Steve Ballmer did not write the text for the blue screen of death


Somehow, it ended up widely reported that Steve Ballmer wrote the blue screen of death. And all of those articles cited my article titled "Who wrote the text for the Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog in Windows 3.1?" Somehow, everybody decided to ignore that I wrote "Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog" and replace it with what they wanted to hear: "blue screen of death".¹

Note also that people are somehow blaming the person who wrote the text of the error message for the fact that the message appears in the first place. It's like blaming Pat Fleet for AT&T's crappy service. It must suck being the person whose job it is to write error messages.

Anyway, the Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog was not the blue screen of death. I mean, it had a Cancel option, for goodness's sake. What message of death comes with a Cancel option?

Grim Reaper: I am here to claim your soul.

You: No thanks.

Grim Reaper: Oh, well, in that case, sorry to have bothered you.

Also, blue screen error messages were not new to Windows 3.1. They existed in Windows 3.0, too. What was new in Windows 3.1 was a special handler for Ctrl+Alt+Del which tried to identify the program that was not responding and give you the opportunity to terminate it. Windows itself was fine; it was just the program that was in trouble.

Recall that Windows in Enhanced mode ran three operating systems simultaneously, A copy of Standard mode Windows ran inside one of the virtual machines, and all your MS-DOS applications ran in the other virtual machines. These blue screen messages came from the virtual machine manager.

If you had a single-floppy system, the two logical drives A: and B: were shared by the single physical floppy drive. When a program switched from accessing drive A: to drive B:, or vice versa, Windows prompted you to insert the disk for the new drive:



 XyWrite 


  Please Insert Diskette for drive B:


  Press any key to continue _

Another job of the virtual machine manager is to arbitrate access to physical hardware. As long as two virtual machines didn't try to access the same resource simultaneously, the arbitration could be resolved invisibly. But if two virtual machines tried to access, say, the serial port at the same time, Windows alerted you to the conflict and asked you which virtual machines should be granted access and which should be blocked. It looked like this:



 Device Conflict 


'XyWrite' is attempting to use the COM1 device, which 'Procomm' is currently using. Do you want 'XyWrite' to take control of the device?


Press Y for Yes or N for No: _

Windows 3.1 didn't have a blue screen of death. If an MS-DOS application crashed, you got a blue screen message saying that the application crashed, but Windows kept running. If it was a device driver that crashed, then Windows 3.1 shut down the virtual machine that the device driver was running in. But if the device driver crashed the Windows virtual machine, then the entire virtual machine manager shut itself down, sometimes (but not always) printed a brief text message, and handed control back to MS-DOS. So you might say that it was a black screen of death.

Could not continue running Windows because of paging error.

C:\>_



















The window of opportunity for seeing the blue Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog was quite small: You basically had to be running Windows 3.1 or Windows 3.11.

Next time, we'll see who actually wrote Windows 95 blue screen of death. Spoiler alert: It was me.

¹ I like how The Register wrote "Microsoft has revealed" and "Redmond's Old new thing blog", once again turning me into an official company spokesperson. (They also chose not to identify me by name, which may be a good thing.)

DailyTech identified me as a Microsoft executive. I'm still waiting for that promotion letter. (And, more important, the promotion pay raise.)

First honorable mention goes to Engadget for illustrating the article with the Windows 95 dialog that Steve Ballmer didn't write. I mean, I had a copy of the screen in my article, and they decided to show some other screen instead. I gues nobody bothered to verify that the dialogs matched.

Second honorable mention goes jointly to Gizmodo and lifehacker for illustrating the article with the Windows NT blue screen of death. Not only was it the wrong dialog, it was the wrong operating system. Nice one, guys.

And special mention goes to BGR, who entirely fabricated a scenario and posited it as real: "What longtime Windows user can forget the panic that set in the first time their entire screen went blue for no explicable reason and was informed that 'This Windows application has stopped responding to the system.'" Yeah, that never happened. The Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog did not appear spontaneously; you had to press Ctrl+Alt+Del to get it. The answer to their question "Who remembers this?" is "Nobody." BGR also titled their article "It turns out Steve Ballmer was directly responsible for developing Windows most hated feature." He didn't develop the feature. He just wrote the text. I also wonder why giving the user the opportunity to terminate a runaway program is the most-hated feature of Windows. Sorry for giving you some control over your computer. I guess they would prefer things the way Windows 3.0 did it: A runaway program forces you to reboot.

Comments (61)
  1. steven says:

    I remember Windows 3.1 rather fondly. Although the GUI was nearly identical to the Windows 3.0 version, the OS seemed a sufficient improvement over the older one that it might as well have been a major version bump. Whereas my experience with Windows 3.0 showed me the dreaded UAE (Unrecoverable Application Error) screen much more than I would like, the Windows 3.1 experience was much more pleasant and stable.

