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On a recent visit to a large company, I walked through a room filled with employees working on computers. Each computer looked the same - beige box, large monitor, screens filled with text and numbers. Later that day, I walked through the same room when most of the workers were in a meeting. Now the unattended computer screens looked very different. Each monitor displayed a unique screen saver that made the computers sparkle with personality. One screen was filled with bouncing dancing babies, one proudly exhibited pictures of loved ones, another displayed a serene beach scene, and one used a scrolling marquee to declare that Darin was  "Out to Lunch".

In the early days of personal computers, if a certain image or string of text or numbers was constantly displayed on a computer screen, that image could become permanently burned into the screen, ruining the monitor. In response to this danger, small programs called screen savers were developed to keep the screen active by displaying moving text, graphics, and animation. Once monitor technology improved, screen savers were no longer needed. As it turned out, computer users were not willing to give up their dancing toasters and bouncing balls. Not only did users like the color and animation screen savers offered, but they also found that screen savers were a fun way to infuse their computers with a little personality.

Windows computers have a variety of screen savers built into the operating system. When you purchase a new computer, a screen saver is probably pre-installed. To access and/or change the screen saver, simply right-click on any blank area of the Windows desktop and choose Properties from the menu that appears. Then click on the Screen Saver tab.

If you have Internet access and want to have some fun with screen savers, you are in luck. Just about every type of screen saver is available on the Internet, and many of them are a free download away. Go to any search engine like Google (www.google.com ) or Yahoo (www.yahoo.com) and type in the words Screen Saver. You will be presented with a list of Web sites that offer every type of screen saver from tasteless to truly artistic. Mac users needn't be left out. There are plenty of sites for you. Some, like Mac Screen Savers at www.macscreensavers.com , are exclusively for Mac users.

I recently tried an interesting Web site called Webshots at www.webshots.com. No registration is required to download their small program. Once that is accomplished, you can use any of their free 5,000 full color images for your Windows wallpaper (background) or screen saver. Choices include animals, people, 3-D art, space, travel, and much more. The software includes an automatic Web connection that downloads new photos every day. You can also post your own photos on the Webshots site and/or access more than four million photos posted by other Webshots community members.

If you are the more serious type and would like a productive screen saver, you might try a distributed processing program called the SETI@Home experience. The University of California-Berkeley has developed a screen saver that can be downloaded at http://setiathome.ssl.berkeley.edu/ . The SETI program uses the world's largest radio telescope to capture data from outer space. Your screen saver will harness the spare power of your computer (and millions of other computers) to process this data and help in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). You can actually view the screening of the data as it is processed in your computer.

Several other distributed processing programs have been proposed and are currently being implemented. Because these programs use the processing power of idle home computers, they are ideally suited to be developed as screen savers.

Whether you use your screen saver for fun or distributed processing, I think you'll find the saga of the screen saver interesting. Rather than becoming extinct when their original purpose was retired, screen savers have moved on to serve new roles. Not many other products have managed that challenge.