The Chronicles of Bob

Original author: Harry McCracken
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Dedicated to the 15th anniversary of the legendary failure

How to hint as accurately as possible that the program is bad and there is no sense in it? Very simple: compare it with Microsoft Bob. Tell us about the infamous Windows 3.1 application, designed to help computer beginners, whose official release took place exactly fifteen years ago on March 31, 1995, and you won’t have to add anything. Everyone from OS X to Twitter, to Google Wave, to (inevitably) Windows Vista, has learned this lesson.

Bob, who became a curse word, survived for a long time, a short period of Bob's life as a product. It is unlikely that the vast majority of people who are now using it as a synonym for “complete technical failure” have at least once worked with this product. As little as the number of real Ford Edsel drivers among jokers about it.

But Bob didn’t start as a product to laugh at. Now it seems obvious where Bob got his reputation, but in 1995 even pundits, always in doubt, appreciated the idea as a harbinger of the direction in which user interfaces should evolve. And even so, Bob died just a year later, Microsoft continued to bobbitize many applications, and subsequently - most noticeably in offices from 97 to 2003, all versions of which contained the notorious "Office Assistant", better known as Clip.

Bob's birth

Bob spawned a product that debuted in 1991 and is still alive today: Microsoft Publisher. This was the first application from Microsoft that simplified complex tasks with the help of wizards (wizards), guiding users through them step by step.

After finishing work on Publisher, its developers Karen Frize and Barry Linnett thought about it to implement it. Their minds were still busy making programs more accessible to beginners. Which was logical: in 1995, the average American family did not have a computer at home. (When Microsoft released Bob, forecasts were used that 46 percent of families would have a computer by 1997 - and that percentage seemed surprisingly high.)

Fries and Linnett conducted focus groups where they showed the neophytes an interface with an animated duck as an on-screen assistant. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Fryze recalled the reaction of one of the participants: “This guy was very emotional - he grabbed my hand ... He said:“ Save money on all this documentation, and give me this duck, which will always be on the screen and tells you what should I do".

Then they composed a provocative internal document proving that Publisher is still very difficult to use, and requested funds to develop a new interface for inexperienced users, which will be on top of all Windows windows. Bill Gates was intrigued. He gave the green light to a project codenamed Master Data, later renamed Utopia, and which was eventually released as Microsoft Bob.

Melinda French was appointed project manager. Working at Microsoft since 1987, she was engaged to Gates in 1993 and married him in 1994. These facts have led many to conclude that Bob was originally a failed idea that would never have been launched if Melinda had not been required to take over. But Melinda has become even a greater supporter of Bob than his creators. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, she commented on the work of Freese and Linnett: “They changed the course of things in creating applications - I wanted to be part of this.”

Although the Journal reported that there were doubters at Microsoft, everyone else inside, outside the company raised premature toasts for Bob's health. While working on Utopia, two Stanford professors, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves, were invited as consultants. Their study, proving that people attribute human qualities to machines, has shown its importance.

Reeves later remarked in a Stanford newspaper:
The goal for Microsoft was to make the computer easier to use and in entertainment. Clif and I spoke with them in December 1992 and said that they needed to make it more social and natural. We said that people like to establish social connections - to talk and respond to signals like personal treatment. Also, people interact well with the natural environment, for example, moving people and objects indoors, because if the interface communicates with the user using these innate human qualities, documentation will not be required at all.

As a result, Nass and Reeves joined the Microsoft team in a press tour to popularize Bob and the concept of "social interfaces" in general. “Demonstrating the beta, these two scientists summed up their research, which claimed that people found social interfaces useful, convenient, and efficient,” recalls PCWorld chief editor Steve Fox; “And both of our journalists tried not to giggle during this presentation.”

On July 8, 1994, Microsoft registered a patent for Bob's idea and technology, describing in detail the look of this "real world" interface and internal aspects such as tools for creating and animating assistants. This was the first of many patents that the company in the field of animated assistants will create.

