By Harry McCracken | Thursday, September 18, 2008 at 5:28 am
1. The Blue Screen of Death (Windows)
Okay, there was never a real contest here. You can argue about who the greatest baseball player was. Or the best rock group. Or president of the United States. With error messages, though, the Windows Blue Screen of Death–also known as BSoD–is by far the biggest kahuna of all time. And that’s in part because of its longtime habit of appearing on some of the biggest computer screens ever, anywhere and everywhere it pleases.
Such as a projected image during the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics:
And a Canadian department store (photo by Sean Galbraith):
And airports all over the world (photo by Antonio Lopes):
Times Square Penn Station (photo by Chad Dickerson):
It has no mercy–it loves to taunt even Bill Gates:
A few notable facts about the BSoD, about which you could probably write a book:
It wasn’t a Windows error message, originally. Wikipedia says that it was named by programming-tools company Lattice when it was working on stuff for IBM’s OS/2 operating system. And both OS/2 and versions of Windows prior to 3.1 had Black Screens of Death.
It’s available in handy screensaver form. You can download the BlueScreen Screen Saver, which simulates an uncannily realistic BSoD that’s tuned to the version of Windows you’re running. Who distributes the screensaver? Microsoft–and I’m not sure whether I’m tickled by that, or annoyed that they aren’t taking the whole thing more seriously.
You can wear it. ErrorWear’s BSoD shirts are particularly handsome.
It’s the name of a rock group. Here’s their MySpace page. (It begins to play annoying music the moment you arrive, which seems appropriate.)
Nobody knows for sure why it’s blue. My PC World colleague Steve Fox tried to find out, and the most Microsoft would tell him was that the blue was chosen for legibility. But in the PC’s basic 16-color palette, blue is the first color after black; maybe whoever chose the color was just being lazy and/or unimaginative.
It probably isn’t going anywhere. BSoDs aren’t as commonplace as they once were, but they still happen–just this month, iTunes 8 made news when it turned out that the Windows version was blue-screening PCs. Me, I’d be amazed if Windows Seven doesn’t bluescreen from time to time. It wouldn’t feel like Windows if it didn’t.
Ultimately, it’s not going too far to say that the BSoD is a sort of persistent, universal reminder of the fallibility of computers–and therefore, on some level, a healthy component of our relationship with them. No rational human who’s ever encountered one would willingly turn over major decisions to a computer. Or at least not one that runs Windows.
Oh yeah, that poll I mentioned. If you’ve gotten this far, you must have a deep and abiding interest in error messages. Please cast your vote for the greatest one of all–and if you get an error message when you submit it, don’t blame me…
[UPDATE: Almost four hundred people have chimed into this discussion, and many nominated other error messages that are at least as worthy of celebration as the ones in the story. So celebrate 'em we did--please check out The 13 Other Greatest Error Messages of All Time.]