December 17, 2009 Off

How to handle error messages

By in Operating Systems

When we were kids, we imagined that the future held flying cars and moon bases. Technology and humanity would be in perfect sync. Our machines would anticipate our needs, leaving us to pursue only the most relevant, important work.

Well, it hasn’t happened yet; we’re still very much slaves to our machines instead of the other way around. It sometimes seems we can’t go an hour without intercepting some bad news from our computers: missing drivers, no paper in the printer, an exception at memory address 32xxff00. . . . Can’t we just get our work done?

Don’t go back to pen and paper just yet. We’ve got some tips to help you deal with the different kinds of errors you run into while working with your PC. An Error For Every Season Error messages are communications from the PC to you. To create one, a programmer must anticipate an action you might take with which the system will disagree or by which the system will become confused.

Depending on how well the software is designed, these messages may either be informative or – so it sometimes seems – deliberately obtuse. For Ben Ezzell, error messages are too often the result of lazy programming.

He’s the author of “Developing Windows Error Messages,” published in 1998 by O’Reilly. Nowadays, Ezzell is the director of software development for IDComm, a California-based developer of RFID (Radio Frequency IDentification) products. He’s seen a lot of error messages in his time and has little patience for them. We asked him what kinds of error messages users run into, and he was pretty blunt about it: “There’s stupid, misleading, and erroneous,” he said. Okay, seriously: There are hardware errors, software errors, and user errors. “Most errors fit in these categories,” says Ezzell, “and while the least [common] errors are hardware errors, the problem is that most [of what the software calls] user errors should actually be software [error] messages.”

If you think about your working relationship with your computer, or with any technology, you’ll get the idea pretty quickly. Ezzell uses an example with which most people are intimately familiar: “Think of the phone company. You must first dial a one before dialing a long-distance number. They already know what you’re doing, but they just don’t want to accept it.” Instead, you receive an over-the-phone “error message” that forces you to hang up and redial, this time entering the number one. The phone company already knows that you’re dialing long-distance, so they could just put you through; this is a prime example of a software error being turned into a user error.

Error messages are getting better. By author Ben Ezzell’s lights, “Things have improved dramatically. I like to think I’ve had an influence, but there are other factors.” In the early days of computing, Ezzell notes, resources were so scarce that programmers had to be terse with their language, which led to cryptic or obscure error messages. This is no longer the case, however, and developers are starting to catch up. “In a way,” says Ezzell, “they’ve gone overboard, because they want to link you to the Web for more information. They assume you have a high-speed connection, and this is not [necessarily] valid.”

There are also troubleshooters and step-by-step wizards built into recent versions of Microsoft Windows that will walk you through possible causes for a range of issues. So, while we will definitely not be holding our breath waiting for flying cars, we can look forward to a day when our computers will at least speak to us more clearly.

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