many computers worldwide ran on Windows XP and how long the operating system has hung around in common use.

"If you have to be known for a photograph, I guess now it ought to be this one," said O'Rear, 73, who lives in St. Helena and now specializes in taking Wine Country photos. "There's nothing unique about it. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

Renewed attention was drawn to "Bliss" this week when Microsoft suspended tech support for Windows XP, even though an estimated 30 percent of computers in the world still depend on the 13-year-old system. O'Rear, enlisted as an ambassador for the dying system, has been fielding a flood of media queries and just got back from Australia, where Microsoft sent him on a press tour for what amounts to a very long good-bye to Bliss.

In the digital world Windows XP is a dinosaur, launched in the sensitive weeks after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, with an uplifting ad campaign featuring a regular guy soaring like Superman in the skies to a soundtrack of Madonna singing "Ray of Light."

O'Rear was on his way to San Francisco to visit his girlfriend, now his wife, Daphne Larkin, when he happened upon an emerald green hillside bathed in sunlight on the windy highway that hugs the hills between Napa and Arnold Drive.

He pulled over, set up his large format Mamiya RZ67 camera, and took four frames on Fuji film hoping to capture that perfect convergence of color, light and clouds before it vanished.

"A storm had just come through so we had this great visibility," he recalled. "Plus, we had a few white clouds that just happened to be drifting by. The brilliant colors, the blue skies, the white clouds, the clarity. Those factors were enough for me to stop and take a picture."

He submitted the photos to Corbis Images, a stock photo service in Seattle owned by Microsoft founder Bill Gates. It was at least a year or two later before the software giant approached him with an offer to buy the rights to the frame.

He's legally prohibited from disclosing the price but said, "I'm still saying 'Thank you Microsoft' and 'Thank you Corbis.'"

Over the years "Bliss" has became more than a nondescript backdrop for computer icons. It's gained a cult status among digital geeks and artists who can't help but mess with it. A Google search of "Bliss" returns multiple artistic re-imaginings, imitations and parodies. Everything from Ron Burgundy the Anchorman to a full Spartan Army to Dr. Who's Telis time machine have been Photoshopped into that bucolic Sonoma hillside, which likely will remain a meme long after its days as a PC wallpaper have disappeared.

Some people have alleged the photo is digitally enhanced. No so, said O'Rear. "That was before flat-screen monitors. They might have dialed it up a bit but not very much. I have several other frames taken at the same time. I put them on the light table and it's virtually the same color as what I see on the monitor."

Anyone driving along Highway 121/12 looking for the spot now would likely drive right past. In 2001 it was leased to Domaine Carneros, which covered the hill with 140 acres of chardonnay and pinot noir vines. The Napa sparkling wine house bought the property from the Stornetta family several years ago.

Domaine Carneros CEO and winemaker Eileen Crane fondly remembers driving past that peaceful hillside years ago when it was dotted with "golden Guernseys." She said she secretly hoped at the time that no one would ever buy it for development.

"It's absolutely wonderful," she said of the vineyard, which the winery has christened La Terre Promise or The Promised Land. A premium pinot sold only at the winery is single sourced from the hillside otherwise known as Bliss.

It's impossible to quantify how many people have seen the photo. But a figure of more than a billion is not an exaggeration, said O'Rear. "The fact that Microsoft says Windows XP was on 450 million computers and if only two people looked at each screen, that's nearly a billion there."

A spokeswoman for Microsoft on Friday said the company does not "break out figures for Windows users."

He said he's spotted it on screens photographed in the situation room at the White House, in the Kremlin and recently in the control room of a power station in Korea.

Over 25 years O'Rear, who said he retains the right to reproduce "Bliss," traveled the world to exotic spots from Indonesia to Siberia for National Geographic and even took a cover photo holding a microchip in his own hand. But it's a common hillside 25 miles from home that will remain his signature shot. He said he's OK with that.

"Rolling green hills and blue sky have been around forever. It's nothing new," he conceded. "But it sets a tone that says, 'This is as close to Nirvana as you're going to get.' And if that's so, the closest thing to Nirvana on the planet is right here in Sonoma County."