The Bob Chronicles

Bob's Their Uncle

Sons of Bob, clockwise from upper left: Clippy (Office 2000 version), Bob's own Rover as Windows XP's Search Assistant, the Microsoft Agent Merlin, and BONZIBuddy
Does Bob have a legacy? Its most obvious one is Microsoft's multiple latter-day attempts to build Bob-like features into its most popular programs. For instance, far more people were exposed to Microsoft Office's "Clippy" and the other Office Assistants than ever encountered Bob. (As Rogers Cadenhead has shown, the Office 97 Assistants are based on code so close to Bob's that it's possible to drag and drop the personal guides into Office.)

Almost seven years after Bob was announced, Microsoft brought back its protagonist Rover as the Search Assistant in Windows XP. He was jarringly out of place-especially in Windows XP Professional. But considering that XP is still the world's favorite operating system, Rover isn't out of work yet.

In "Bob and Beyond," Microsoft veteran Tandy Trower writes about the Microsoft Agent, the Bob offshoot he spearheaded. The Agent was an open platform for building Bob-like characters for use in software and on the Web. It never truly caught on either. (One of the places it did get used was in Bonzi software's BONZIBuddy, a piece of adware in the form of a talking ape with a reputation even worse than Bob's.)

When Clippy was young, several newspaper articles appeared that he and other similar features proved that Bob had been ahead of its time. But the Assistants ended up as widely mocked as Bob. And all of Microsoft's later social interfaces eventually died: The company eradicated the Office Assistant as of Office 97, nuked the Search Assistant in Windows Vista, and ended support for Microsoft Agent in Windows 7 (although it ended up making the Agent unofficially available again due to popular demand).

What's more, no other major tech company has found success with anything remotely Boblike, or even seemed interested in pursuing the idea. Bill Gates may have blamed Bob's failure on daunting hardware requirements, but in 2010, even the most mundane netbook could run the voice-controlled 3D parrot he demoed in 1995-and none do. If anyone revived the idea of talking-animal guides today, every review would bring up Bob in the first paragraph. Not in a good way.

And yet...

Certain aspects of Bob's interface live on, and usefully so. Bob archivist Dan Rose, who's a fan-"the social interface gave a personal computer a more personal feel, and I think that was a very good idea"-makes a compelling case that fragments of Bob survive in Windows 7's word-balloon alerts. Countless Web sites that step you through a process do so with menus that are reminiscent of Fries and Linnett's Publisher and Bob interface. And when Apple wanted to ensure that the iPad was simple and approachable, it made some of the same decisions that Microsoft made back in the 1990s-most notably, it chose to have all apps run in full-screen mode.

I see aspects of Bob in Siri, a new iPhone app whose creators describe as a "personal assistant." You speak requests into your iPhone; Siri listens, converts your speech into text, figures out what you meant, and responds with information. It works remarkably well. Yet the people behind Siri-who, as with Bob, include Stanford researchers-didn't feel a need to jazz it up with talking animals knocking themselves out to be ingratiating. Like Bob, the program puts its information into conversationally-worded balloons, but they don't emanate from a character. The balloons themselves are all the anthropomorphizing that Siri needs.

Which leaves me thinking that Bob's biggest mistake was that it tried way too hard. I acknowledge that computer users in 2010 are infinitely more sophisticated than they were a decade and a half ago. But maybe even the newbies of 1995 would have been receptive to something more subtle than Bob's cutey-cute menagerie. Something, in other words, that treated them like smart grownups who happened to be new to computers.

If Microsoft had pushed Bob in that direction-either initially or through upgrades-there's a decent chance that it would have been remembered today as a landmark. Could it be that there's some alternate universe in which new products are compared to Bob just as often as they are here-but it's a compliment?

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