The Greatest Error Messages of All Time

“They’re rarely helpful. Actually, they usually add insult to injury. But what would computing be without ’em? Herewith, a tribute to a baker’s dozen of the best (or is that worst?).”

So says Harry McCracken of the completely awesome website Technologizer.

He put together this incredibly well thought out and devilishly funny list of those messages that make your blood boil now & then:

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.

10. Power On Self-Test Beep (PCs)
Garden-variety error messages involve words, and sometimes pictures, that alert you to a problem. What if the problem in question is so severe that the computer can’t generate words and pictures at all? Enter the Power On Self-Test Beep, a form of error notification that dates back to the original IBM PC. It’s a Morse Code-like sequence of beeps that a computer’s BIOS emits over a PC’s tinny internal speaker to let you know that something’s amiss.

Different BIOSes use different beep sequences: The original PC, for instance, used one short beep and two long ones to tell you that there was a problem with the graphics adapter. (One short beep, on the other hand, meant that everything was fine.) With the widely-used AMI BIOS, eleven (!) beeps means something’s wrong with the cache. Most of use don’t come across POST beeps very often these days–but I still get them sometimes when I hit too many keys before my computer is ready to accept input. It always makes me a tad nostalgic.

9. FailWhale (Twitter)
If this image of a blissful whale taking to the skies with the help of some bird pals was a mural at your kid’s school, you’d think it was cute. For fans of the Twitter microblogging service, though, the FailWhale is a sort of supervillain. Originally a piece of stock art by artist Yiying Lu, he (she?) appears when the service is too overloaded to work properly–which has been pretty darn frequently, though the whale has been a little less busy in recent weeks. If you can explain what the image has to do with a Web 2.0 service buckling under extreme traffic, please let me know.

Like a surprisingly high percentage of famous error messages, the FailWhale is available in T-shirt form. And on a coffee mug. Hey, it’s the subject of a fan club and has even showed up as a tattoo. Is it overreaching to call this adorable amniote the most powerful whale since Shamu?

8. lp0 on fire (Unix)
Most printer error messages alert you to issues that you can deal with pretty expediently. Paper jam? No sweat. Empty ink cartridge? Pricey, but solvable. Lp0 on fire, however, stemmed from a printer issue that could potentially destroy property and take lives: The giant high-speed line printers used with Unix systems back in the 1970s were prone to overheating and bursting into flames. Unix couldn’t tell if that had happened, so it erred on the side of telling users that the printer (aka Line Printer 0 aka Lp0) was on fire even when all it knew was that the printer had troubles of some sort.

The problem eventually went away–or at least I haven’t encountered any Unix geeks who have had to douse their output device recently–but the error message lives on. Even if most users never see it, it’s buried deep inside the kernel of some modern Unix-based operating systems. So it’s there if it’s needed. Maybe we could use similar error messages these days for laptop batteries and iPods?

7. Kernel Panic (Unix/Macintosh)
Call it the Tasteful Gray Screen of Death. Macs may have a reputation for being more reliable than Windows boxes, but they too can suffer abrupt crashes so overwhelming that there’s no way to recover except to reboot the machine. They’re known as Kernel Panics–don’t you just love it when error messages include soothing words like “panic” in their name?–and they’re one of the features of Unix that Macs picked up when they adopted the Unix-based OS X in 2001.

Mac Kernel Panics are just as depressing as Windows Blue Screens of Death, but considerably more stylish: Rather than spewing hex code at you, they tell you the bad news in four languages superimposed on an image of a power button. Steve Jobs has a far better track record than Bill Gates for avoiding embarrassing glitches during demos, but if a Kernel Panic ever loomed on a screen behind him at one of his Macworld keynotes, it would match his black turtleneck perfectly.

6. Windows Must Restart Because the Remote Procedure Call (RPC) Service Terminated Unexpectedly (Windows)
This one is sort of a Blue Screen of Death in slo-mo–more mysterious, equally alarming, and even more distressing when you learn what has likely prompted it. Vast numbers of people encountered it starting in August, 2003, when their Windows computers suddenly told them that something called the RPC service had died and began a countdown to a forced reboot which couldn’t be avoided.

The message may have involved an error, but the whole thing was totally intentional, because the error was spawned by the Blaster worm, which, like any well-written worm, spread like wildfire the moment it was released onto the Net. Discovering it carried a double whammy: Not only was your PC prone to start shutting down within moments of the time you rebooted it, but you were also infected with a worm!

