Would you pay 50 bucks for a program that solves a nonexistent problem by doing almost nothing?
You might if you saw Berkeley Systems' Disney Collection, a screen saver that invites Mickey, Goofy, Donald and the gang to march across your monitor and wreak all kinds of comic havoc when you're not around.
I call this stuff "sillyware," because that's what it is -- software designed to dress up our dreary beige computers and prove that we aren't a bunch of stultified spreadsheet sissies. Programs that play Three Stooges sound clips and utilities that turn Windows icons into dancing California Raisins fall into the same category.
Screen savers have their roots in an earlier generation of hardware, when screen images could actually burn into the phosphors of a monitor if they were left displayed.
Modern monitors, with their high refresh rates and short-persistence phosphors, aren't really susceptible to burn-in. But these same high resolution color displays, combined with increased computing horsepower and a population of demented programmers, have turned the screen saver into an enduring and endearing art form.
Berkeley Systems started the commercial screen saver craze with After Dark for the Apple Macintosh, and later for IBM-compatibles running Microsoft Windows. After Dark's display of animated flying toasters, aquaria and other zany images caught the public imagination and led to a host of imitators. Microsoft included its own screen saver, using the same kind of technology, in Windows 3.1
Berkeley's Star Trek screen saver collection was a hit last year, which is not surprising since scientific studies have shown that a disproportionate number of Trekkies are also computer nerds, and vice versa. The Disney collection, available for the Mac and IBM-compatibles, will undoubtedly appeal to a slightly different audience -- parents of young children or aging baby-boomers like me who insist on wearing Mickey Mouse watches.
The collection includes a dozen different animations, most with sound effects or music if you have a sound board and speakers.
There are two real standouts. The first shows what appears to be a normal image of screen icons and windows, until Goofy comes marching in from the wings and proceeds to dismantle your desktop piece by piece. The manual assures you that your real desktop remains underneath.
The second turns the display black, except for a pair of floating eyes. Suddenly, you hear a match strike, and there's a flame-lit image of Mickey, prowling around a haunted desktop, where he's likely to encounter a skeleton, bat or some other scary thing. The animation here is first rate.
It's hard to figure out why an office utility would include music and sound effects, but this one does. The MIDI rendition of the Academy Award-winning "Under the Sea" that accompanies The Little Mermaid is absolutely spectacular. Unfortunately, the idea of an office full of idle PC's playing this stuff
all at once is a bit frightening, so it's a good thing you can turn the music off.
Speaking of that, the package requires more than a few system resources. Unlike early screen savers, simple programs that occupied only a few kilobytes of memory, the Windows version of the Disney Collection requires four megabytes of memory and eight (count 'em) megabytes of hard disk space for a full installation. You can save space by only installing the screens you want.
Screen savers do have one purpose: security. If you are called away, the animations hide your work.
The Disney Collection is about as close to useless as anything you'll buy for your computer. But it's also great fun. For information, contact Berkeley Systems, 2095 Rose St., Berkeley, Calif. 94709.
(Michael J. Himowitz is a columnist for The Baltimore Sun.)