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A little help, please?

There’s nothing wrong with an error message that alerts you to a problem, but what happens when you have no idea what it means? Worse, what should you do if it happens all the darn time?

What do these words mean to you: invalid field in parameter

Anything at all? Odds are, unless you work in technology, they don’t mean much. But that’s one of the error messages Ahead’s Nero CD-burning software loves to throw at users when it doesn’t feel like working.

I’ve never had much of a beef with Nero, although I feel the newer version, Nero Express, can’t hold a candle to the older Nero Burning ROM. But this recurring (if sporadic) message has me ready to give up on Ahead’s products altogether. I’m sure that wasn’t the intent of the programmer who put that message in the Nero software, but that’s been the result.

The difficulties I’ve been having with Nero lately, and the lack of a viable solution on any front, couldn’t help but remind me of my absolute, ultimate, all-time computing pet peeve: error messages. Not the messages themselves, but rather how cryptic and indecipherable most of them are, and how helpful virtually none of them are.

We could all cite examples of error messages that couldn’t have been less helpful had they been written in Swahili; who can forget that old favorite, “An error has occurred”? If there’s not a Web page devoted to them, there should be.

My question is, with the unbelievable advancements that have been made in personal computing technology, how did the humble error message get left so far behind? What could possibly be so difficult about crafting an error message that explains the problem in plain English, and–now, this is really crazy–actually points the way to a solution instead of leaving the user puzzled and frustrated, with only a clickable OK button as an option?

You would think software makers would have a keen interest in keeping their users from ending up with steam coming out of their ears. But the way errors are dealt with in most software borders on contemptuous.

It might be getting better. Among its many virtues (at least relative to previous OSes), Windows XP is pretty good about holding your hand as it explains why something has gone wrong, and offering numerous options for correcting the problem. But that approach is such an exception that it’s ridiculous.

Getting back to Nero, once I found myself stymied by all those invalid fields, I called my favorite first-response team: Google. I wasn’t surprised at how many times the phrase showed up with Nero in my search (145), but I was taken aback at how elusive a solution proved to be. It seemed as if every Nero user who had ever licked this dilemma had done so in a different way. One replaced his burner; another uninstalled a virus checker that was blocking the burning software; another deleted some bad ASPI drivers; and so on.

The aggravating bottom line here is that there was nothing even remotely resembling a consensus on how to deal with the problem. And, for those who took the trouble to contact the manufacturer, Ahead offered no satisfaction, either on its Web site or via tech support. (To be fair, a number of CD enthusiasts were running into the same roadblock with Roxio’s Easy CD Creator and other programs, but Nero seemed to be the worst offender.)

In any event, I eventually did come up with a less-than-perfect solution: Delete Nero Express, use the less buggy (but not XP-compatible) Nero Burning ROM on my old PC, and put Apple’s PC version of iTunes on the one running XP. But if you’ve somehow found a foolproof way to validate those pesky fields in your parameter, share with the rest of the class c/o [email protected]

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