It would be easy to imagine that Microsoft was cursed. Early adopters of Windows 7 have been told by geeks, experts and journalists alike that the new operating system they’d just bought was safer, faster, better and shinier than anything in the company’s history. Then news emerged of the Black Screen of Death.
Users hit by this latest problem are confronted by a plain black screen when they log on. The company that initially highlighted the fault, Prevx, said that Microsoft’s own security updates – code-named KB976098 and KB915597 – were probably responsible for the issue, but has since admitted that they were mistaken, and issued an apology.
Microsoft says it now thinks the problem is caused by some form of malware. It’s apparently only affecting a handful of users, but the fact remains that nobody is known to be safe. 'Black’ is the new blue when it comes to 'screens of death’ – presumably, just as major banks replaced 'platinum’ credit cards with ultra-exclusive 'black’ credit cards, so too with Microsoft. Indeed, maybe platinum was in Vista, but so much else was wrong with early versions of Windows 7’s predecessor that it never arose as an issue.
The most famous appearance of the Blue Screen of Death was in 1998, when it afflicted Bill Gates while the Microsoft chief executive was demonstrating Windows 98 at a trade show in Las Vegas. The resulting applause from his audience was, as Wikipedia puts it, “thunderous”.
Charitably, perhaps that applause was in fact because the computer users in the audience suddenly realised that Gates was living in the same world as they were: the one in which computers seldom behave as they should. Even early versions of Apple’s Snow Leopard operating system were bedevilled by glitches, and Apple has far more control of potentially problematic hardware than Microsoft can hope to achieve.
The fact remains, however, that every crash, every glitch and every bug is a breach of trust: computers, phones, hi-fis, cameras and more are all sold to consumers on the promise of seamless functionality, and no amount of customer care can make up for a failure. By and large, consumers are grown up enough to realise there will be problems, just as no book buyer expects every airport novel to live up to the blurb on the back cover – but perhaps Microsoft, Google and many others could do with acknowledging that, with any major release, so-called screens of death are almost inevitable.
It’s ambition that causes the problems, usually, and less of that would be a disaster, for Microsoft especially. Conversely, customers certainly shouldn’t be expected to put up with more bad software, from anyone.
What would help, though, is a real sense that consumers’ pain matters: train companies compensate passengers for delays; buy a chipped glass and you’ll get a refund. Isn’t it about time that for every black screen of death, we got money off the next upgrade, or a little less advertising on the web? As technology advances, this is becoming ever more possible. And as moving from one bit of technology to another becomes ever easier, don’t companies need to do a lot more to hold on to their customers?