In the end, the groundwork for Bob - from the talking duck Freize to the university studies of Nass and Reeves - resulted in a package to increase personal productivity, in which cartoon characters trained users in applications using pictures of the house as the background. The characters were called "personal guides" and consisted of a dog named Rover (default guide), a cat, a rabbit, a turtle, a sullen rat, a gargoyle and William Shakespeare in person, as well as many others. They all sat in the lower right corner of the screen, giving instructions in balunas and performing circus numbers while you were using the program. (They could also speak loudly, but infrequently - the sound card was the recommended option, but not the necessary equipment.)

The package included eight programs: a word processor, a mailer, a calendar, an address book, a check book, a personal finance program, home accounting and a geography test. Microsoft believed that both she and third-party manufacturers would release additional programs that could be installed in Bob’s environment.
Although the product has long been in the game, it still did not have a name. According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft came up with names such as Home Foundation, Home Essence, Gallery, until its advertising agency, Wieden & Kennedy, proposed the name Bob in September 1994. Microsoft touted the name as “familiar, close, and friendly,” and bought from a tech from Boston named Bob Antia to be able to give out addresses to users in this domain. (Much later than Bob's death, Microsoft made a deal with another guy named Bob to buy the domain.)

Bob was personified as a shrinking face in Bill Gates' glasses, but although the program bore the name Bob, there was no such character in it. It appeared only as a decorative element - for example, in a medal on the Rover collar.

In October 1994, a Microsoft designer, Vincent Connard, saw the beta of Bob and said that the good old Times New Roman font in the tooltips was completely inconsistent with the playful style of the application. He began work on an aggressively simple font that became known as Comic Sans; the font was not included in Bob, but later came with Windows. Comic Sans ended up like the Microsoft characters Bob: most did not like him.

The advent of bob

On January 7, 1995, Bill Gates stepped onto the rostrum of the Consumer Electronics Show and introduced Bob to the world. He demonstrated the program and stated that it was a social interface, the first instance of a new approach that came to capture computers. He even demonstrated the futuristic prototype of Son of Bob from Microsoft Research: Pidi, a shrill 3D parrot performing the Tears of Fear repertoire on Gates voice commands.

Many Hollywood rulers were in the front row: Steven Spielberg, David Geffen, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Barry Diller. Some observers have interpreted their presence as a sign that Bob represents a new convergence of software and entertainment industries. "They saw a new type of creativity and how it beckons music and animation companies from Hollywood," said the Gates Associated Press.

Even if one of the former on the show was unable to attend Gates' speech, bobomania was inevitable. Flights to Vegas were equipped with Bob napkins, a plane with the “Welcome Bob” flag circled over the conference center, and honored citizens walked the streets with Bob billboards to exhaustion.

And this is a report (yes, with Arabic subtitles and in English) about Bob:

In retrospect, a huge fly in the ointment had to be added to all this extravaganza: at subsequent shows in Vegas, Microsoft also praised its other failures in the same style - Windows Smart Displays, Tablet PCs, Smart Watches. But then in 1995, viewers greeted Bob with respect. Even if they didn’t go crazy with Bob, they seriously took him as a pointer to the direction of software development.

Soft-Letter industry herald found Bob stupid but important:
At first glance, all these jumps and tweaks seem like an abnormal interface design, but in fact, Bob's distinguished characters have a goal: they consolidate what Microsoft calls its new “social interface” between a person and a computer. In his speech, Gates revealed Bob's intriguing design principles, principles that he believes will be “the next big step in the evolution of interfaces.” In short, Gates suggests that the next generation of high-performance PCs will abandon traditional graphical interfaces in favor of “social” interactions with human-like agents that can understand, learn, and interpret user wishes. At first, these agents will be able to provide extremely limited intelligence and ability to solve problems, but they will grow wiser and begin to perform more complex tasks,

Many saw in Bob the next stage of development, like the one that Apple created a decade earlier.

A Canadian Microsoft employee told Toronto Star about a study showing that 84 percent of home Mac users prefer Bob’s interface. Several newspapers immediately reported, citing secret sources, that Apple was working on a bean-like interface.