On August 29th, 2003, Minnesotan Jeffrey Lee Parson was arrested for writing a version of the worm; he was eventually sentenced to prison for his handiwork. Let’s hope he learned the…error of his ways.

5. Does Not Compute (Lost in Space, etc.)
Funny thing: The error message that sums up error messages as well as any error message ever has is fictional. It’s Does Not Compute, a phrase most closely asociated with Lost in Space‘s Robot, though it’s been uttered by countless cyborgs and computers over the years. (Apparently, it dates to the 1964 sitcom My Living Doll, in which a scientist played by Bob Cummings builds a glamorous android played by Julie Newmar; her catch phrase was “That does not compute!)

What sort of error, exactly, does “Does Not Compute” refer to? As Wikipedia’s excellent article on the phrase says, it’s “usually the computer’s response to information which it had received but could not reconcile with other information it already held to be true.” In extreme cases, it’s followed by the device in question self-destructing, a form of punctuation that you rarely encounter with real-world error messages.

I chose to limit myself to one fictional error message in this list, but I could go on: If I ever produce a sequel to this story, I guarantee you that “I’m sorry, Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that” will be on it.

4. The Red Ring of Death (Xbox 360)
It sounds like a painful, nagging medical condition. In fact, it’s an error message delivered by Microsoft’s Xbox 360 console–but the bad news is that, like “Does Not Compute,” it’s often terminal. The name comes from the fact that the Xbox delivers the bad news by lighting up three of the four quadrants of the illuminated ring that encircles its power button. What it’s telling you is that it’s suffered a breakdown that requires that you ship the console back to Microsoft for repairs. But Xbox owners are so loath to do that that the Web is rife with homegrown cures for the RRoD, and there’s even a $30 e-book on the subject.

The Xbox 360 reportedly suffered from worse-than-usual manufacturing defects in its early years, so lots of gamers have dealt with the heartbreak of RRoD. The good news, such as it is: Microsoft conceded problems with the console and extended the warranty of any unit that suffered a Red Ring of Death. Repairs to defective Xboxes cost the company $1.15 billion–making RRoD a contender for the honor of being the most expensive error message in history.

3. Sad Mac (Macintosh)
Back in the day, serious MS-DOS fans–the kind who sneered at any interface that involved pictures as well as words–derided the Mac for being cute. It was cute. And it insisted on being cute even when it was telling you that it had just crashed, destroying your work in progress.

The “Sad Mac” image might have more accurately been called the Gravely Ill Mac Teetering on the Edge of Death, since it looked more infirm than unhappy. Designed by Susan Kare, it showed up upon bootup when something was seriously wrong with your Mac, instead of the cheery “Happy Mac” that normally greeted you. It was accompanied by the traditional useless hexadecimal codes sported by error messages of the era.

The Sad Mac has such a strong flavor of early Macintosh-ishness that it’s easy to develop a false memory that it was part of the platform from the beginning in 1984. Nope–Wikipedia says it first appeared in 1987. (The nearly-as-famous Bomb error came first.) Sad Mac is no longer with us, but iPods have a Sad iPod error that pays tribute to it; I’m happy to say I’ve yet to see it on any of my own personal iPods.

2. 404 File Not Found (Web)
By any measure, this error–which simply tells you that you’ve attempted to visit a URL that isn’t there–must be one of the most-encountered error messages in history. It’s the only HTTP error that anyone who’s not a Webmaster can quote from memory. And it’s pleasantly harmless, since it almost never brings news any worse than a page having been moved or a typo on your part.

In principle, 404 File Not Found should be one of the dreariest of errors; in fact, many sites take it as an opportunity to be creative. For instance, check out Hulu’s page. And The New Yorker’s. And this one. And this one. There’s even 404 poetry.

Oh, and does the fact this error is called 404 mean there are at least 403 other HTTP errors you might run into? Nope: the first “4″ means it involves a syntax error or can’t be fulfilled, and the “04″ is its sequence within errors of that sort. Here’s the whole fascinating list of HTTP errors–read and enjoy!

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):

And Times Square Penn Station (photo by Chad Dickerson):

It has no mercy–it loves to taunt even Bill Gates:


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