Abort, Retry, Fail: The curious histories of 10 common computer messages

You may know what these messages mean, but do you know where they came from in the first place?

Picture of a printer with a piece of paper taped to it which reads 'PC LOAD LETTER?!'

Recently we learned that former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer was the author of one of Windows’ more notorious blue screen messages. It’s one of a number of messages that our computers communicate to us so often that they earn permanent spots in our collective consciousness. These include error messages as well as informational notes and are often in words but can also be communicated in other ways, such as through graphics or sounds.

Though we come to know these messages and their meanings well, we may not know how they came to be in the first place. Here are the stories behind 10 of the more common computer messages that many of us know all too well.

Picture of Microsoft 3.1's CTL+ALT+DEL Blue Screen
The CTL+ALT+DEL Blue Screen

Back in the day, people who used Windows 3.1 in Enhanced mode (on 386s) could run multiple DOS applications simultaneously. If an application seemed to not be responding, the user could hit the CTL+ATL+DEL keys to get a blue screen presenting three options: Type Esc to go back to Windows, Enter to kill the process or CTL+ATL+DEL again to restart the computer. It turns out that the wording on this very familiar screen was written by none other than Steve Ballmer, according to Microsoft developer Raymond Chen. Ballmer, who headed up the Systems Division at the time, had been unhappy with the original language, so, when challenged to come up with something better, he did.

Picture of an HTTP 404 screen
HTTP 404 Page Not Found

Unless you’ve been hermitting in a cave, you have at some point run into this, the second most common HTTP error message, when surfing the web. It is, of course, a message from the web server you’re trying to reach indicating that it couldn’t find the web page you wanted, because the file was moved or deleted or due to typo in the URL. The 404 message was part of the original HTTP specification created by Tim Berners-Lee and released in 1991. 404 was derived from a numbering scheme (e.g., 4xx means a client-side error) and not, contrary to popular belief, named (or numbered) after a room at CERN, where the world wide web was invented.

Picture of a printer displaying the PC LOAD LETTER error message

Anybody who worked in office in the 1990s was familiar with this classic printer error message, seen on early versions of HP’s LaserJet printers, such as the LaserJet 4. “PC” didn’t mean “personal computer” but rather was a two-letter code used by HP to indicate an issue with the “paper cassette,” better known to most people as the paper tray, back when two characters was all that the first LaserJets could display. In short, the message means that the printer needs to be loaded with letter-sized paper (or thinks that it does). Whatever the cause, the message is famously confusing.

Screen shot of a mobile Twitter screen showing the What's Happening? prompt
Credit: ITworld/Phil Johnson
What’s happening?

When Twitter first launched in 2006, it was created with the idea of people sharing with their network of friends what they were currently up to. Hence, its original prompt to users was the question “What are you doing?” Within a few years, however, it was obvious to many that Twitter was becoming much more than a tool for sharing you own personal status. It had become a way for sharing much more, such as what was going on around you, news stories, pictures, etc. To reflect this change, in 2009 Biz Stone and his team changed the wording of the status update prompt to “What’s happening?” which remains in use.

Credit: YouTube.com
You’ve got mail

Most people who first began using email in the 1990s were introduced to it through America Online and its iconic audio recording announcing that you had a new message. It was first introduced to users of Quantum Computer Services (as AOL was originally known) in 1989 after CEO Steve Case decided he wanted a human voice as part of the interface. The voice behind that message was radio veteran Elwood Edwards, whose wife worked for Quantum at the time and who suggested her husband to Case. At AOL’s peak, the message was heard more than 35 million times a day and even inspired a well known Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan movie.

Credit: YouTube.com
The Spinning Beach Ball of Death

Known by various informal names, such as the spinning pinwheel, color wheel, rainbow wheel, Marble of Doom and Spinning Beach Ball of Death (SBBOD), Apple’s “spinning wait cursor” indicates that the system is busy doing something processor-intensive. If it doesn’t revert to a mouse pointer quickly, it’s an indicator of a real problem, such as an application becoming unresponsive. A version of the pinwheel first appeared with the release of OS X, having been inherited from NeXTSTEP, the OS upon which OS X was based. It took its current form starting with OS X 10.2 (Jaguar).

Screenshot of a DOS computer displaying teh Abort, Retry, Fail? message
Credit: Wikipedia
Abort, Retry, Fail?

While millennials may recognize “Abort, Retry, Fail?” as a meme, older folks will recognize it (or, its earlier version, “Abort, Retry, Ignore?”) as a DOS error message. When DOS encountered an error that the user could fix, such as when a floppy disk wasn’t in the drive, the default critical error handler was called, which then presented the user with this message and choice of options. Starting with PC/MS-DOS 3.0, the Ignore option was replaced by (or sometimes supplemented with) the Fail option (which could also be set as the default response), which would return a failure status to the calling routine, allowing for proper error handling.

Screenshot of Google search screen showing I'm Feeling Lucky button
I’m feeling lucky

Visitors to Google.com have been presented with the “I’m feeling Lucky” button since day one. Originally, it took users directly to the top result for a search term and was put there to demonstrate what founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin felt were the superior results that their new search engine would deliver. However, after realizing that sending users off of the Google site (and bypassing the chance to put advertisements in front of them) was costing the company $110 million per year, Google changed the functionality in 2012. Now, clicking on it takes you to one of Google’s other services or a specific Doodle or a search results page.

Cartoon showing former Microsoft exec Steven Sinofsky at his laptop. Clippy is behind him saying, 'It looks like you're writing a resignation letter. Would you like help?' Sinofsky says 'Shut up'
It looks like you’re writing a letter

One of the most famous - and famously annoying - computer messages greeted users of Microsoft Word for (versions 97 through 2003) whenever they started to write a letter. The message itself wasn’t as annoying the cartoon paperclip known as Clippy that delivered it. Clippy was known officially as Microsoft’s Office Assistant and informally, during development, it was referred to as TFC, with the C standing for “clown” and the TF standing for something NSFW. Though he was meant to be helpful, Clippy in fact turned out to be so annoying to users that by 2001, with the release of Office XP, it was turned off by default and removed entirely starting with Office 2007.

Screenshot of Facebook's status update screen showing the prompt 'What's on your mind?'
Credit: ITworld/Phil Johnson
What’s on your mind?

For the last five years, users have been greeted with this question in the Facebook status update box, to which they’re free to form whatever response they like. Early on, though, status updates were meant to be short and to convey something simple, like a feeling, and so were automatically prepended with “Username is…”; users just completed the sentence. At the end of 2007 (not-so-coincidentally, the same year that Twitter really took off), that structure of the status update was dropped in favor of a totally free-form answer, prompted by the question “What are you doing right now?” In March 2009, the wording of the prompt was tweaked to its current incarnation.