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The Secret Origins of Microsoft Office's Clippy 263

Harry writes "Most folks think that Microsoft Office's Clippy, Microsoft Bob, and Windows XP's Search Assistant dog were perverse jokes — but a dozen years' worth of patent filings shows that Microsoft took the concept of animated software 'helpers' really, really seriously, even long after everyone else realized it was a bad idea. And the drawings those patents contain are weirdly fascinating." The article, a slide show really, spreads over 15 pages.
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The Secret Origins of Microsoft Office's Clippy

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  • Try and see (Score:4, Insightful)

    by El Lobo ( 994537 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:25AM (#26299433)
    As a software developer you should know that some ideas are good and some are bad....but sometimes you never know if you don't try. The key here is innovation and experimentation. The problem is, often nobody remember your little small innovations that went well: nobody now remembers who introduced the small waved underlines that are now standard in every spell checker in the world. Nobody now remembers who introduced tutorialized tasks. In 10 years nowbody will remember who introduced the ribbon. But everybody will remember the innovations that went wrong, like clippy and friends.
  • by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <> on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:29AM (#26299469) Homepage Journal

    That being said, I always though Microsoft's weird fascination with these things went a little too far -- anyone else remember the 20 or so different animated characters that you could get to help you in Windows XP, just to use the File Search feature?

    Once you develop the functionality, creating additional avatars is relatively trivial. I would be surprised if they couldn't find 20 people to make them for free on their lunch breaks around Microsoft. I mean, look at how many multi-frame comic chat avatars people have created just so they could look like Space Ghost or Smurfette on IRC. That's a much lower quality example but still indicative. You could look at gnome themes or something instead I guess. Shit, there's probably more than 200 MacOSX-based visual themes for Windows XP, let alone 20.

    Software agents with avatars are a brilliant idea. But the tech isn't there yet, and/or people try to do too much with it.

  • Re:WAT (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Junior J. Junior III ( 192702 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:58AM (#26299739) Homepage

    Who cares where Clippy is from. I just want it to die.

    No, you have to learn about where it came from, so you can nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure.

  • Jesus. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss ( 770223 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:00AM (#26299757)

    Who cares where Clippy is from. I just want it to die.

    I'll tell you what I want to die - Web sites that spread an article out one paragraph at a time over 15 pages where the spam-to-content ratio is 15 to 1.

    I'm sorry, but I didn't read the article, since I didn't get past page one of fifteen.

  • Re:WAT (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:02AM (#26299781)

    The problem with these assistance.

    1. Unprofessional. When you are at work. you don't want a cartoon floating around.
    2. Based on Statistics. Meaning you are rarely correct, but on the average close. Creating a situation where it is less helpful over all as the work done normally can't be close. It has to correct. So the assistant want to do things kinda like you are doing but in a way that it is wrong.
    3. Always in your way. When we work We don't like having things on top of our work.
    4. Animation distracts us. Good UI for animation is to put our attention towards something the programmer want you to take notice of. Eg. Element who gets focus, an alert or warning, or something new. But these guys are always moving even when you are doing what you need to do and its overall state hasn't changed, which distracts you from your work.
    5. They keep coming back. You close them... They come back again.
    6. Arrogant. They assume they are smarter then you. Even if you know what you are doing. "I am not writing a List Damnit! I am filling in data sets in a Top Down order because it is easier that way. "
    7. Never tell the disadvantages. The never tell you what the trade off are using that feature. Once you go into list mode you cannot perform calculation on it.
    8. Make the computer seem more personal. Yea that is the point but really a computer is a machine and it really should be considered as such. If you get emotionally attached to it. You start to feel bad about using it. Or when problems come up you blame it other then the people your yourself you causes the problems.

  • by tjstork ( 137384 ) <todd DOT bandrowsky AT gmail DOT com> on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:35AM (#26300069) Homepage Journal

    You know, as much as everyone hates Clippy, Microsoft sold so many copies of Office that there's bound to be a few million people that like him. I would be willing to bet that anyone who wrote a spreadsheet with a clippy like help system would wind up making a pretty good amount of money. For what its worth, I think today's Office help absolutely sucks compared to Clippy. FOr me, that text box of asking what Clippy I wanted to do was usually pretty damn good. Clippy always came through for me.