Analyst Charles Finney, Welty & Co, called the Microsoft product a threat to the very existence of its rival Cupertino. “Bob will be another highlight in Apple’s coffin, unless of course Apple somehow manages to once again raise standards for ease of use,” he told the Associated Press. Thanks to such a loud statement, Bob was not forgotten, like an unsuccessful joke in the same 1995 year.

Bob goes to the masses

Like many Microsoft products, both before and after, Bob was announced before it was completed. The program did not officially enter stores until March 31, 1995, almost three months after the premiere in Vegas. It sold for $ 99 — quite expensive, even by the standards of that era, when most programs sold much more expensive than they could be sold in subsequent years.

But Bob's price was not so important compared to the hardware requirements. The program required a PC with a 486 processor, 30 MB of free disk space and, according to the Puget Sound Business Journal, “a huge amount of memory”, 8 MB of RAM, which was twice as much as on an average 1995 PC. Beginners could use Bob only with unusually powerful computers.

In Bob’s ad and even on his box, Microsoft continued to claim that it was such a simple product that documentation was not required. Well, maybe the program came with a 29-page instruction booklet, which was called the first issue of Bob magazine, not documentation.

Moreover, Microsoft Press, the publisher of the company, has released a 210-page volume called "Homes with Bob", which seems like a bit big package for which no instructions are supposed. ("Microsoft Bob for Dummies," a pretty name! Was planned, but was canceled before publication.)

With the release date approaching, Microsoft has launched a second wave of advertising. The company enlisted the support of stellar computer novice film actor Murphy Brown, and called March 31 "Microsoft Bob's Day." Buyers were offered the construction of a "technological profile" to determine the most suitable character. CompUSA has scheduled two days of Bob's demonstrations. Gateway 2000, NEC, Micron and other market leaders have announced their intention to include Bob in the supply of their home PCs.

Bob Failure

Although all the preparations for Bob's release were done correctly, Microsoft made one gross strategic mistake. She began handing out copies of Bob to reporters in December 1994, and at the same time banned any publication other than those based on the Vegas show before the March 31 official release. But reviews of Bob began to appear in January, which would be nice if they were full of enthusiasm. But most contained anything but not enthusiasm. The technical journalists who used Bob for a while were less impressed than those who saw only the demonstrations.

Stefan Manes, The New York Times:
Bob is a wretched helper. It stores its data in formats that few programs can read. He stubbornly changes the position of the "OK" and "Cancel" buttons, which in general is the standard. Moreover, this Brownie Bob is inconsistent to the point of stupidity. Pressing Ctrl + L on the desktop allows you to adjust the volume; the same in the address book, will cause the mailing lists. Again and again, Bob tells you what to do, but does not let you do it until you click OK.

William Cassay, The Washington Post
At this point, Bob's tuning tools are quite superficial. You cannot add your characters, rename those supplied by Microsoft, create your own layout of rooms or build a house. You can’t even add your own room, and should only use wired ones in Bob.

John Dickinson, Computer Shopper:
Unfortunately, the rooms, like Bob's characters, seem to have come from a kindergarten. They are painted as if the target audience is children under 12, and most of their behavior will be unacceptable for people who are serious about getting the most out of their PC, respectively, for most adults.

Michael Putsel, The Boston Globe:
If this had been done by someone else, and not the world's largest software producer with a huge impact on the market, you would never have heard of this program or even tried to test it. Bob will just drown in a swamp where bad foods die quietly.

True, not all critics rated Bob as a fiasco. Larry Majid, Los Angeles Times, was less categorical:
Bob is not for the insider. It is designed for millions of people who will use a computer for the first time. Its interface should encourage people to study, and its silly characters are just a comic design that will allow beginners to overcome their phobias. But as soon as people learn the basics, I think they will grow cold to him, and he will only annoy.

And Volt Mossberg, the host of both the then and now column in The Wall Street Journal, was generally optimistic:
Tomorrow Bob will go on sale, and I recommend it to anyone who is disappointed in Windows, or to those whom she seems too alienated, no matter to beginners or experienced, but ordinary users. This is an unpopular point of view in computer publications and among computer experts. They all speak rather negatively about Bob, calling him too simple, banal and arrogant. In fact, it is arrogant to say that everyone who does not like modern computer interfaces is mistaken. As with all new products, there are roughnesses and problems in Bob. But he is a serious attempt to create something for non-techies who want to get comfortable with the computer.

