It’s iconic, but Microsoft wishes it wasn’t. In the 90s it was as core to the Windows experience as Paint and Solitaire, but these days it’s not seen very often.
I’m talking, of course, about the Blue Screen of Death. Younger PC users have no idea how common this panic-inducing screen once was, or what it meant. Whatever you were working on was gone, and your computer needed to restart, something that took ten minutes at the time.
Those of us who remember this try to forget, but it’s hard.
To this day, the Blue Screen is a recognizable symbol of things not working, but why did it exist in the first place? Here’s a little trip down the sketchy part of Memory Lane your parents told you not to visit.
Windows 3.1 didn’t have a blue screen of death: when it totally crashed, you ended up on a black screen. If you were lucky that black screen was the DOS prompt, from which you could launch Windows again. If not, it was time to reset.
There was, however, a blue screen triggerd by pressing Ctrl+Alt+Delete. This would go on to inspire the design of the Blue Screen of Death to come later.
Interestingly, as a blog post by Raymond Chen points out, the text here was written by none other than future CEO Steve Balmer, back when he ran the Systems Division at Microsoft.
It’s hard to overstate how big a deal Windows 95 was: imagine the level of hype surrounding early iPhone models, but for a desktop operating system. People literally lined up outside stores. Yes, the 90s were weird: people were really excited for new features on their desktop. No one, however, was excited for this.
The Blue Screen of Death would show up whenever a program or driver crashed spectacularly. It offered some cryptic information about what caused the problem, then gave somewhat more understandable advice about how users should proceed.
In theory pressing any key would close that program and bring you back to your Windows desktop, but this rarely worked. As a blog post by Raymond Chen points out, early versions of this message stated that “It may be possible to continue normally,” a line later that was later removed for being wildly optimistic.
By the time Windows 2000 came out, Microsoft had expanded on the advice their Blue Screens offered. All mention of potentially returning to your desktop was gone, and users were told to turn their computers off outright. There was also a list of troubleshooting ideas if the problem persists, from scanning for viruses to checking the hard drive for corruption.
Windows XP continued the trend of adding more and more advice to the Blue Screen. The information about which program caused the problem was still cryptic, but at least gave you some codes you could Google in an attempt to fix the problem. The rest of the screen was filled with all sorts of advice. Users were still told to turn off their computers, but then told to check that all software is properly installed and given a bunch more troubleshooting ideas.
The Blue Screen didn’t change much for Vista, though it did become more common. Windows 7 reduced how often you saw such screens, but also didn’t really change how it looked.
Windows 8 changed Blue Screens entirely. The text-only Terminal look was gone, replaced by modern system fonts, and a huge ASCII sad face was added. Most notably, almost all information about what actually caused the crash is gone, as is the advice for potentially solving the problem.
This isn’t as much of an issue as it once was, because Blue Screens aren’t nearly as common as they were back in the day. You can find out why your PC crashed by checking the logs or using third party software that compiles the information.
Windows 10 keeps this same look today.
Microsoft wishes it wasn’t so, but to this day the Blue Screen of Death remains a symbol of Windows. This has inspired what is perhaps the greatest office prank of all time: the Blue Screen of Death screensaver. Offered by Sysinternals (which Microsoft later acquired) this screensaver makes any computer look crashed until you press a key or move the mouse. It’s hilarious.
There’s also a nod to the Blue Screen of Death in macOS. Every PC on the network in Finder uses this icon:
You really have to zoom in to see it, but it’s there, and has been for over a decade. Is this petty, hilarious, or both?