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'Stupid' computer error messages leave users befuddled

October 6, 1998
Web posted at 2:05 PM EDT

by Steve Ulfelder

(IDG) -- You know what ticks off Ben Ezzell? Bad error messages. Messages that "offer no intelligence, don't tell the user what's wrong [and] frustrate people," he says.

Ezzell is a veteran programmer and author (how many books has he written? "I think 23," he says with uncertainty) who lives in Guerneville, Calif. While researching his latest book, "Developing Windows Error Messages," Ezzell and publisher O'Reilly & Associates held a contest in which they asked people to send in their favorite bad error messages. Ezzell was the sole judge.

Of course, there are degrees of rottenness. "Some bad error messages," Ezzell says, "are just placeholders that slip through. We've all been there." Ezzell acknowledges he once wrote a message that addressed the user as "Dumbkopf" and was mortified when the dialog made its way into production. Thus, he sympathized with Orem, Utah-based Viewpoint DataLabs, which managed to include the following in its LiveArt install:

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Setup is unable to locate a suitable version of DirectX on your machine. You will need to install DirectX before you can use LiveArt98, dumbass!

Sympathy notwithstanding, Ezzell awarded the entry third prize. Red-faced developers at Viewpoint noted that the message had simply slipped through the quality-assurance cracks and that they'd fixed the problem "about 4 seconds after we realized it was still there."

Ezzell hastens to point out that he isn't a Microsoft hater; some of his favorite error messages are from Unix, including this succinct goody:

Printer on fire.

Contest entries

The procedure failed with the following error: The command completed successfully.

Not enough memory to display this dialog.

Error: Keyboard not found. Press F1 to continue.

And its cousin:

Your mouse is not working, please click here to acknowledge.

Cannot delete tmp150_3.tmp: There is not enough free disk space. Delete one or more files to free disk space, and then try again.

Unexpected error, quitting.

What makes this entry, found in Internet Explorer 4.0, is the attached comment:

An Internet error occurred.

Submitter Jeffrey Schmitz writes: "Yeah, right, Bill, the Internet is broken and Internet Explorer is working perfectly."

Windows has found an unknown device and is installing a driver for it.

When using Windows 95 with a Compaq Computer Corp. Presario:

Your system shell has changed. The Compaq software will work with your new shell, but the new shell will not work with your Compaq software. Do you wish to keep your Compaq software working? Click yes if you are unsure.

Error 0000: No errors found, restarting computer.

And finally, the grand-prize winner:

You need to supply a fax number in order for your request not to receive fax notifications to be processed.

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