March 11, 2010

Microsoft Windows isn’t restricted to just laptops and tower PCs: It is also common for Windows to serve as the dominant operating system these days inside of ATMs, cars, vending machines, kiosks, taxi meters, medical imaging devices, advertising display boards and so many of the computerized screens that we gaze upon and take for granted every day.

That is, until they stop working. Indeed, often the first indication that these things are run by Windows is when something causes them to crash, at which point the all-too-familiar Windows error messages or dreaded Blue Screen of Death (BSoD) splashes up on the device’s display. True, malicious software can cause BSoDs, which is the operating system’s way of shutting down to prevent irreparable damage to the underlying system. Just as often, however, a BSoD or critical stop error is the result of some kind of hardware malfunction, such as faulty memory, a failing power supply, or overheating.

It seems I’ve been seeing these BSoDs and “fatal error” type messages in the oddest places lately. Below is a gallery of just a few that I’ve shot recently with my trusty iPhone (aside from that last three, which came from friends and readers). Click one of the images to cycle through a slideshow.

I don’t know why I find these so fascinating, but it seems I’m not alone, as there are quite a few repositories for these types of pictures. For some reason (probably because the displays overheat from being always-on), airports are a very common place to see BSoDs.

There several Web sites dedicated to Windows BSoDs and error messages in bizarre places. Check out Miguel Carrasco‘s Top 10 BSoDs. Flickr has an impressive collection of error pics tagged “BSoD”. One of the largest examples of a very public BSoD came during the opening ceremonies at the 2008 Summer Olympics in China, when one of the massive LCD screens overhead suddenly went blue.

Surely, some of you readers have snapped your own photos of BSoDs or error messages in unexpected places. If so, shoot them to me at krebsonsecurity at gmail dot com, and I may include them in this post. Please don’t send photos you don’t want posted, and most especially only send me pics that are original and that you have the rights to publish.

26 thoughts on “Secret Obsession: Odd Windows Crash Alerts

  1. AndyfromTucson

    Here is what I don’t get: why are so many people using MS Windows for embedded devices? When Linux is free, can probably do more with lower powered hardware, and is probably more stable and secure?

    1. bob

      Marketing. (May include perks, subsidies or out-right bribes.)

    2. Moike

      It may be the development tools for Windows. But whoever picks Windows thinking to minimize development cost feels real stupid if they sell more devices than planned, and having to pay the excess Microsoft Tax on each.

    3. Solo Owl

      Actually most of these devices could just as well run MSDOS (or even CPM). That would make a lot of things simpler, and cheaper.

      1. Wes

        Actually, Microsoft only recently stopped selling Windows 3.1 (as in until November 2008) for uses like that.

  2. JackRussell

    I have one from a machine that was too far gone to tell whether it was MS or not. It was in a train station, and all you could see were the BIOS messages as it was attempting to boot.

    It is always tempting to blame MS – I do it often. But bad hardware can crash any OS, so I don’t really know where the true fault is with any of these..

  3. Steve

    I see them in elevator cab displays, it seems, at least once every business trip. More in Asia then elsewhere.

  4. Ben

    I couldn’t get my phone out in time to snap a picture, but I saw one on a Del Taco drive through order screen a few weeks ago. It was stuck on an old DOS-style scandisk screen. I found it very amusing. 🙂

  5. John T. Hoffoss

    I haven’t seen these myself, but BSODs on ATMs are common, judging by the number of photos on the internet. An image search for “atm bsod” should work. That search turns up several billboards advertising Microsoft’s soothing-blue screens, too!

  6. wahnula

    ATMs. Always the ATM. At least mine.

    I think I can explain the fascination with these: people can relate to failure, and take heart in knowing that institutions and devices that seem almighty (or at least more powerful than us) can have a bad day just like the rest of us..

  7. Da

    I’ve never seen it bsod, but the grocery store checkout machine runs on windows.

    1. qka

      My apologies. I only looked at the pictures before commenting. My bad.

  8. jbmoore61

    Microsoft lost a million contract with a large bank to Linux sometime before 2005. After that, they redoubled their efforts to own the embedded devices market. They will discount a sale if they think Linux will win. So, Linux is actually doing good because it forces Microsoft to actually compete. I won’t go into why embedded Linux might be a better choice. It should be obvious to any one who thinks about it for a few minutes. As far as the BSODs, something like 75% are caused by poorly written drivers. You can see that one was caused by usbport.sys. Usually Windows is not that helpful in telling you what caused the kernel failure (BSOD), so the developers evidently turned on debugging or tweaked the bugcheck subsystem to give greater detail in error messages.

  9. Laura Raderman

    Back in 1998 I was visiting the Smithsonian Air and Space museum and the ATM right inside the door was running Windows NT and BSOD right before I went to use it. I might have a picture somewhere

  10. PC.Tech

    “… airports are a very common place to see BSoDs…”

    Now -that- is a real incentive to drive instead…


  11. Mike Rohwedder

    AA tries to crash every time I fly back home to Chicago. 3 out of 3 now. They have some strange aversion to landing in thunderstorms. So I wouldn’t sweat the BSODs and other examples of quality programming.

    BTW, what OS do they have onboard the aircraft?

  12. Scott B in DC

    I found this on one of those video screens at a local Shell gas station. It was better than whatever was screeching on other screens!

  13. Charlie

    Re Photo #1: Was the iPhone display really running on Windows???

  14. BJ

    Here’s a scary thought…

    The monorail at Disney World runs on Windows NT!

    One time I was lucky enough to ride in the cab of the monorail and got to watch the engineer operate the train.

    I blanched when I noticed the engineer was running the train using Windows NT. This was less than 5 years ago!

  15. Britta Northup

    Long time viewer / first time poster. Really enjoying reading the blog, keep up the good work. Will most definitely start posting more in the future.

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