But overall, it was obvious that Bob’s advancement in technical circles was a way to run into one. Therefore, it is very difficult to understand why Microsoft advertised Bob in the August issue of the geeky Bible Wired, months after the failed release. The tone of the message is like childish excuses:
Once and done. It’s really nice to work with a computer that doesn’t give a damn about you. That's why Bob is in it. With Bob, you can set up your computer to work as you like. Bob uses the latest software development: a social interface. Which can be described as "a really good program that makes the computer pleasant and friendly to you." Bob will help you fill out your checkbook, write a letter, receive e-mail, keep calendar entries, save contacts, play GeoSafari and learn how to work with Windows programs. And all this with comfort. Bob has personal helpers, animated on-screen characters to help you every step of the way. Bob is so easy to use that it doesn't even come with a user manual. All you need is a computer with 8 megabytes. To meet Bob Contact your local supplier. Bob is not a fantasy and he's very comfortable, isn't he?

By then it was absolutely clear that Bob was in trouble. Before Bob went on sale, Microsoft predicted that he would become one of the best sellers along with Microsoft Works and Encarta. But according to market research from PC Data, only 58,000 copies of Bob have been sold all the time. (For comparison, PC Data claims that Microsoft sold 2.75 million copies of Windows 95 in its first month of sales, which began in August 1995.)

In early 1996, Microsoft stopped releasing the product. She released two additional products for Bob: Bob Plus Pack and Great Greeting for Microsoft Bob. But Bob 2.0, which was in development, never came out. Just like Bob for Mac did not come out - the version that Microsoft started talking about before the release of the Windows version. It was a remarkably short life cycle of the product, which attracted so much attention, especially considering the well-known glory of Microsoft to release versions of new products until they become popular.

“The biggest mystery to me is how they managed to kill Bob so quickly when the head of the department that created him was Melinda French Gates,” wonders technical writer and unwavering admirer of Bob Roger Cadenhead. “I tried once to interview her, but the Microsoft PR service did not allow me. I have only one question: why did you let Bob die in 1996 - do you know anyone at Microsoft who had enough power to save the project? ”

I know. Bob’s failure doesn’t seem complicated to me: failure was inevitable. Even if we take into account adults who are afraid of computers, who want to be helped by anthropomorphic animals and inanimate objects, then those that were in Bob seemed boring and infantile. They were poorly drawn and animated, joked flatly and made the same mechanical movements over and over again, which made loss of trust inevitable. Even the sound effects were annoying. Microsoft invited Hollywood to the premiere of Bob, but it was created by engineers and academic researchers, not experts from the entertainment world - which Bob clearly demonstrated.

Of course, there are other theories of product death. Some are voiced by high-level people who worked on the product:

Bob devoured resources.This statement is personally by Bill Gates. “Microsoft Bob is a product released a couple of years ago that used cartoon characters to help people work,” he wrote in 1997. “Unfortunately, the program needed more performance than the average computer could provide, and this is a fairly narrow market.”

They poorly explained Bob's appointment. “We talked a lot about the concept of this user interface, but we didn’t talk enough about what Bob does,” said Orange Country Register, a former product manager from Bob’s development team in 1997. He says that he’s not covered enough about Bob’s package, which includes includes a word processor, email, checkbook and other applications.

Bob was too rough an outline of a good idea.“The problem with radically new things is that the first implementations are usually terrible,” reflected Cliff Nass of Stanford in 1999. “But all terrible products, if new, have some features that can be forgiven for. The industry is intolerant of developments that are generally bad, but have potential ... It only works with things that are better on average. ”

Bob was killed by experts. “Technical stars told me they would bury Bob,” wrote Monica Harrington, a PR director. “They not only did not like it, they were even angry that it was developed. This was a personal dislike. ”

Bob did not reach the set bar. Harrington: “Bob was expected to be a lifestyle-changing product, but he didn’t.”

