Since the earliest days of computers, error messages have been convoluted and meaningless. Having something crash and be told that it was "Error: 25163325" is about as helpful as trying to scoop water with a sieve. This is true for all operating systems -- Microsoft has long been particularly an object of hilarity with its infamous Blue Screen of Death, but Apple hasn't been any better, its usual advice being to reinstall your operating system.
This has long been galling to computer users. After all, if you don't know what the problem actually is, it makes it ohhhh-so hard to correct it.
Remarkably, that may be changing. And most remarkably, it's thanks to, of all companies, Microsoft.
My tech guru, Bill, sent me a note the other day about a crash he had when he was syncing his Windows Phone with the new Windows 8 operating system. What he discovered is that the O.S. actually explained the problem -- and recommended fixes!
He wrote to say that he was doing a complete system reload on his main machine. He had hooked his Windows Phone to the system to charge, and that's when he had his problem. While he didn’t save a screen shot, he got something like the following error message in a blue banner that stretched across the screen. Rather than the traditional "Error: 6417843," it instead said:
"Bill’s Phone Problem
"Bill’s phone, which is connected to this computer, is not playing nicely with the computer. To correct this problem please turn the phone off by holding down the right side button for 5 seconds. Slide the screen down to the Off position. Restart the phone by holding down the same left side button for 5 seconds. That should correct the problem."
Yipes! Not just was it something actually helpful, but even somewhat whimsical. Double yipes.
I asked him if he thought such a specific, detailed error message in understandable English might occur only because it was related to Microsoft's own Windows Phone, and that other errors would still get the jumble of code numbers.
He said that he also had a glitch in the Desktop after loading Office Pro 2013. That gave a more traditional error message box, however it also told him what the problem was, saying, "Outlook is not set as your default mail client." And, just as important, it also told him how to fix it.
So, it appears that though only some errors will get the full, detailed treatment, most if not all of them will now get at least some semblance of a human English explanation. Whether Microsoft problems will be more easy for the company to identify and explain remains to be seen.
But as a start, at the very least, this is seriously impressive.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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