Crash test dummies

Everyone talks about Windows crashing, but now we can do something about them. Bugtoaster can't magically stop errors, but it does capture enough crash details that developers can eliminate a problem even if it can't be reproduced by a user.

I wrote last week that developers had shown how worms can silently capture the user name and password of Microsoft's Passport single-logon system on Windows.

These programmers' primary tool is called Bugtoaster. When they're not uncovering security flaws, they use reports from thousands of Bugtoaster users worldwide to isolate and diagnose exactly why Windows often crashes.

The findings from their analyses make for a fascinating story. Hopefully, this will lead to improvements in Windows programming and perhaps even cure some of your own problems.

The three top people at Bugtoaster.com, the company behind the free utility, all formerly worked with the CrashGuard team at Symantec. They wanted to do more detailed, independent research on what was actually causing all the grief from errors that CrashGuard couldn't cure.

The result is the current app, which the group says has been downloaded 11,000 times. A smaller number of people have registered and are using the product to report detailed statistics every time Windows hangs, including data from thousands of Windows 2000 crashes. I'd say it's high time for Bugtoaster to enjoy a broader audience.

"The average computer user experiences a crash about 2.5 times a week," says company chief executive Bob Puckett. "Of the top 25 crash signatures in the world, we have info on what's causing 22 of them."

The company isn't afraid to name names. One of the most prominent features of Bugtoaster's website is a real-time chart showing which Windows apps are causing the greatest number of reported crashes. The biggest offenders -- I hope you're sitting down -- are Microsoft's Internet Explorer, Netscape's browser and America Online's Waol.exe. (You see? Integrating a browser into Windows is so helpful to users.)

Everyone talks about crashes, of course, but now we can do something about them. Bugtoaster can't magically stop errors -- and it can't yet track the Blue Screen of Death -- but it does capture enough crash details that developers can eliminate a problem even if it can't be reproduced by a user.

"About 20% to 30% of all Windows computer crashes appear to be related to the use of just three APIs in Windows 9x," Puckett says. The company helps developers stamp out these and other bugs.

I'll describe some fixes they recommend next week. In the meantime, go to Bugtoaster.com and click "Download" to get the software.

Once you've gone through a short registration process, you're ready to start catching errors and reporting them. All the information is uploaded in unencrypted form so anyone can see that the company isn't collecting personal profiles, just crash conditions.

Livingston's latest book is Windows Me Secrets (Hungry Minds). Send tips to tips@brianlivingston.com.

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