None of these diagnoses gives us a complete picture, but in each of them there is some truth. It should also be taken into account that Bob came out just five months before Windows 95, an operating system that was less clumsy than previous versions. “It's important to talk about Bob in a temporary context,” said Dwight Silverman of the Houston Chronicle. “It was released before Windows 95 (although it can also be used in it), in the era of Windows 3.1, which for the most part is an add-on over DOS. Then there were many alternative environments: Compaq's Tabworks (which was not bad) and the environment that came with the Packard Bell PC and used the same “room” metaphor as Bob. With the release of Windows 95, all of these add-ons have lost their relevance, including Bob. "

My uncle bob

Has Bob left offspring? Obviously, there are descendants in later attempts by Microsoft to implement bean-like functionality in the most popular programs. For example, a lot more people worked with Scrake and other assistants in Microsoft Office than with Bob. (As Roger Cadenhead demonstrated, the code for Office 97 assistants is so close to Bob that you can drag his characters into the office.)

Almost seven years after Bob, Microsoft returned his main character as a Windows XP search assistant. It was absolutely out of place, especially in Windows XP Professional. But when you consider that XP is still the most popular operating system in the world, Rover still has work to do.

In the article “Behind the Scenes of Bob,” Microsoft veteran Thandy Trover writes about Bob’s Microsoft Agent side branch. Agent is a platform for creating bean-like characters for programs or the web. This package also did not become popular. (One of the places where he used Bonzi's BONZIBuddy program for advertisements with a talking monkey that got a reputation even worse than Bob.)

When the Paperclip was young, several newspapers stated that she and other characters were proof of Bob's prematureness. But the assistants were just as ridiculed as Bob. And in the end, all subsequent social interfaces died: the company uprooted office assistants, nailed Vista search assistant and stopped supporting Microsoft Agent in Windows 7 (although unofficial support is still available).
Moreover, not one of the tech companies was successful with anything even remotely resembling Bob, and didn’t even particularly try to develop the idea. Bill Gates accused Bob of excessive resource requirements, but in 2010 the weakest netbook is capable of launching a three-dimensional voice-controlled parrot, which he demonstrated in 1995, but no one does. If someone revives the idea of ​​talking animal helpers now, then every review will recall Bob in the first paragraph. And not the best words.


Some aspects of Bob's interface are lively and even useful. Bob's archivist Dan Rose, a fan of his - “the social interface gave the personal computer a personality and I think this is a very good idea” - conducted an exciting investigation showing that parts of Bob survived in Windows 7 in the form of pop-up baluns with prompts. Countless sites using step-by-step instructions do this using menus that are echoes of Bob and Publisher's interface. And when Apple Decided to make sure that the iPad is easy to use, it also accepted what Microsoft did in the nineties - they decided to launch all applications in full screen mode.

I see parts of Bob in Siri, the new iPhone app whose creators describe him as a “personal assistant.” You say the request to your iPhone; Siri listens, converts to text, highlights and gives you information. Remarkably, it works well. But the creators of Siri, among whom, like Bob, have Stanford researchers, do not consider it necessary to supplement him with talking animals trying to be cute. Like Bob, the program gives out baluns with information in the form of a conversation, but does not attach it to the character. The balunas themselves are anthropomorphic, but no more Siri is needed.

This all makes me think that Bob has gone the wrong way. I understand that users in 2010 are much more developed than a decade and a half ago. But most likely, the newcomers in 1995 would have accepted something more elegant than Bob’s mustache-menagerie. Something that would refer to them as intelligent adults who were unfamiliar with the computer.

If Microsoft had directed Bob in that direction - either immediately or with a series of updates - there would have been a considerable chance that he would now be remembered as a starting point. Maybe there is some alternative reality in which products are also often compared with Bob, like ours, but is this a compliment?

More related articles:
A Guided Tour of Microsoft Bob
Bob and Beyond: A Microsoft Insider Remembers
The Secret Origins of Clippy: Microsoft's Bizarre Animated Character Patents

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