Windows 8 has upset a lot of people

Users find themselves fruitlessly looking in the desktop’s bottom-left corner for a start button, like a confused bear hallucinating a salmon.

Wikipedia has it that a psychiatrist, hired to listen in to calls made to Coca-Cola’s customer hotline in 1985, found that customers sounded more like they were discussing the death of a family member than their feelings regarding soft drinks.

The calls, made at a rate of 1,500 a day, were almost exclusively about New Coke; the new formula for Coca-Cola released in April of that year, and intended as a sort of Hiroshima Bombing to end the “cola wars” with Pepsi.

New Coke was the brainchild of Roberto Goizueta, the Cuban executive who became CEO of Coca-Cola in 1980, and who promised his company there would be no sacred cows on his watch – including the formulation of the company’s drinks.

Goizueta’s moment of towering corporate hubris was invoked by the FT today, as a benchmark against which to measure Microsoft’s decision to change “key aspects” of its Windows 8 software for a hasty new launch of the product later this year.

To boil it down to basics, Windows 8 has upset a lot of people by cheating the sense of Pavlovian association by which they learnt to use a PC.

It boots to a colourful tablet-style start screen packed with squares representing apps, and only gives way to a familiar Windows 7 desktop upon prodding and poking. Furthermore, the opening of certain apps (as opposed to desktop-based programmes – Windows 8 uses both) again invokes fullscreen, tablet-style visuals rather than good old familiar red-"x"-in-the-corner-style windows.

Users find themselves fruitlessly looking in the desktop’s bottom-left corner for a start button, like a confused bear hallucinating a salmon.

Nevertheless, anything learnt can be just as easily unlearnt, and those who have persevered with the system tell me it is fast, stable and really quite easy to manoeuvre – especially with a touchscreen medium. What’s more, most of the system’s uncanny features can be disabled, to make it increasingly similar to Windows 7.

But no matter how good the system is once you get used to it, the damage to Microsoft’s sales was already done as soon as they made a significant change to the windows interface.   

Coca-Cola's corporate comms head, Carlton Curtis, came to realise that the New Coke debacle was more due to people freaking out over the withdrawal of the old-style drink, than to any characteristic of the new formula.

For Microsoft, a company whose interface designs have defined the basic expectations of generations of computer users, there has been a very similar price to pay for changing what was so familiar.

Photograph: Getty Images

By day, Fred Crawley is editor of Credit Today and Insolvency Today. By night, he reviews graphic novels for the New Statesman.

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I'd only given a literary talk, but someone still told me to leave the country

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

So here I am at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square. Eventually. After a misunderstanding that finds me first, forlorn and bemused, at Olympia, with the London Book Fair closing down for the evening, watching my fee grow wings and fly away into the night air. I am called up and told where I could more profitably go instead – that is to say, the venue I should be at. On reassurance that my expenses will be met, I hop into a cab as soon as I find one (which, on Kensington High Street at 7pm, takes far longer than you would think. I will not use Uber).

I am going there in order to be on a panel that is talking about Benjamin Fondane (1898-1944), the Romanian intellectual, poet, essayist, philosopher and all-round dude. I know nothing about the guy beyond what I learned from reviewing a selection of his writings last July but this makes me, apparently, one of this country’s leading experts on him. Such is the level of intellectual curiosity in this part of the world. Fondane was treated much better in Paris, where he moved after finding studying law in Bucharest too boring; treated very much worse in 1944, when he was sent to Auschwitz.

A little corner of me is panicking a bit before the gig starts: I know next to nothing about the man, especially compared to my co-panellists, and I might betray this to the audience of around 80 (I refer to their number, not their age), sitting in their little gilt chairs, in a nice gilt drawing room, which is par for the course for European cultural institutes in this neck of the woods.

Another part of me says: “Don’t be silly, you’ll be fine,” and it turns out I am. I even manage to throw in a few jokes. During the course of one of my answers I say that the UK is a cultural desert and that there was a reason Fondane stopped moving when he got to Paris. The idea of coming to London to breathe the pure air of artistic freedom and inspiration was, and remains, laughable. It gets a chuckle or two out of the (mostly Mittel-European) audience, who like a bit of British self-deprecation as much as we do.

Or do we? Downstairs, and clutching my first glass of the evening (a perfectly drinkable Romanian Merlot), I chat to various people who come up and say they like my reviews etc, etc. All very pleasant. And then a man comes up to me, about my age, maybe a year or three younger, smartly tweeded.

“I was very offended by what you said about this country being a cultural desert,” he says. He is not joking.

“Oh?” I say. “Well, it is.”

He has the look of someone about to come up with a devastating argument.

“What about Shakespeare?” he asks me. “What about Oscar Wilde?”

“They’re dead,” I say, leaving aside the fact that Wilde was Irish, and that anywhere was better than Ireland in the 19th century for gay playwrights.

“So’s Fondane,” he says.

I think at this point I might have raised my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose with finger and thumb, a sign for those who know me of extreme exasperation, and a precursor to verbal violence.

“So if you don’t like it so much,” he says, “why don’t you leave?” And his tone suggests that there is a good train leaving from St Pancras in half an hour.

“Do not presume to tell me, sir, whether I should leave the country.”

He tells me he has a Polish wife, as if that has any bearing on the matter. He says something else, which for the life of me I can’t remember, but I do know that when I replied to it, I used only one word, and that the word was “bollocks”.

“Well, if you’re going to use bad language . . .”

“I’ve got more,” I say, and proceed to launch a volley of it at him. Things have escalated quickly, I know, but there is no jest in his tone and what I am detecting is, I realise, his strong awareness of the Z in my name, my nose, and my flawless olive complexion. One develops antennae for this kind of thing, after almost half a century. And there’s a lot more of it about these days.

In the end, I become pretty much incoherent. On stage I’d caught myself thinking: “Golly, talking is even easier than writing;” but now my fluency deserts me. But God, it’s fun getting into a fight like this.

I’ve left my tobacco at home but the Romanian government gives me a whole pack of Marlboro Gold, and more wine. Vata-n libertate ori moarte! As they say. You can work it out. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution