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Dissatisfied with Windows 3.1 failure message, Mr. Ballmer created an almost loveable iconic failure message

While his days at Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) are over and he's engrossed in a second career as owner of the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, the legacy and memories of former CEO Steven Anthony "Steve" Ballmer continues to live on at his former firm in unexpected ways.
This week a veteran Microsoft developer and principal software engineer, Raymond Chen, revealed for the first time that Steve Ballmer was responsible for crafting perhaps the most iconic failure message of all time -- the instructional text that appeared when you pressed or CTRL+ALT+DEL or if a system failure transported you to this unfortunate place.

Microsoft Raymond Chen
Microsoft's Pirncipal Software Engineer, Raymond Chen

The screen was created as a catch-all failure/interrupt element for Windows 3.1, which released twenty-two years ago, in April 1992.

A Michigan native, Mr. Ballmer had joined Microsoft in 1980 as its first business manager and 30th overall employee.  In the 1980s he headed various divisions including sales, where he made his infamous pitch for Windows 1.0 that still delights YouTube viewers to this day.

By the time Windows 3.1 was in the works, he was heading up the Operating Systems Division.  He visited the engineering offices one day, according to Mr. Chen and was shown the blue-screen failure message in an earlier form.

BSOD Message
The classic Windows 3.1 BSOD message was authored by Steve Ballmer.
[Image Source: Raymond Chen/MSDN Blogs]

The emotional executive was none too pleased with the current state of the message.  According to Mr. Chen, Mr. Ballmer complained:

This is nice, but I don't like the text of the message. It doesn't sound right to me.

Mr. Chen, who today is known internally as "Microsoft's Chuck Norris", recalls replying:

Okay, Steve. If you think you can do a better job, then go for it.

But Mr. Ballmer, showed he was more than just talk.  As the Microsoft veteran recalls:

Unlike some other executive, Steve took up the challenge, and a few days later, he emailed what he thought the Ctrl+Alt+Del screen should say.

The text he came up with was actually quite good, and it went into the product pretty much word for word.

Thus it was Steve Ballmer who arguably deserves credit for creating the most famous failure message of all time -- the Blue Screen of Death (BSoD).  Raymond Chen faithfully recreates the look and text of Steve's message in his blog using a simple HTML TABLE element-- a neat trick for those who like to read web code.

Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft [Image Source: You Digital Space]

More famous than even the Twitter Inc. (TWTR) "FAIL Whale", the BSoD appeared often as the grim harbinger of doom whenever a crash occurred.  The original message was preserved virtually unchanged through several updates.
Finally with Windows 8, Mr. Ballmer's original text received more substantial modifications including a frowny face -- a problem a small percentage of Windows 8.1 users recently observed after a botched update.

The Windows 8 blue-screen-of-death just doesn't have the nostalgic ring to it that Mr. Ballmer's version did.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]

But it is Steve Ballmer's original BSoD that has taken on a rather rosy glow of nostalgia amongst aging PC users as they look back on the Microsoft operating systems of yesteryear, including Windows 3.1 and Windows 95.
William Henry "Bill" Gates, III -- Microsoft's first CEO, cofounder, and Harvard University classmate of Mr. Ballmer -- recently complained that in hindsight Ctrl+Alt+Del was a "mistake".  Assuming he's right, at least the infamous recovery keyboard shortcut is today associated with a bit of timeless Microsoft nostalgia, thanks to Mr. Ballmer's iconic era message.  Thanks to Mr. Ballmer, Ctrl+Alt+Del became, at worst, a loveable screw-up.

Sources: MSDN Blogs, via The Verge

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Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By amanojaku on 9/4/2014 4:01:52 PM , Rating: 5
If you're a Windows developer I highly recommend Raymond Chen's official Microsoft blog, The Old New Thing. Not only does Raymond offer programming advice and tips, he also communicates with posters (even on 3rd party sites, which is admirable), and he gives background on why Windows contains many stupid, weird, or funny things (usually the fault of 3rd party developers who demanded that their programs work as written).

