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Bob is dead; long live Bob

Failed Microsoft interface may have been well ahead of its time

Sunday, May 23, 1999

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

During his short, unhappy life, Bob was ridiculed, ignored and finally abandoned. Now, more than three years after his death, he may finally be getting his revenge.

"So many things are showing up that came from Bob," says Clifford Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford who helped to form Bob's character. Yet Bob, in death as in life, is remembered more for his weaknesses than his strengths. Bob was a noble, if failed, experiment, and one from which the computer industry can take some valuable lessons.

Sure, he was only a computer program, but still: Let us now pause a moment to pay our respects to Microsoft Bob.

RIP: Bob, 1995-96

Microsoft Bob, an early "user interface," a smiley face with glasses, was introduced in January 1995. One of its marketing managers was Melinda French Gates, Bill's wife. Bob was the first consumer product Gates launched personally.

Like just about every product since, Bob was supposed to be the Next Big Thing in computing. Unlike a lot of new software, Bob was a stark departure from the menu-based, text-intensive interface of Windows.

In a precursor to today's customized wallpaper and screensaver programs, Bob transformed the desktop screen into an image of a room with a desk, bookshelf, even a fireplace. Click on the various items in the room -- Rolodex, calendar, checkbook -- and Bob would start up the appropriate program.

Want to pay a bill? Click on the checkbook on Bob's desk; it will guide you through the electronic-payment procedures that come with the software. Want to write a letter? Click on the paper and pencil, and you launch the word-processing program. Clicking on the envelope starts the e-mail software. ("You can send up to 15 messages a month to anyone in the world free," Bob's instructions note. "Each can be up to 5,000 characters long -- that's about 800 words.")

Guiding users through all this were a dozen animated "Friends of Bob," from a dog named Rover ("Easy to work with, friendly, helpful. Tries to be your best friend") to a mouse called Scuzz ("Couldn't care less about you. Seldom offers help"). They could be shut off if they become too intrusive.

"Bob was the first software that was really task-oriented, as opposed to program-oriented," Nass says. It would "learn" a user's habits and present the most popular programs first, pushing them to the front of the desk.

"Bob used normal English," Nass says. "It spoke in full sentences. It had a point of view." But it didn't have a "Help" menu; instead, it simply asked what you wanted to do and tried to help you do it. "It didn't distinguish between right and wrong," Nass says.

"All these were key insights," he says.

Alas, not even key insights could overcome weak sales. In early 1996, Bob was the victim of a mercy killing. Besides, about seven months after Bob was born, Microsoft had a new baby that demanded a lot of attention -- and marketing expenses: Windows 95.

The closest Microsoft has ever come to a proper eulogy was a passing reference in a January 1997 column by Bill Gates: "Unfortunately, the software demanded more performance than typical computer hardware could deliver at the time and there wasn't an adequately large market," he wrote. "Bob died."

Bob's post-mortem

But Bob did not die in vain. It lives on in the hearts of minds of its creators, which is to say the programming community.

As one of the experts Microsoft consulted in the making of Bob, Nass can be expected to praise it. But others who attended last week's Computer-Human Interaction conference at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown, paid homage to the spirit of Bob, if not Bob's source code.

Much of today's "agent" technology, used on the Internet to search for low prices or key words, owes a debt of gratitude, if not technology, to Bob. Microsoft itself invoked the ghost of Bob, albeit gingerly, in the documentation supporting the much-maligned "Office Assistants" introduced with Office 97.

The basic goals of Bob were sound, says Bill Buxton, chief scientist for the software firm Alias/Wavefront and a professor of computer scientist at the University of Toronto. "The litmus test for any design is, Does it make the world easier or more complicated to navigate?" he says.

Part of the reason for Bob's failure, Buxton says, is "all the negativity" surrounding any product from Microsoft. He also says that Bob didn't meet its goals all that well, and that many users found it more annoying than helpful. Programmers do not always "get it right the first time," he says.

Nass, for his part, found it "radically sad" to view Bob's reception in the computer industry. He recalls an early review that said, "This is not for people who know how to use computers." Early reviews of cars with automatic transmissions were similar, he says, with some writers noting with disapproval that " 'Now, even women will be able to drive.' "

Nass also acknowledges that Bob had major problems, and even that its successors, such as the office assistants, can be irritating. The first time the dancing paper clip pops up to ask if you're writing a letter, he says, it may be helpful.

"But the 47th time, it's at best passive-aggressive behavior, and at worst it's downright hostile," he says. "We know what we do with people like that. We hate them."

"The problem with radically new things is the first ones are usually atrocious," he says. But most atrocious products, if they're new, have some redeeming features. The fast-moving computer industry "has very little tolerance for designs that are overall worse but have insight in them," he says. "It's only concerned with things that are overall better," in every way.

The challenge for programmers and designers, he says, is to learn from Bob's successes as well as its failures. Says Rosalind Picard, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: The computer industry should be careful it's not "throwing the Bob out with the bath water."

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