  2. pc says:

    The best part about the Internet is that it allows everybody to be a publisher.

    The worst part about the Internet is that it allows everybody to be a publisher.

  3. Joshua says:

    I used to get an actual BSOD on Win 3.1. It looked identical to the ctrl-alt-del screen where all programs are responding only it came up on its own. The cause was a CD-ROM drive that would never let go of the sound-card assisted IDE bus while trying to read a scratched CD. It could be cleared by pressing some key but the screen would go black and up it came a minute later.

    [That was the device conflict dialog, not the blue screen of death (because Windows 3.1 didn't have a blue screen of death; the death screen was black – see article). -Raymond]
  4. skSdnW says:

    The scary part of this is of course that we have to assume that this level of quality reporting is the norm. Mainstream media is not a much better than "news blogs" in this case, there is a lot of copy/paste and sloppy work going on.

  5. Jalopy says:

    BGR even include the text "Press CTRL+ALT+Del _again_"

    So it spontaneously appears but knows what you pressed to make it spontaneously appear? Nice.

  6. RaceProUK says:

    At least Engadget had the decency to correct their article :)

  7. IanBoyd says:

    I'm amazed when i see how much of the hardware technology that Windows 3.1 was taking advantage of. At the time i didn't really understand what protected mode was, and what it meant to create virtual machines.

    It must have been a huge undertaking to write a protected mode operating system, that sat atop a "real" virtual x86 operating system, arbitrating access between them. And then only have this exist if you chose to run in "enhanced" mode. And the beginning use of virtual memory for the Windows and DOS virtual 8086s.

    Heroic efforts to take advantage of these amazing improvements by the Intel CPUs.

  8. xix says:

    When I saw the article on el reg last week I was going to comment that they misrepresented the post, but apparently you can't comment anonymously without an account.  I'm guessing to cut down on comment spam. Pity they can't seem to stop posting click-bait articles.  

  9. Joe Brinkman says:

    So you're saying that Windows 3.1 had multiple BSOD screens each with different messages? ;)

  10. RRR says:

    Not only did they ignore your title, but they ignored they own title as well.

    I saw at least one article which said "Ctrl+Alt+Del" in the title and "Blue Screen Of Death" in the rest of the article.

    The thing is, people just don't know the difference. Especially a dime a dozen google news-sucking "journalists".

  11. TheFuture says:

    Tomorrow's tech headlines: "Steve Ballmer is personally responsible for every error in all versions of Windows, according to official company spokesperson."

  12. Daniel says:

    Oh my god: Raymond is responsible for Windows 95 most hated feature!! Every BSOD is Raymond's fault!!

    BTW: it's possible that they actually wanted to quote "Raymond's Old new thing blog" but some "proof-reader" changed it to "Redmond's Old new thing blog". The two are a bit too close…

  13. Azarien says:

    Windows 3.1 "black screen of death" wasn't necessarily black. You could change MS-DOS default colors via ANSI.SYS (though not all console programs respect that setting, resulting in ugly black lines on your pretty coloured screen).

  14. Dave Bacher says:

    Journalism major gets facts wrong in a story, more at 11.

  15. Rich M. says:

    I guess it's impossible for some people to tell the difference between screens when they've got blue backgrounds.

  16. Mordachai says:

    That's one of the funniest reactions to one of your articles I've personally witnessed.  That must be bizarre for you.

    I used to love reading "Inside Windows" type books, as I was pretty fluent on how DOS provided its software interrupt services and TSR programs were handled and so on.  Windows 3.11 was pretty amazing and useful to me.  A huge leap forward from DOS.  Thanks for tidbit, sorry for your headaches.

  17. Andreas says:

    I like how in an update Engadget tries to pin their mistake/incompetence on Raymond:

    "Chen has since updated his story"

    Yeah, right…

  18. Sigmund Fraud says:

    It is the present impacting the memory of the past. Any blue screen is perceived as a serious error by modern Windows users. Thus, seeing the old Ctrl+Alt+Del dialogue moves thought to their more recent memory of a blue screen, which was likely a genuine BSoD, due to its high relative importance. They would only really notice the difference if they took the time to read the screen. Which apparently, no one did.

  19. lefty says:

    The honorable mentions were things that irritated you.  However, on the bright side, I find them them most amusing, so they can't be all bad.  Right?

  20. slipstream says:

    So, who wrote the Windows 95 general protection fault / "illegal operation" message?

  21. noko says:

    Why would terminating a runaway program take the whole window? Really a crappy feature.

    [Because co-operative multitasking. -Raymond]
  22. me says:

    Next you'll see it up on Wikipedia citing those news sites as the source. This is the Truth in the making.

