Geek Trivia: Death by operating system

Which operating system featured a <i>Guru Meditation</i> instead of the more typical Blue Screen of Death?

You may not realize it, but we're fast approaching the ninth anniversary of one of the most memorable moments in the development of the Windows operating system. On April 20, 1998, Bill Gates famously helped demonstrate the features of the then-upcoming Windows 98 OS in front of a live audience at Comdex -- only to be interrupted mid-demo by the infamous Blue Screen of Death.

Captured on video by a news network, the incident quickly made the TV and Internet rounds as an example of the storied flaws with all incarnations of the Windows OS. For his part, Gates just shrugged it off with this comment: "That must be why we're not shipping Windows 98 yet."

For those rarest of individuals unfamiliar with the Windows Blue Screen of Death (BSOD), its formal Microsoft title is the Stop Error screen. In the Windows 95 and Windows 98 operating systems, the BSOD was the result of either a faulty device driver or a dynamic link library (DLL) conflict -- otherwise known as DLL Hell. In other incarnations of the Windows OS family -- including NT, 2000, 2003, XP, and Vista -- the BSOD indicates an illegal operation from which the OS kernel can't recover.

The Windows 9x breed of BSOD was far more common than the more modern versions, popping up pretty much anytime the OS encountered an unfamiliar chunk of hardware (such as, say, a scanner during a Comdex presentation) that didn't have correctly configured DLLs or properly written drivers. The popularity of these OS releases made the BSOD a household experience -- so much so that some people think the BSOD is native to all consumer computer operating systems.

But that's not the case. There are almost as many "death screens" as there are operating systems, though some are more colorful than others.

For example, various Apple Macintosh OS releases have employed the so-called Sad Mac frowning icon screen or the Mac Bomb error page. However, Mac OS X endures a UNIX-derived kernel panic screen, which is actually gray.

MS-DOS and its one-time rival OS/2 both had a Black Screen of Death, as did pre-95 versions of Windows. Indeed, Microsoft has created screens of death in many colors, with early Vista beta releases displaying a Red Screen of Death for certain errors, and Xbox firmware throwing up a Green Screen of Death for its serious malfunctions.

Still, none of these death screens is perhaps so whimsical as the so-called trip to India. One OS fancifully dubbed its death screen Guru Meditation -- taking the cake for lighthearted operating system death metaphors.


Which operating system's version of the contemporary Windows Blue Screen of Death was instead a Guru Meditation -- perhaps the most whimsical fatal error notification ever employed by a major OS?

The answer is none other than the earlier versions of the venerable AmigaOS, which powered the Amiga line of computers back in the 1980s. If the AmigaOS crashed, it would throw up a flashing rectangular box at the top of the screen that contained the Guru Meditation phrase, followed by an error code.

If the crash was fatal, the box would flash red. In AmigaOS 2.x and later, the box would flash yellow if the crash was recoverable. While the overall screen was black, the curiously phrased, colorfully illuminated alert box generally distinguishes the Guru Meditation from a conventional Black Screen of Death.

So, yeah, what's up with that phrasing? It's clearly an inside joke from the Amiga developers. Specifically, it refers to a video game called Zen Meditation -- a game played by using a rather unusual controller called a joyboard. Similar to a joystick, a player manipulates the joyboard by standing or sitting on it, shifting his or her center of gravity to close switches on the outer edge of the pivot board.

Rather than the traditional ping-pong, foosball, or video game showdowns common to software development offices, the AmigaOS dev crew would sit on the local joyboard and try to remain perfectly centered and still -- Zen guru style -- for extended periods, seeing how long they could avoid closing a switch on the board. The game was so popular around the Amiga teams that they honored it in the OS error code notification.

But the inside jokes didn't end there. The team programmed the Guru Meditation box's flashing border to alternate between black and red 6,089 times -- in honor of the Motorola 6089 chipset preferred by the software design team.

While only the earlier versions of the AmigaOS -- 3.x and before -- boast traditional Guru Meditations, the OS itself is still in use and development. Even though Amiga hardware is not currently in production (despite several attempts at revival), the company released AmigaOS 4.0 in late 2006.

In the newer versions of the OS, The Grim Reaper greets fatal errors with its error-handler pop-up boxes, but the error codes themselves still boast the Guru Meditation label. Some things are a technological tradition -- and deathly fun Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from our assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the April 4 edition of Geek Trivia, "404-letter words." TechRepublic member brechinj called me out for a list-order error.

"In the article, you state, 'Only 100 and 200 have similar meanings under both [FTP and HTTP code] standards -- OK and Continue, respectively.' According to RFC 2616, 100 is Continue, and 200 is OK."

Right you are, dear reader: I transposed my error codes -- which itself was an error. What irony. Good catch, and keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.