The Bob Chronicles

Still-shrinkwrapped Microsoft Bob. Courtesy of Dan Rose's D2CA.org
In promotion for Bob -- and even on the box -- Microsoft kept coming back to the notion that it was a product so simple that it didn't need a manual. Well, maybe: The software came with a 29-page booklet of instructions, but it was labeled as the first issue of Bob Magazine rather than as documentation.

What's more, Microsoft Press, the company's book-publishing arm, released a 210-page tome called At Home With Bob -- which sounds like a lot of explanation for a package which supposedly needed none. (Microsoft Bob for Dummies -- priceless title! -- was planned but canceled before publication.)

As the product's release date approached, Microsoft began a second wave of hype. It secured an enthusiastic endorsement of Bob from celeb/PC newbie Faith Ford -- Corky Sherwood on Murphy Brown -- and declared March 31st to be "Microsoft Bob Day." Sears offered "technology makeover" advice to help consumers figure out which of Bob's characters was best for them; CompUSA scheduled two days of Bob demos. Gateway 2000, NEC, Micron, and other leading PC manufacturers announced their intention to bundle Bob on their home machines.

Bob Goes Bust

For all that went right with Bob's rollout, Microsoft made one critical strategic blunder. It had begun distributing copies of Bob to journalists in December of 1994, and apparently placed an embargo on reviews only through the CES announcement, not until the March 31st release date. Bob reviews therefore began appearing in January, which would have been dandy if they were glowing. But most were anything but. The tech journalists who actually tried Bob at length were generally far less impressed with it than the analysts who'd only seen it in demos.

Stephen Manes in The New York Times:

Bob is a poor neighbor. It stores its data in formats that better programs cannot easily import. It perversely reverses the positions of "OK" and "Cancel" buttons that have become standard. But then, a foolish inconsistency is a hobgoblin of Bob. Pressing Control-L in the home area lets you adjust the sound volume; doing the same thing when using the address book brings up the mailing list. Again and again, Bob tells you to do something but will not let you do it until you click an "OK" button.

William Casey in The Washington Post:

At this stage, Bob's elements of customization are superficial. You cannot add your own guide characters, rename the ones Microsoft supplies, create your own constructs within rooms or build your own house. You can't really even add your own room, other than one of Bob's unsatisfying precooked versions.

John Dickinson in Computer Shopper:

Unfortunately, the room metaphor -- as well as Bob's characters -- seem to come straight from kindergarten. They're drawn as if the program's target audience were the under-12 set, and much of their behavior will be unappealing to people seriously bent on getting a lot out of their PCs, or to adults of any kind, for that matter.

Michael Putzel in The Boston Globe:

If it were being introduced by anyone but the largest software maker in the world with the clout to command attention in any marketplace, you would never hear of this program, and I wouldn't bother to review it. Bob would simply sink into the bog where bad products die quiet, unnoticed deaths.

It's true that not every critic rated Bob as a fiasco. Larry Magid in The Los Angeles Times was somewhat less damning:

...Bob isn't meant for the initiated. It's designed for the millions of people who, each year, will start to use computers for the first time. Its interface should encourage exploration and its wacky characters may be just the comic relief that new users need to get over their initial phobias. But once people are beyond the basics, I suspect it will leave them cold and a bit bored.

And Walt Mossberg-then as now The Wall Street Journal's Personal Technology columnist-was genuinely upbeat:

Bob goes on sale tomorrow, and I recommend it to anyone who has found Windows frustrating or just too impersonal, whether you're a novice or an experienced but casual user...This isn't exactly a popular point of view in the computer press, or among the rest of the digerati-the technically adept, computer-oriented class. They've been pretty negative about Bob, calling it too simple, too corny, too condescending. But what's really condescending is the conviction that anybody who doesn't grasp or like today's computer designs must be wrong. Like most first efforts, Bob has some flaws and drawbacks. But it's a bold departure that attempts to give nontechnical people more control over their computers.

Overall, though, it's painfully obvious that exposing tech enthusiasts to Bob was asking for trouble. Which is why it's hard to figure out why Microsoft ran an ad for Bob in the August issue of geek bible Wired, months after the software's rocky reception. The tone was a tad defensive:

Fancy, schmancy. It's feeling comfortable with your computer that really matters. That's why there's Bob. With Bob, you can customize your computer so it works the way you like to work. Bob features the newest thing in software: a social interface. Which is a fancy way of saying "a really nice program that'll make your computer comfortable and friendly to you." Bob will help you balance your checkbook, write letters, exchange electronic mail, keep a calendar, record addresses, play GeoSafari and access Windows-based programs. And do it all comfortably. Bob has personal guides -- animated on-screen characters -- that lead you every step of the way. In fact, Bob is so easy to use, it doesn't even come with a manual. All you need is an 8-megabyte computer. To meet Bob for yourself, stop by a local software retailer and ask for Bob. Sure, Bob's not fancy, but isn't comfortable really where it's at?