  23. Gerben Vos says:

    I'm more surprised that Windows contained a hyphenation routine that could hyphenate "Procomm". Or would that have been "Pro-comm"? Even then surprising.

    [Oops, forgot to disable hyphenation in the screen shots. -Raymond]
  24. David Williamson says:

    Raymond,

    This is a good post that shows the friction between the exactness that is required of the development community and the practical-ness of the rest of the world.

    Dave

  25. jaja says:

    Woo nice!

  26. xpclient says:

    What this post brilliantly shows is how sloppy the quality of tech journalism has got. Foolish writers, foolish readers, foolish end users, dumbed down products made for them. You get the idea.

  27. Paramanand Singh says:

    This post reveals mainly two things:

    First the good part is that world pays great attention to what you say. Second and the bad part is that they are trying to use your name (and reputation attached with it) to justify all sorts of crap they believe. I mean I did not really believe that journalists working for famous news sites make such horrible mistakes.

    I would be more careful next time when I read news articles from these websites like register, engadget etc.

  28. RGriffin says:

    Hmmm, it would be interesting to write an fake article about how Ballmer invented the O/S crash and software bugs, which resulted in generations of buggy software practices. Then release it and see how many of these news blogs pick up on it and report it as top new stories! Mwahahaha….Except, there is a good chance this will actually happen and Ballmer will have yet another headache.

  29. Ken in NH says:

    @T. West

    Michael Crichton gave this a name some time ago: The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

    "Hey, this article is complete crap. They don't know anything about computers." [flips to page B5] "Ooo, I didn't know that the Pope stops wearing white vestments after Labor Day".

  30. jader3rd says:

    @alger1, Do you know what also sucks? Being the person whose job it is to write error messages, only to be confused by inaccurate error messages that were supposed to be yours, but the 'translators' decided to re-write the original English error message to make it easier to translate.

  31. Mostly I think it proves that many so-called journalists have really poor reading comprehension skills.  I'm pretty sure they used to teach it when I was at school; I can only assume it's gone out of fashion.

  32. user says:

    Good job Raymond for calling them out.  Now I know never to visit those sites.

  33. Nico says:

    > Next time, we'll see who actually wrote Windows 95 blue screen of death. Spoiler alert: It was me.

    Okay, well now you're just /asking/ for it! :)

    The only "story" I read about your article was on Slashdot, and while the summary and article were horrible (as is usually the case for Dice), one of the first comments clarified (also as usual): "There's nothing to discuss. Ballmer wrote the message. So what?"  Most of the rest of them degenerated into arguing about showing "cryptic error messages" to the user (and I'd be curious to hear of discussion/design around the balance of "what do we show the user after a point-of-no-return failure").

  34. Scott says:

    Thanks for writing this up. Love the historical info you share!

  35. Not about bad journalism says:

    > Next time, we'll see who actually wrote Windows 95 blue screen of death. Spoiler alert: It was me.

    Raymond Chen is mad because Steve Ballmer took his credit :D

  36. T. West says:

    > Michael Crichton gave this a name some time ago: The Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.

    Neat!  I didn't know there was a name for this.

    I have to say though, it must be pretty thankless to be a journalist.  As ancillary revenue that paid for journalism has disappeared via craigslist, etc., journalism is pretty much having to survive on what people are willing to pay for hard, accurate news.  And it's abundantly clear at this point that what people are willing to pay for hard, accurate news is almost nothing (as an aggregate).

    Thus I suspect that I'm getting exactly the quality of journalism I deserve…

  37. GregM says:

    "Not only did they ignore your title, but they ignored they own title as well.  I saw at least one article which said "Ctrl+Alt+Del" in the title and "Blue Screen Of Death" in the rest of the article."

    According to a friend in the newspaper business, the headlines are written by editors, not the article authors.  I don't know if that carried over to online journalism.

  38. Avenida says:

    > The thing is, people just don't know the difference.

    This. I suspect the confusion stems largely from the fact that Windows 3.1 has been obsolete so long that the average person doesn't remember there was more than one blue message screen. So a layperson sees Raymond's mockup of a blue screen and immediately thinks "blue screen of death."

    [The average person has never used Windows 3.1 and therefore doesn't know that Windows 3.1 blue screen messages were informative, not fatal. -Raymond]
  39. chentiangemalc says:

    rolled my eyes when i saw your previous post got slashdotted and misinterpreted over all the tech sites. but nice follow up post here, esp. the BGR quote :)

  40. George says:

    Exactly, xix. The problem is that so many of these "news" sites just post unconfirmed rubbish, or rehashed, old stores for clickbaiting purposes. Even less fact-checking than traditionally bad journalists!