I used to pan Windows as crap, but now that I WRITE Windows programs I'm actually impressed with what MS has achieved in 30+ years. The OS has become one of the most stable, secure, high-performing and feature-filled operating systems, all while maintaining backwards compatibility with most legacy applications and drivers. Write decent code and Windows will treat you well.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Ammohunt on 9/4/2014 5:12:00 PM , Rating: 5
This is exactly why i never fully understood the Microsoft hate. Windows was and is a great stable OS. The majority of the problems and BSOD's that people experience are caused by crappy coding practices and just bad code in general. There doesn't exist an application development platform that even holds a flame to what Microsoft has to offer and its been that way for quite some time.

By amandahugnkiss on 9/4/2014 6:48:46 PM , Rating: 2
Agreeing that the Microsoft hate is generally unwarranted and they frequently have taken the blame for third party screw ups. They've made some mistakes but usually work to rectify said mistakes faster than other companies do. Also, the progress they've made as compared to other dev projects is quite impressive. I think every OS has it's purpose and can thrive in certain aspects where other's may fall short, but as far as an all-in-one OS that has legacy support built in while also working to progress in other areas Windows does an excellent job. Trying to corral all the various vendors and third party entities is also by no means a small task and they've done well in that area too.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Flunk on 9/4/2014 8:43:06 PM , Rating: 2
It all depends on how old you are. Windows NT is a great, stable OS. Windows 9X was an extremely unstable cobbled-together monster. A lot of the Microsoft hate comes from older versions of the OS. The last of the 9X line, Windows Me, is legendary for its instability and lack of quality.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Solandri on 9/4/2014 10:35:00 PM , Rating: 2
Yup. Just to clarify for you young'uns, Windows NT became Windows 2000, which became Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8.

Windows 9x and ME were basically a GUI shell sitting on top of DOS. A very specialized version of DOS which couldn't do anything without the GUI shell (Microsoft's attempt to kill DR-DOS sales, since you could run Windows 3.1 on DR-DOS). As such it was just as prone to hanging or crashing as DOS, and the multitasking used meant that any app hanging would hang the system. The term "three finger salute" became common outside geek circles because you typically had to do it 1-3 times a day. A Windows box with an uptime of 3 days was incredible, and one with an uptime of a week was miraculous. Do you have any idea how aggravating that is coming from Unix where uptimes of months or even years are expected? Microsoft fully deserved the ridicule and criticism.

But Windows 2000 was good (NT wasn't fully compatible with legacy apps), and they've done a good job improving it since then (with small hiccups on Vista and 8.0). I still prefer Unix, but using Windows hasn't been frustrating since the mid-2000s.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Ammohunt on 9/5/2014 3:20:06 PM , Rating: 2
Thats not correct Windows 2000 was pretty much an entirely new OS that attempted to combined flexibility of Windows 9x drivers funtionality with the stability features such as protected kernel memory of windows NT. Windows XP was the refinement and arguably the perfection of the combination.

Also windows 9x had nothing to do with DOS once it booted from real mode into protected mode. DOS features were there for legacy compatibility purposes.

There were so many other reasons to abandon DOS than trying to kill competing DOS'es DOSi?

Comparing DOS to Unix is just ridiculous they were designed for completely different computing purposes.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Bill S. on 9/8/2014 8:09:25 AM , Rating: 2
But hey, that's how I learned the abilities, and limitations, of my Windows 95 computer.

Run a program through its paces, until it locks up, or you get a BSOD....then hit Ctrl-Alt-Dlt, and start over again!

It sounds silly, but when people ask me how it is that I know how to do "stuff" in Windows, that's what I tell them!

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By The0ne on 9/4/2014 9:28:19 PM , Rating: 1
Because the hate is from the ignorant fools that don't know any better and will refuse outright to want to know any better. You can give them 99.9% private security and they will rather ditch it to avoid hitting a key to get to a start menu. The absurdity of reasoning and reasons with regards to the Windows OS is beyond comprehension. It's like a religious cult group that refuses just because.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By jtemplin on 9/4/2014 10:23:21 PM , Rating: 4
It's easier to jump on a bandwagon than it is to do research and patiently seek out a broad and nuanced view on a subject.

