“To err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer.” So goes an old quip attributed to Paul Ehrlich. He was right. One of the defining things about computers is that they–or, more specifically, the people who program them–get so many things so very wrong. Hence the need for error messages, which have been around nearly as long as computers themselves..
In theory, error messages should be painful at worst and boring at best. They tend to be cryptic; they rarely offer an apology even when one is due; they like to provide useless information like hexadecimal numbers and to withhold facts that would be useful, like plain-English explanations of how to right want went wrong. In multiple ways, most of them represent technology at its most irritating.
In fact, people have an emotional attachment to many of them–like Proust’s Madeleine, an error message from a machine out of your past can transport you back in time. That’s a big part of why people form clubs to celebrate them, have them tattooed on their person, chronicle them for Wikipedia, and name albums after them. An entire company, the wonderfully-named Errorwear, exists to emblazon the images of such classic errors as the Blue Screen of Death (in four variations!), Guru Meditation, Red Ring of Death, and Sad Mac on T-shirts.
And then there’s this article–my stab at rounding up the major error messages of the past thirty years or so. I ranked them on a variety of factors, including how many people they bedeviled over the years, their aesthetic appeal or lack thereof, and the likelihood that they were notifying you of a genuine computing disaster. Your rankings probably differ from mine, which is why this story ends with a poll on the last page.
Ready? Let’s work through the list, starting with number thirteen and working our way up to the greatest error message of ‘em all.
13. Abort, Retry, Fail? (MS-DOS)
In many ways, it remains an error message to judge other error messages by. It’s terse. (Three words.) It’s confusing. (What’s the difference between Abort and Fail?) It could indicate either a minor glitch (you forgot to put a floppy disk in the drive) or catastrophe (your hard drive had died). And by forcing you to choose between three options, none of which is likely to help, it throws the problem back in your face.
It’s Abort, Retry, Fail?–known in earlier incarnations of MS-DOS by the equally uninformative name Abort, Retry, Ignore?. ARF was probably the first error message to become part of the cultural zeitgeist, as witness its use as the title of a long-running PC Magazine column and a 1996 album by UK technopop act White Town. In this post-floppy era, few of us encounter it. But just thinking about the phrase is enough to send me back to the days when I frequently sat at a computer displaying that message, randomly hitting the A, R, and F keys in hopes that something helpful would happen.
12. Guru Meditation (Commodore Amiga)
The Amiga was a famously advanced multimedia computer, considering that it was designed back in the primitive mid-1980s. But its most alarming error message was decidedly minimalist: red text on a black background, dressed up only by a flashing red border. Like many errors, it included some hexadecimal numbers that were meaningless to 99.9999999999999% of folks who encountered them. But it preceded them with the phrase “Guru Meditation.” When I owned an Amiga, I was never sure what that meant; the reference to a state of zen never did a thing to lower my blood pressure. Turns out that it was a self-indulgent reference to a game the Amiga designers used to play with their first product, the Joyboard–an Atari VCS joystick that you stood on. Har, har.
Like Windows’ later Blue Screen of Death, the Guru Meditation had a habit of showing up in the darndest places, thanks to the wide use of Amigas in the broadcasting industry and for other audio/visual tasks. Once I turned on my TV and saw a Guru Meditation onscreen, and reached to reboot my Amiga–until I realized that it wasn’t even the same room. My cable company’s channel guide, it turned out, had crashed.
11. The Red Screen of Death (Windows)
Microsoft’s infamous Screens of Death come in multiple colors? Who knew? According to Wikipedia, some beta versions of Longhorn–the operating system that became Windows Vista–crashed with a full-screen error message that was red rather than the more familiar blue. Wikipedia seems to say that the final version of Vista can die with a red color scheme when the boot loader has problems, too. I’m relieved to say I’ve never encountered that, as far as I can remember.
I do like the idea of an exclusive SoD in a designer color, though. Maybe Microsoft should team with the (Product) Red folks and revive the RSoD as a charitable effort? If I knew that fifty cents went to a worthy cause every time my PC croaked, I’d be at least slightly less apoplectic.