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Bill Stewart

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THE HISTORY OF SCREENSAVERS

In the late 1980s, we discovered an opportunity to create a new product. By engaging with users, we defined a new market and created incredibly lucrative products that satisfied millions of users. Like all great UX work, we started with a hypothesis and kept making improvements based on user feedback.

THE SHORT VERSION OF THE STORY

It all started with animation experiments by Bill Stewart and Ian MacDonald. We shared an experiment online and named it Magic. Users started paying for it without being asked, but also made numerous requests and sent bug reports. Through many iterative improvement sprints, Magic became a huge hit that made a lot of money. We analyzed user feedback to create customer personas and prioritized task lists. By acting on this feedback, we quickly increased Magic's value in the market. Adding password protection made Magic the first way to lock down a PC. Between saving their screens and protecting company data, companies saw a 15-20x ROI on purchasing Magic which made it incredibly easy to sell large licenses. As we perfected the product and licensing model, Magic became incredibly lucrative and licensed by the biggest companies and governments in the world.

Since our freeware experiment was making money hand over fist with no advertising or consumer reach, we outsourced sales to a publisher to get it in stores. We scaled it up with funny animations like Flying Toasters and changed the name to After Dark. After Dark quickly became the top-selling software product in the world. We sold more copies than Microsoft Word, Mac computers and even Windows itself for a time.

SUMMARY
Even the most smallest thing can evolve into a worldwide success if you collect good data from users, then analyze, execute and iterate. The following links will take you to the full story.

Easy to use


MAGIC SCREENSAVER - LIGHTNING IN A BOTTLE

The idea of paying for a screensaver may seem weird now, but it was 10x weirder back in the late 1980s. Computers were slow. Graphical interfaces were a relatively new thing which made computers slower. You could get a cup of coffee, do jumping jacks or discuss politics while waiting for a big spreadsheet to update. Why would anyone want to pay for software running in the background, slowing their computer even more, that showed animated graphics when they weren't even there to see it?

Screensavers seemed to make no sense, even as a free product. We discovered an opportunity that didn't seem to exist. We had relatively boring contract work, so we experimented with graphic animated infographics to make data more exciting and easier to understand.

It is easier to find something good if you see lots of variations. We rigged up automated animation tests with changing animations as a screensaver. We liked one of the animations with mesmerizing interference patterns, so we posted it online as freeware. Just for fun, Bill called it Magic. It felt magical because it *seemed* to sync with music and calm the mind. We then forgot about it and went back to serious work.

Within a few weeks, letters starting arriving from Magic users. Curiously, they were negative letters detailing a few bugs, how difficult it was to find our address, and how annoying it was to guess how much money to send. Despite the complaints, all the letters included cash. With no price list, users guessed at the price, sending us between $20-$100 cash.

We didn't quite realize what we had, but felt a moral obligation to fix bugs and make it better. It was exciting having fans. Every time we released a new version, our fan base, amount of mail and money coming in jumped up.

Fast


THE SECRET OF OUR SUCCESS: EVOLUTION OF THE SCREENSAVER PRODUCT

Even negative user feedback reveals opportunities. We’d never built anything that motivated people to send me letters, much less SEND US MONEY for BUGGY SOFTWARE. Once we understood the bugs, we fixed them and posted a new release to quiet it down. SIZZLE! A lot more letters. More bugs and more money. We fixed the bugs and set a sale price. BOOM! Suddenly our mailbox was overflowing every morning with fan letters, all with cheques or cash. I talked to more users to figure it out. We identified several important product factors:

  • Why is this valuable to users?
  • How can we ensure that the screensaver won't crash, even if other software messes up memory on the computer?
  • Who are our customers? What is their environment? How do they justify purchasing it?
  • What features can we add that add genuine value for our most important types of users?
  • How can we lower the cost of ownership (beyond simple purchase price)?

We collected and organized user feedback to answer these questions. We discovered that we had a two-pronged value prop.

1. Users enjoyed the soothing animation and the simplicity of the product's interface. In an age when almost all software was a painful mess to use, using Magic was a step into a more elegant world. Magic engaged automatically and went away with a wave of the mouse. It's configuration panel was designed to be highly usable. That was very unusual back then.

2. Users really *needed* Magic to save their screens. At that time, every screen was vulnerable to burn in if you didn't buy a screensaver. We needed to make it easier to justify purchases.

Solving problems isn't that bad when you realize what's really important to solve. We tweaked and redesigned it through dozens of iterations until it ran 24/7, responded instantly, never slowed the computer down at all and never crashed. Not crashing was a HUGE deal back then. Every program ran in the same memory space, so if anything crashed, the computer flatlined until you turned it off, waited, then restarted. Crashing even once was a complete deal-breaker.

MAXIMIZE PRODUCT ROI

If you want to sell to business customers, your product needs a high return on investment (ROI). If you wonder how a screensaver could have an ROI, let me unpack it for you. A typical screen cost $300-$600. At the time, every screen was vulnerable to burn in if you didn't buy a screensaver. That's a lot of cost saving. I also introduced the first password locking system into the Magic screensaver. The value of protecting company data was worth even more preventing screens from burn in. We figured these things out in consultation with our paying customers and then organized that into a sales sheet that showed typical companies achieved 15-20x ROI from licensing Magic for all their computers in the first year.

