Windows XP arouses presidential ire

New software programs are always likely to encounter teething problems, but it's better if they don't happen to your most high profile customers.

In Italy that category includes Francesco Cossiga, a former president and technology buff, and a pungent polemicist. It was therefore unfortunate that Cossiga's personal computer froze last month, shortly after the installation of Microsoft's new jewel, Windows XP Home.

Cossiga has served as prime minister and at the defense and interior ministries and cultivates a passion for espionage issues. Accustomed to the low blows of the Italian political arena, he is a lively orator with a withering sense of irony who always relishes a ruckus. So it was little surprise when he promptly wrote to Microsoft's founder to inform him of his technological contretemps.

"Advised by the experts of the Senate, of which I am a life member, I had your new program Microsoft XP Home installed on my very powerful personal computer, which went into tilt after two days," he protested in a fax to Redmond. "Neither my friends nor the Italian subsidiary of Microsoft can solve the problem, with the risk that the computer's hard disk will have to be reformatted with the loss of all the data it contained."

Cossiga wound up his letter, addressed to Bill Gates in person, with a word of advice: "Perhaps, my dear, young Mr Gates, before putting your new products on the market with so much publicity you should have them tested for longer and with greater care."

He was still in belligerent mood when he was interviewed by La Repubblica on Nov. 23. Reports that it was a hardware rather than a software problem and that the difficulty had anyway been resolved were untrue, he told the Rome daily.

"That's not the case: until a few minutes ago my computer was still out of action and for a fault in the program, not in the hard disk," the ex-president insisted. Cossiga said he feared he was going to lose his entire archive and would take legal action against Microsoft if that happened.

Fortunately for relations between Rome and Redmond the problem was rapidly resolved, Microsoft insisting that it had been an installation error all along. The dispute was concluded by the end of the month with a chivalrous exchange of letters between the Italian politician and the American software magnate.

"Dear Mr President, Thank you for the note regarding the problems you had with Windows XP. I can understand the frustration of any customer who has difficulty installing or using software products. Making technology easier to use is one of our top priorities here at Microsoft, and we recognize that the entire industry has more work to do in this area," Gates responded on Nov. 27. "I assure you that we spend, quite literally, hundreds of thousands of hours testing our software on thousands of computers and devices to ensure that people have the best experience possible."

Gates took the opportunity to plug his new product, saying it would enable people to be more productive, have more fun and communicate with colleagues and friends around the world. "Windows XP has also been designed to create a much better user experience, notwithstanding the problems you had," he said.

"Windows XP is indeed friendly and rational, and its minor inconveniences are normal in a new product," a satisfied and pacified Cossiga acknowledged three days later. "The problems I faced while trying to use your software must have been really insignificant if it has been possible to solve them so quickly," he wrote.

In the end the spat turned into a gratifying endorsement of Microsoft's after sales support. Gates might not have been so pleased by Cossiga's view of the Internet, described as worse than a drug by the former president. "I would ban it for children. For them a good book is much better," he told La Repubblica. "Always."

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Philip Willan

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