By then, it may have been clear that Bob was in trouble. Before Bob shipped, Microsoft had predicted that it would be a best-seller on par with hits such as Microsoft Works and Encarta. But according to retail research firm PC Data, only around 58,000 copies of Bob were ever sold. (By contrast, PC Data said that Microsoft moved around 2.75 million copies of Windows 95 at retail in the first month after its August, 1995 release.)

Great Greetings for Microsoft Bob. Courtesy of Dan Rose's D2CA.org
In early 1996, Microsoft pulled the plug. It had released two Bob-related products: the Bob Plus Pack (which was later rolled into Bob itself) and Great Greetings for Microsoft Bob. But Bob 2.0, which had been in the works, never appeared. Neither did Bob for the Mac, a version which Microsoft had talked about before the Windows edition shipped. It was a remarkably brief run for a packages that had arrived to so much attention-especially given Microsoft's famous willingness to stick with new products through multiple versions until they caught on.

"The biggest mystery, to me, is how Bob got killed so swiftly when Melinda French Gates was head of the Microsoft department that created it," says tech author and unabashed Bob admirer Rogers Cadenhead. "I tried to interview her once, but Microsoft PR shot me down. I only had one question: Why did you allow Bob to die in 1996 -- didn't you know anyone at Microsoft with enough pull to save the project?"

Me, I don't find Bob's failure all that complicated: It was unappealing. Even if you buy into the notion of computerphobic grownups wanting to be helped by anthropomorphic animals and inanimate objects, the ones in Bob are grating and infantile. They're poorly drawn and animated, make puerile jokes, and perform the same actions over and over in a rote manner that makes suspension of disbelief impossible. Even the sound effects are annoying. Microsoft may have gotten Hollywood to turn out for Bob's premiere, but the software was created by engineers and academic researchers, not entertainment experts-and it shows.

Of course, there are other theories about why the software flopped. Including some raised by people who worked on the product:

Bob stuff: a mug (courtesy of Rogers Cadenhead) and baseball cap (courtesy of Ed Bott)

Bob was too much of a resource hog. This was Bill Gates's own take. "Microsoft Bob was a product a couple of years ago that used on-screen cartoon characters to carry out tasks for people," he wrote in a January, 1997 column. "Unfortunately, the software demanded more performance than typical computer hardware could deliver at the time and there wasn't an adequately large market."

Bob was poorly explained. "We spent a lot of time talking about the concept of the user interface, but we didn't spend enough time talking about what Bob did," former Bob Group Product Manager David Thacher told the Orange County Register, also in January of 1997. By which he meant that it wasn't clear enough that Bob included a word processor, e-mail, check writer, and other applications.

Bob was a too-rough draft of a good idea. "The problem with radically new things is the first ones are usually atrocious," mused Stanford's Cliff Nass in a 1999 interview with the Knight Ridder/Tribute News Service. "But most atrocious products, if they're new, have some redeeming features. [The industry[ has very little tolerance for designs that are overall worse but have insight in them...It's only concerned with things that are overall better,"

Pundits murdered Bob. "Tech influentials had started telling me that they were going to bury Bob," wrote Monica Harrington, who managed PR for the product, last year. "They not only didn't like it, they were somehow angry that it had even been developed. It was personal."

Bob couldn't live up to the initial hype. Harrington: "Bob was going to have to be a life-changing experience-and it wasn't."

None of these diagnoses tell the whole story, but there's probably some truth in all of them. Another point to consider: Bob was around for only five months before Microsoft released Windows 95-an operating system that required less dumbing down than previous versions. "It's important to think about Bob within the context of the time," says Houston Chronicle tech columnist Dwight Silverman. "This was released before Windows 95 (thought it could be used with it), in the era of Windows 3.1, which was largely a shell sitting on top of DOS. There were a lot of replacement shells out there, such as Compaq's Tabworks (which was pretty good), and a shell that came with Packard Bell PCs that used a similar "room" metaphor as Bob. When Windows 95 came out, though, such shells were rendered irrelevant-including Bob."

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