    I think the idea of a personified computer, creating one that expresses interaction, is something that Microsoft should have stuck it out with. Someday, some competitor is going to look at the ashes of clippy, and bob, have an "aha moment", identify where it all went wrong, and everyone will be cheering a great breakthrough in technology.

    It wouldn't be the first time this happened. The US car companies put a lot of money into a lot of automotive and engine technologies that didn't see a practical light of day, and, ultimately, the likes of Toyota and Honda would pick up the pieces and run with them in the late 1980s and establish themselves not just as low cost alternatives but as technology players.

    And, I will tell you, I know exactly what Microsoft's failure was with Clippy, right when I announce my new Storky based help in my spreadsheet!

  • Re:Try and see (Score:2, Insightful)

    by El Lobo ( 994537 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:35AM (#26300073)
    That's not unusual at all. With every new version the avatars has been changing. I guess they have been trying to fine-tune it to try to find some use for it, but with every new release their function and space is less and less. Today Clippy is almost inexistent. Of course, there are million of people who still use Office 97, so there are million of Clippy users still today.
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:38AM (#26300107) Homepage Journal

    If you've been in this business as long as I have, you'll realize that Microsoft's "weird fascination" is not an isolated phenomenon. It's part of a long simmering philosophical division over the design of software that goes back at least to the 1980s and the advent of commercially viable personal computing.

    The crux of this debate is this question: exactly how intelligent should software attempt to be on a users behalf? On one end of the spectrum, you have the vision of highly intelligent agents which monitor the world and the user and do things on the user's behalf that the user would do for himself if he would deign to use his valuable attention. The other end of the spectrum isn't quite as easy to characterize, but I'd say it sees the goal of software design as making tools that do exactly what a user asks them to, neither more nor less. We might consider this spectrum as running from proactive or autonomous software on one end to responsive software on the other.

    In a nutshell, it's the question of whether we want software agents or software tools that divides designers.

    The software agent end of things has always had a kind of futuristic allure, and attracts investment and attention and drives innovation. However, I (being a tools-person) think that making the software do what the user tells it to is a surer path to success. Apple, which I see as mainly a tools oriented design company, coined the term Personal Digital Assistant with the idea that small mobile computers would be agents, but Palm was the company that scored the first success in the PDA market by making a handy device.

    Microsoft has always been an agent oriented company. The "Where do you want to go?" slogan has an unexpected facet in that it subtly bodies the software agent philosophy: you specify where you want to be and the agent will take care of the details. Microsoft's design not only hides the details, but often makes the details inaccessible, which means that getting MS software to do what you want often amounts to twiddling poorly or undocumented registry entries.

    This isn't about making software intelligent or not, it's about how much initiative you take out of the users' hands.

    If you read Tim Berners-Lee's article on the Semantic Web from Scientific American a few years back, you can see that a lot of the benefit envisioned by proponents is in creating intelligent agents that work on users behalf to do things like resolve scheduling conflicts. In the meantime, as Semantic Web technology continues to slowly develop, one of its core functions, searching, has been solved for most uses by better and better "conventional" search technology. Conventional search technology focuses on trying to provide the user the answers he asks for without getting everybody in the world to agree in advance on what the relevant questions might be. It has proved successful beyond what one would have thought a system based on clever indexing rather than an intelligent, semantic understanding of the user's wants could be.

    Now, I'm a tools oriented guy, so this is a biased view. I actually think Semantic Web technology is going to be highly useful, but as a way of designing distributed information systems, not as a way of building agents who will fulfill all our information needs because they are intelligent.

    Clippy is representative of the agent philosophy. He watches what you do, and offers to take over as much of the task from you as he can. This highlights the central problem with the agent philosophy: we are so far from having technology that understands people that when it tries its just annoying. It's not that agents are useless. The web spidering robots that build search indices are, in a sense, highly specialized software agents, working on a much smaller and manageable problem.

    Another solution to the same problem as Clippy is the "wizard". Now I'm not particularly fond of wizards from a design standpoint. For one thing, they are temptations t

  • Re:Try and see (Score:3, Insightful)

    by betterunixthanunix ( 980855 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:47AM (#26300173)
    Worse is that people tend to attribute useful innovations to the wrong source. How many people do you hear attributing the mouse to Apple? How many other people do you hear trying to correct the first group by telling them that Xerox invented the mouse? When an innovation goes poorly, the people who came up with it become a joke and are remembered because of that joke; but when it goes well, it is usually some company like Apple or Microsoft that popularizes it, and nobody remembers the original innovators.
  • Re:WAT (Score:2, Insightful)

    by jdoverholt ( 1229898 ) <jonathan.overhol ... minus city> on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:01PM (#26300291) Homepage
    Quit your rational thinking! Get out!
  • by IICV ( 652597 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:19PM (#26300473)

    ... your post was more informative than the article.