Microsoft has had its failings. I used to make fun of them myself as a novice apple kid. But that doesn't mean they haven't had some of the brilliant programming minds doing excellent work over the years--and yes occasionally excellent industrial espionage/just outright copying of features.

PS Nice to hear the insiders view, thanks OP!

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By TSS on 9/6/2014 11:02:28 AM , Rating: 3
Ok let's see.

Windows prior XP SP2 was crap. Vanilla XP was about as secure as windows 98. Not to mention 75% of my games library at the time stopped working. Though windows 2000 was a solid OS (again, with the service packs), you could say windows ME negated that entirely. After XP SP2 though, no complaints, atleast concirning stability and security.

Then IE6. Only reason why microsoft continues development of IE now is because they didn't with IE6 and it bit them in the arse. Even when activeX was broken to the point where virusses could automatically be installed on your PC without warning (AVG thankfully, wasn't the POS back then it is now. MSE didn't exist), MS said "screw you" to it's own consumers. Don't forget they never adhered to international standards concirning protocols either, in favor of trying to push their own stuff on others. For those reasons alone i'll continue using firefox/other browsers till i die.

Then there's the mindset of them knowing whats best for us even when we say it isn't, such as windows 8's tablet UI implemented on PC. Also i had to help a person import their contacts in outlook on windows 8, turns out MS just said "sorry, incompatible, have fun re-making all of them". Legacy support my backside.

Ofcourse there's the recent Xbox One decisions of an always on camera+detection device, post the NSA revelations. Once again, because MS knows better then you. And don't you think that they changed all that simply because they felt sorry or thought they had made a mistake. Their bottom line after the pre-order numbers came in did that. Otherwise they would've just shoved it down their fans throats.

Ofcourse there are also older gripes such as them running netscape into the ground and them being sued and found guilty of anti-competative practices in the 90's.

Now, Linux has it's own problems. And Macintosh has never, ever been secure. Windows is without a doubt the best of the bunch, but that's by no means the end of the arguement. Microsoft *will* use anti-competative/anti-consumer practices as soon as we allow it to. It has done so in the past and time and again they try to do so in the present. There is definitly sound reason to hate MS.

Doesn't mean windows hasn't become a killer program. I've always been a windows user and will continue to do so (unless valve actually manages to get my steam library working on linux. But i doubt that). Just because i use their stuff doesn't mean i trust them, or like them. Just means i've got little choice in the matter.

By EricMartello on 9/7/2014 10:41:25 PM , Rating: 2
I agree that Win XP was a vast improvement over previous versions of the OS, however any version of Windows in its particular era was vastly superior to the open source offerings of the time period.

Back then getting linux to run on a system depended on you having a few select pieces of compatible hardware. There was no user-friendly installer and you basically had to do everything manually. When (if) you did get it installed, you basically had a command prompt. The X window system never did and to this day does not hold a candle to Windows' graphical subsystem.

Even today, taking the latest "user friendly" desktop version of's not able to provide a GUI that's a smooth, responsive or stable as older versions of windows. Forget about Linux ever coming close to being as stable as a GUI OS as Windows 7, 8 or upcoming 9.

FreeBSD isn't even worth mentioning as it pitifully lags behind even Linux in hardware support. Wifi? We're getting around to that.

Linux as an option for servers and is often a solid choice for THAT purpose...but as a total package, the current version of windows (or windows server) is superior to linux in just about every way.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Kaisha on 9/4/2014 8:03:26 PM , Rating: 2
As a programmer who's done a lot of Win32 API programmer, I've certainly ended up on that site many times. And I agree that Chen is very helpful. But I'd have to disagree with you on Windows. Its just a mess IMHO. There are 10 different ways to do any particular thing, each with its share of 'gotacha's'. The documentation is sparse at best, in fact Chen's blog is necessary simply because the documentation is so poor. Every few years MS gets the idea to add a new technology, so the API is this patchwork quilt of half implemented ideas. I look at the D3D11 API, which is small, slick and easy to work with; so I know they can make it clean. I feel they just don't want to bother with spending the cash to do it properly.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By Flunk on 9/4/2014 8:46:16 PM , Rating: 2
Bad for the programmer, not the user. I really thought WinRT would kill off those old Win32 problems but it doesn't look like Windows 8 impressed many users. I think we'll be stuck with Win32 for a good while longer.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By jtemplin on 9/4/2014 10:29:44 PM , Rating: 2
Patchwork-style complexity could be argued as a necessary evil that comes with the flexibility that Windows apparently has.