  41. T. West says:

    > The scary part of this is of course that we have to assume that this level of quality reporting is the norm.

    You've got to be wrong.  

    I mean, yes, they *do* mess up pretty much anything where I personally know the details, but surely the fact that each writer has to research, write, edit and fact-check a dozen high-click-through articles a day doesn't prevent them from being completely accurate in all the rest of the articles.  

    The obvious explanation is that they concentrate all their errors into the articles that I actually know something about the topic.  After all, if you can't believe the Internet, who can you believe?

  42. Henri Hein says:

    Though I don't have much confidence in news writing, it's still woeful to be reminded how bad it is.  The silver lining is that I enjoyed reading your exposition.  Seriously.  This post made my day.

  43. Paul Coddington says:

    "Next time, we'll see who actually wrote Windows 95 blue screen of death. Spoiler alert: It was me."

    Now I'm a bit concerned that Raymond will one day be noted in Wikipedia as "the first against the wall when the revolution came".

  44. alegr1 says:

    >It must suck being the person whose job it is to write error messages.

    It sucks more being the person whose job is to *translate* error messages.

  45. cheong00 says:

    @RRR : I think most people who did use computer in Win3.X's time was still using DOS + Novell Netware configurations and Windows was not essential at that time.

    There's probably fewer people who had chance to see the actual message prompt than you think.

  46. mito says:

    The Internet at it best, they don't care about accuracy, the care about page views and ads click

    which lead to fabricated, and distorted post.

    Next might be, "Microsoft Exec reveals he wrote Windows Blue Screen Of Death"

    I think they will keep the Exec in the title, and not even Windows 95 is mentioned.

  47. Spire says:

    I suggest that now that you've become the de facto spokesperson for Microsoft, you legally change your name to Redmond Chen.

  48. Klimax says:

    @RGriffin:

    Too late. Or have you not read any of comments in linked articles? ("Best" article and comments go to macdailynews)

    Side note: I saw CAD message quite few times…

  49. Cavaler says:

    That "Grim Reaper" miniature was so Pratchett-like!

  50. DebugErr says:

    Thanks for the linking to the bad articles. Now I can add several stupid copycat-websites to my block list.

  51. Neil says:

    @Cavaler But the text isn't in small caps, is it?

    @IanBoyd Apparently IBM did it first with TopView, although DESQview is better known.

  52. Chris Crowther @ Work (where they can't remember their password) says:

    > [The average person has never used Windows 3.1 and therefore doesn't know that Windows 3.1 blue screen messages were informative, not fatal. -Raymond]

    Does this make us above or below average?

    Or possibly just old.

  53. Katie says:

    "I suggest that now that you've become the de facto spokesperson for Microsoft, you legally change your name to Redmond Chen."

    Showing that sort of dedication to the company may be exactly what you need to get that executive position.

  54. Mr Cranky says:

    The prime requirement for any journalist is to know nothing about anything.  Keeps them unbiased.

  55. ErikF says:

    @Chris Crowther: The average person hasn't used Windows 3.1 in over 20 years, if they ever used it at all. Of course, as programmers, we probably have VMs with not just Windows 3.1 but 2.0 as well for good measure, and 16-bit C compilers installed, "just in case" :-) Does that make programmers packrats?

  56. Joshua says:

    [not the blue screen of death]

    Hmm. It looks like somebody actually grabbed it somehow.

    fc05.deviantart.net/…/Classic_Windows_3_1_BSOD_by_rhf.png

    [That is also not the blue screen of death. That is the blue screen of "Ctrl+Alt+Del is unable to show you what is wrong, but you can try waiting it out". -Raymond]
  57. Alex Cohn says:

    @Joshua: this screenshot was probably taken on a very modern VM. I don't think Win 3.1 ever supported video adapters that could drive screens 120×48 in text mode.

  58. cheong00 says:

    @Alex Cohn: Agreed. I think DOSBox and the old Virtual PC 2004 emulates S3 display card and people have shared S3 drivers for it.

  59. Colle Deathe says:

    Hey- where do you live? Are you from around the neighborhood? ARE you around from the neighborhood? What is your address? Do you live just right up the road? Are you from down the road. Are you from around here? Welcome to Chinatown!

  60. Mark Hakala says:

    you YOU  people post about os systems that r 20 + youars old how care"s don't live in the past  DA jenus you r not MWH face book hakfinn @msn.com  os 9 try it you will like it or NOT its 2014 know DA

  61. Marc K says:

    "That is the blue screen of "Ctrl+Alt+Del is unable to show you what is wrong, but you can try waiting it out""

    For me, that screen usually ended up being a death screen.  Waiting it out typically didn't work.  So, it was usually a reboot after this.

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