Magic was ready to step up. All we had to do was open the gates to let it grow. We spelled out the ROI for customers, made it easier for international buyers and built a sliding fee scale for site licenses. We tuned performance and refined the wrap-around password protection to lock up a PC. We also sought out more ways to distribute the trial version to online services, computer books and journalists everywhere.

Operating system


GOING COMMERCIAL - MAGIC BECOMES AFTER DARK

Business was booming, but without marketing, we knew we were only scratching the surface. We had vision. Selling upwards of 85,000 copies of Magic was only the TIP OF THE ICEBERG. At the time, Bill Stewart said that "If we can get this into stores, I'm certain it will sell millions."

You might think this was as far as you could take a screen saver. NOT SO. Instead of just riding the money train, we started Magic 2.0 with a modular design for different animations and user contributions. We started building a collection of novel animations. As soon as we informed users that a module developer’s kit was a coming attraction, tons of users requested first crack at the kit to make their own screen savers. It also sparked many requests for us to develop custom screensavers for corporate clients. We had just started setting up deals with international companies to distribute and sell Magic in local currencies.



We scaled Magic up with funny animations like Flying Toasters and changed the name to After Dark. The working title for the new product was "Magic After Dark", but we simplified to just "After Dark" to differentiate the new product from what we'd already done.

We chose Berkeley Systems as a small company we could outsources sales and marketing to so we could concentrate on designing and developing the ULTIMATE SCREENSAVER.

Before After Dark was released, I got offers from ICOM Simulations and Microsoft to head up screensavers for them based on Magic. They were both better deals, but I told both companies that I wasn’t a capricious deal breaker, so I was sticking with Berkeley. BIG MISTAKE.

As expected, the first version of After Dark exploded, topping sales charts 3 months after initial release. Microsoft showcased After Dark as one of the coolest new products for their platform. After Dark quickly became the top-selling software product in the world. The 2.0 release was an even bigger sensation a year later as the top-selling business utility in the world.

We used trade show demos as a way to engage with customers in a way that became legend. While most booths, including ours, were boring affairs with sales people blabbing about product features, we did something different. As lead designer, Bill was fascinated with connecting with real users, so he did user interviews with customers, demoing a feature to answer each question, but then asking the crowd for more insight about their needs and the context in which they would use the product. Because of the fluid improv style of his demos, he drew huge crowds who stuck around for 30 minutes or longer to see why this product was so popular and how they could buy, distribute or resell it themselves.

"In my experience, show and tell isn't as good as listen and learn."

There were many well-produced competing products that failed in comparison. Our focus on offering the best user experience made our product be valued far higher by our loyal fans than any competitor. Matching us animation for animation and feature for feature DIDN'T ADD UP TO ANYTHING because we were the only ones who understood a) why people wanted and needed the product and b) recognized the value of delivering an awesome user experience.

The average person felt you had to be a genius to work a computer. After Dark showed that normal people could enjoy software.

Saves time


BEYOND AFTER DARK

When After Dark launched, we gave all Magic customers a discount to switch to After Dark since it was the successor product. Magically, very few Magic users actually switched. While After Dark boomed, Magic sales soared too. At the time, it was a pain in the neck. We had a team on After Dark, lots of work to do, and trade shows to travel to. We tried to kill Magic, but it wouldn't die. Many customers stayed with Magic or switched back after trying After Dark. We couldn't stop it, and Magic kept selling for the next 8 years without us upgrading it or doing a damn thing to encourage it. That's what I call Magic.

There were many animation add-on packs to After Dark such as Star Trek, Disney, Simpsons and other media properties. We invented the first live wallpaper, a product to called Before Dark that ran After Dark modules on the desktop as animated wallpaper. It was 15 years ahead of its time but worked flawlessly.

CULTURAL IMPACT

Over time, screensavers became toys and just an entertaining waste of time. The products we designed were not. They served a purpose and made people happy. After Dark was very profitable. It was so big that we sold more copies than Microsoft Word, Mac computers and even Windows itself for a time. We ouldn't cash a cheque, visit the dentist, meet a new client or go to a bistro in Verona without seeing it doing its thing.

By letter, email and in person, thousands of users have told us a) they loved our screensavers and b) it was the only software they didn’t hate.


EPIC FAIL

Unfortunately, Berkeley Systems let profits go to its head. They used a legal loophole to create a new version of After Dark without us at enormous cost. Unsurprisingly, it was a failure. Bad reviews. Negative profits. Company floundered. The most loved brand in software was tarnished. This turn of events reiterates the importance of knowing your product and your customer segments inside out when building an audience or even simply releasing a new version to a loyal fan base.



WHAT WE LEARNED

It was fun to create a pop culture item featured in comic strips, tv shows and movies as something universally recognized. It was nice to hear from designers that our approach to usability and low cost of ownership was influential. These were great things. Learn more from the links below: