From blue screens to elevator screams

I was riding in the elevator of a Toronto building recently when I glanced up at the news headlines screen. “Toronto Stock Exchange Opening Delayed Due to Problems,” it screamed.

Isn’t it ironic, I thought, that we can have technological marvels like LCD screens in elevators displaying the latest news, but that news is about how rotten our technology is. The TSE put out a brief notice saying that the delay, which kept the market closed until 10:25 AM, was due to a “human error…a file that was not cleared following testing conducted over the weekend.”

The TSE hastened to note that the glitch was not associated with the TSE’s technology “or the migration to the new STAMP gateway.” There is a technical computer science term for this, taken from the Douglas Adams book The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which has been read by more computer experts than all IBM and Microsoft manuals combined.) The TSE’s lame excuse is simply “A load of dingo’s kidneys.”

The public doesn’t care if some genius forgot to clear a file or if sunspots disrupted the satellite feed or if the processor divided by zero or even caught fire (as long as no lives were lost.) They want results. They want to trade their stocks. They want to buy stuff on-line (maybe.) They want to watch TV on their computers (double maybe.) For sure, they want us to build systems they can count on. And these are not just computer programs we’re talking about. They are integrated human computer systems, because, like it or not, people still push some pretty important buttons, and, obviously, sometimes they forget to clear their files after a weekend of testing.

Leaping tall buildings

Who’s gonna save us? Enter, wearing a blue cape with the Microsoft logo and soaring high over the Redmond campus, Mr. Bill Gates.

Well, not really. There’s no cape, we’re actually about half a dozen journalists crammed into a conference room in Edmonton, and the guy is Elliot Katz of Microsoft Canada. He’s earnestly demonstrating the glories of Windows ME (they insists that’s “Millennium Edition,” though at least one article,, picks up on the obvious “Moron Edition.”)

“Watch me,” intones Elliot, at the end of a long demo trip. “I’m deleting this important .DLL file, which is critical to the system.” He goes through the motions, and, presto, it’s still there. As part of its “PC Health” portfolio, Windows ME tries to protect you from your own stupidity, and that or your eight- your nine-year-old who tries to delete MSJAVA.DLL to make room for more Napster files.

According to the official Windows ME Web site (, “with System File Protection, you are assured that files critical to system operation will not be replaced by older versions, or versions not approved by Microsoft.” Another option, if you enable it, instructs your computer to “go to the Internet” (well, at least to Microsoft’s part of it) to automatically download the latest versions of drivers, etc. They are not installed, however, until you give the OK.

I’m not sure how I feel about these features. I know plenty of people who would welcome this protection, and it might save them hours of frustration. I also know that, in the week or so I’ve been running Windows ME (and I’m assured by Microsoft that what I have is the code they’ll be selling in stores) I’ve already seen that hated blue screen (“Fatal Exception” – isn’t that just a fine choice of words?) on it. So it’s not batting 1,000 in keeping me from grief, though Microsoft would probably point the finger at some non-Microsoft product on my system. Wake up guys, I think the judge is telling you that there will be non-Microsoft products running on Windows computers in the future. In fairness I have had great luck with Windows 2000 which I run on my main computer, so we know that quality is possible. Maybe when the hateful Win98 kernel is ceremonially buried in a time capsule (Windows ME is the last version to be based on it) things will improve.

Certifying knowledge

There is something bigger than Microsoft out there, though I know this is hard to believe. It’s the collective professional mind of everybody in the computer industry. We see manifestations of this in the “open source” products like Linux.

That may be the ultimate test of quality because if you write a better widget than the current one, it will probably get adopted by the open source community. Then again, if somebody else writes an even better one, your code is booted out. But few of us are altruistic enough to donate our labour for the public good. So our skills never get tested in this kind of software quality crucible.

For the rest of us, the concept of professionalism is being driven by organizations like the Association for Computing Machinery (, the world’s largest association of computer professionals, and our own Canadian Information Processing Society ( which has tirelessly advocated for higher standards of professionalism in computing. Over a decade ago, CIPS introduced the Information Systems Professional of Canada (ISP.) and the French version, the IPA. Holding this designation doesn’t mean you’ll never write bad code, but it does demonstrate a standard of relevant education and experience, along with adherence to a Code of Ethics. Over 1,700 Canadians now hold an ISP., and all applicants are rigorously assessed. Perhaps most importantly, ISP. holders are required to keep their knowledge current, through the completion of 300 hours of professional training every three years.

As I got off that elevator musing about the TSE’s problems, I concluded that they’ll eventually sort it out, and hey, it is nice to be able to read the news on an elevator screen. But I couldn’t shake one thought out of my head. Who wrote the software that controls the elevator?

Dr. Keenan, ISP, is Dean of the Faculty of Continuing Education at the University of Calgary and teaches a course called Hot Issues in Computer Security.