Who these days has not witnessed the embarrassing failure modes of Microsoft Windows ? Blue screens of all hues and an assortment of badged dialog boxes make each crash into a very public display of incompetence.

I will not argue that Windows is more prone to failure than other operating systems – that potential war of religion is best left alone. What I am arguing is that failure modes should be graceful, or at least more discreet.

A black screen is neutral : the service is not delivered, but at least the most trafficked billboard in town is not hammering everyone with a random pseudo-technical message that actually means “my owners are clueless morons”.

Even better than a black screen : a low level routine that in case of system failure may display something harmless. Anything but an error message.

With so many information screens in the transportation industry, automated teller machines of all sorts and a growing number of advertising screens on roadsides, a properly and specifically configured system is necessary. What about “Microsoft Windows – Public Display Edition” ? Of course, users of Free Software don’t have to wait for a stubborn editor to understand the problems its customers are facing.

When the stakes are high enough, the costs of not managing risk through graceful degradation cannot be ignored. But let’s not underestimate the power of user inertia…