Interesting that they made so many concessions in order to get Windows to run external dev software. In business one must weigh the cost, in forward progress, of going back to stitch that piece of code into the original build (or whatever). Could potentially mean slipping an announced product release date.

Agree it sucks. But maybe its the best of the worst outcomes at least?

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By inighthawki on 9/5/2014 1:06:19 AM , Rating: 2
As opposed to what, Unix man pages? A joke in comparison to MSDN documentation, especially for commonly used functions.

Virtual memory allocation?

Want to open a file handle? lol...

By amanojaku on 9/5/2014 10:28:33 AM , Rating: 2
I don't know why "a programmer who's done a lot of Win32 API programmer" (sic) finds it hard to read the MSDN site. I HAVEN'T done a lot of Win32 API programming, started learning in April, yet I have had no difficulty. He is correct in that there are many ways to do one thing, but he is incorrect in saying the documentation is sparse.

There's TOO MUCH documentation; you have to know which version of an API a page belongs to if you ever do a search. Alternatively, you just start from the top of the MSDN library page, since that always has the current documentation. I'm a newbie and even I figured it out. My first commercial application (application server with DB, networked GUI client written in C++) is about to be released to market, with a client already waiting to purchase licenses. I literally never wrote a program before April.

By inperfectdarkness on 9/5/2014 3:36:16 AM , Rating: 4
Microsoft also deserves a lot of praise for what it has done (and continues to do) regarding malware. For example, Conficker was something MS tackled head-on, even though they had offered a patch for the vulnerability. MS had even given a head's-up to the IT community that it was releasing the patch...since it's basically a gigantic red-flag about how to attack an unpatched version of windows.

If you want to read up on it, there's a book called "WORM: The first digital world war". Great read, even for the layperson.

I may not always like what MS has done (I certainly don't like the xbox and MS's console forrays AT ALL), but I cannot deny that their computer software is more secure and stable than Apple's or Google's--and I'm much less concerned about privacy with MS than I am with either of those two as well.

RE: Raymond Chen's Old New Thing
By mgilbert on 9/5/2014 11:13:37 AM , Rating: 2
Anyone who disses Windows should do what I recently did. Trash your hard drive, start from scratch, install Linux, then try to get it to do everything Windows was doing before you formatted the drive. It can be done, but you'll have a whole new appreciation for just how good Windows really is. No, it is not perfect - 8.1 has settings and such scattered all over the place. It's a disorganized mess. But a weekend trying to get any version of Linux to work as you expect it to will be quite humbling.

Guru Meditation
By Huacanacha on 9/4/2014 3:04:32 PM , Rating: 4
That is all.

Win8.1 upgrade error...
By CharonPDX on 9/4/2014 6:08:53 PM , Rating: 2
I got that error during a Win8.1 upgrade, too.

Personally, I was rather thankful that there was an error initializing HAL. HAL didn't exactly do wonders for his users...

(And yes, I do know that it's referring to the Hardware Abstraction Layer; but "HAL Initialization Error" just had me do a double-take.)

Not the BSoD
By vanka on 9/8/2014 5:43:34 PM , Rating: 2
Jason missed one of the biggest things in the blog post: that the dialog in question is not the BSoD but rather the Ctrl+Del+Alt dialog.
Note to journalists: This is the Ctrl+Alt+Del dialog, not the blue screen of death. Thank you for paying attention.


Looks like Jason wasn't paying attention.

By Argon18 on 9/4/14, Rating: -1
RE: Innovation
By nikon133 on 9/4/2014 4:52:59 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah, they should have rounded some corners, too.

