Bill Gates: Microsoft Bob to Make a Return (in Concept)

Remember Microsoft Bob? No? It was software released in March 1995 that provided a new, non-technical interface for Windows 3.1 and Windows 95, and used in place of the Program Manager. It featured a 2D representation of a house, giving users full control over decorating each room. Objects could be assigned to programs, allowing users to click a clock to open the Windows Calendar, and so on. Bob also had talking assistants which helped users navigate their virtual house.

The last stable release was on August 30, 1995. Now in July 2013, Bill Gates is hinting that Bob, or at least the concept behind the failed project, will come back to life as intelligent personal agents become a part of everyday computing. He revealed this Bob-infested future on Monday at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit held at the company's Redmond headquarters, acknowledging that the company didn't get the Bob idea right, but the concept will reemerge with a bit more sophistication.

"A long time ago we tried a little personality that was definitely premature," he said (via GeekWire). "I think it will re-emerge, but perhaps with a bit more sophistication. We were just ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes."

Despite the software's discontinuation, the assistant aspect lived on past the virtual house in the form of Clippy, the animated assistant in the shape of a paperclip. It was included in Microsoft Office for Windows versions 97 to 2003 and in Microsoft Publisher, it was included in versions 98 to 2003. Additional assistants were also offered including a hoverbot, a smiley-faced red ball and more. Microsoft Agent was also provided for non-Office users in 2000 featuring a parrot and three other animated characters.

Gates reassured Summit attendees that Microsoft Bob won't come back as an animated dog living in a virtual house, but instead as a disembodied voice from the cloud like Apple's Siri or Google Now. It will be wrapped in the Windows 8 tiled interface and understand everything that the user does, anticipate the user's needs and present relative information " anytime, anywhere, and on any device".

"I think we will be more connected and therefore if somebody wants to do a task like find a gift of a certain type, organize a trip in a certain way, there will be a closer match — that is, the gap between what the software can do for them and what most people end up doing, that could be reduced," Gates said.

For a history of Microsoft Bob, check out this article here. A guided tour in slideshow form can be seen here.

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  • I actually used Clippy quite a bit. He accessed the help docs in Office and when you're doing stuff in Excel and Access and just need to pull up function parameters it was a fast and easy way to do it.
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  • favorite office assistant ever was a Red vs Blue Sarge mod for office. It would have ignorant comments to say while you were working, and it would yell at you if you stopped for any length of time. I would love for other similar virtual assistants to make a comeback... but maybe with them actually being useful from time to time.
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  • Bob was one of the last projects Melinda Gates was involved with: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microsoft_Bob
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