RE: Innovation
By bupkus on 9/4/2014 11:45:50 PM , Rating: 1
A good OS is about what you don't see on the screen--it should just display the applications--assuming they're well written.

RE: Innovation
By PaFromFL on 9/5/14, Rating: 0
RE: Innovation
By amanojaku on 9/5/2014 10:11:27 AM , Rating: 2
This post sounds like the ravings of a crackpot or an ignorant fool.

Windows was released in 1985, Linux in 1991. Linux wasn't "too late". Secondly, Linux has an entire world of developers, while Microsoft has the employees of Microsoft. Thirdly, Microsoft's "mountains of money" are divided across many product lines, facilities, employees, business processes, marketing... Linux companies just do Linux, and still manage to fail at creating 100% compatibility across distributions, even previous releases at times, despite the common kernel. There is a reason Linux software are often compiled during installation. Lastly, Windows was designed to do everything. Linux is primarily a server OS unless you modify it radically, as is the case with Android. Try switching your non-technical family and friends to Linux, even Ubuntu...

Your capitalism rant made even less sense. The first paragraph establishes that capitalism is bad. The second contradicts the first by saying government intervention (the opposite of capitalism) is bad.

RE: Innovation
By PaFromFL on 9/5/2014 1:57:04 PM , Rating: 2
I stand by my capitalism rant. Capitalism is good in the early stages of an industry when there is genuine competition. Capitalism is bad when industries mature into monopolies that precipitate government regulation. Just look at the history of the power, water, sewer, and telephone industries. What causes the most harm to society is when rich industrial lobbies buy control of regulatory agencies and Congress.

RE: Innovation
By Theguynextdoor on 9/5/2014 12:54:09 PM , Rating: 2
Your post reeks of ignorance. YOU try explaining to investors to invest $10 billion dollars (the average cost of to BRING a pharmaceutical drug to market, some drugs like Lipitor cost almost $20bil after clinicals) over a span of 10-15 years and there is a HIGH risk it might fail somewhere along the way meaning that money will be lost. IF it makes it to market and you get the patent then you have 10 years to recuperate that $10billion PLUS make a profit PLUS make up for the other 3-4 drugs that didn't make to market PLUS other countries their patent system works like this: the government sets the price of the drug either deal with it or we give your patent to someone else (Canada and most of the EU).

As for the finding a cure argument. 90% of maintenance drugs are for conditions that are simply not curable because as people get older their bodies fail or because they are lazy. Most people would rather take a pill to control their cholesterol and blood pressure levels instead of getting off their asses, going to the gym or eating better. So until you know how to cure laziness and finding a cure for aging get off your high horse and educate yourself.

RE: Innovation
By PaFromFL on 9/5/2014 2:17:47 PM , Rating: 2
Corporations exist to make money, and often the side effect of making money helps society. Only a very small number of corporations have any rules against harming society. If a pharmaceutical company sold a drug to cure a disease rather than medicine to control a disease over a lifetime, stockholders would rightly complain. The healthcare industry has a perfectly legal vested interest to make sure its customers are not cured, but remain dependent on drugs.

Governments (theoretically) exist to help society. The role of governments should be to fund research or set up public utilties to cure diseases and improve the health of its citizens. Unfortunately, the USA puts too much trust in capitalism to solve all problems. Just imagine having Comcast or Verizon in charge of your power, water, and sewer.

RE: Innovation
By jtemplin on 9/5/2014 9:29:30 PM , Rating: 2
Just in case nobody noticed, this is clearly a debate between and ideologue and a realist.

If you keep talking about the way you think things should be and he keeps talking about the way things actually are; at least lets have the realist reveal his utopia and the ideologue give us his description of the realities.

RE: Innovation
By Argon18 on 9/9/2014 12:30:35 PM , Rating: 1
"Governments (theoretically) exist to help society."

LMAO. Tell that to the Cubans, North Koreans, Iranians, or any of the other nations where government keeps people in poverty with a small ruling elite.

The ideal government is a small government that stays out of the way, and out of people's lives. The bigger government gets, the worse peoples lives become.

"There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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