    I know that's a pretty low bar to pass, but you still deserve congratulations.

  • Re:Jesus. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ElleyKitten ( 715519 ) <{moc.liamg} {ta} {esirnusnettik}> on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:21PM (#26300503) Journal

    I'll tell you what I want to die - Web sites that spread an article out one paragraph at a time over 15 pages where the spam-to-content ratio is 15 to 1.

    I'm sorry, but I didn't read the article, since I didn't get past page one of fifteen.

    I got to page 2. There they have a link that is supposedly a microsoft article saying people loathe rover (the xp search dog). follow the link and... no, it doesn't say anything like that. Reading 15 pages is bad enough, but 15 pages of bullshit is not what I'm doing.

  • by rmcd ( 53236 ) * on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:41PM (#26300671)

    Great post.

    The thing that always shocked me about Microsoft's UIs is that they do such a terrible job of implementing the things they're purporting to implement. Clippy's an obvious example. But think about right-click menus, which I always thought were a terrific idea but never particularly well-implemented. There are many times I repeat the exact same many-step procedure in Office. Why doesn't Office notice and offer to make a macro or menu item out of what I'm doing? Why can't I drag menu items to the quick-start toolbar (a feature available in many applications for well over a decade)?

    There's so much low-hanging fruit in the Microsoft UI. For all the incredible brainpower in Redmond, it never seems like the people in charge have good judgment.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 02, 2009 @01:19PM (#26301221)

    > Software agents with avatars are a brilliant idea.

    Users manuals are a brilliant idea...Reading and seriously studying them is a very good idea. It is so good that 90% of computer users are not intelligent enough to get to it.

    Come on, all this "user friendliness" is crap, just make people study what they use.

  • Re:WAT (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thePowerOfGrayskull ( 905905 ) <.marc.paradise. .at.> on Friday January 02, 2009 @02:23PM (#26302235) Homepage Journal
    What really pisses me off about disabling that stupid dog is the way he turns his back on me, and slowly saunters off the screen. No, you stupid mutt! I want you gone NOW, none of this insouciance from you!
  • Re:WAT (Score:5, Insightful)

    by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <> on Friday January 02, 2009 @04:02PM (#26303531) Journal

    BINGO! Give that man a cigar! Home users have no freaking clue how to actually use a PC and I seriously doubt anybody at MSFT, which seems to have seriously been bit by the "I can be as cool as Apple! Really I can! Quit laughing at me!" ever bothered to actually test the GUI with actually home users. I can tell you that home users HATE change! They absolutely positively HATE change! They know where the buttons were before, they knew what to do to do what they needed before, and now they are nothing but frustrated.

    Then add on top of that the fact that Vista feels slower than their 4 year old XP machine, the HDD thrashes constantly and takes forever to load(most folks shut down their machines cold at night and so do a cold boot at least once a day, usually several) and sucks RAM and CPU time worse than a drunk sucking down Mad Dog, and you have some seriously pissed off consumers. It has gotten to the point that when a new customer comes in and say "Help! I got this new machine and I can't stand it!" that I just say "You got Vista'd,didn't you?" and the answer always is "Yeah, real hard! And I hate this damned thing! Can you put XP on it?". I'm sure that it would shock most here, but most home users I've dealt with didn't even see the "fisher price" GUI of XP because one of the first things they would ask is "Can you make it look like the old one?" so they would happily take home a machine that looked like Win9X. And don't even get me started on Office 2K7. Not placing an easy way to default to the GUI that everyone has been using since Office 97 was just plain stupid.

    Allow me to make a prediction. Write it down, and you watch it come true. If MSFT doesn't fire whichever ass has decided "We can really be like Apple with Win7! No really, we can! Stop making fun of me!" should be the direction of the company instead of making boring, low resource desktop OSes that everyone knows how to use because that is what they have always used, and instead replace quicklaunch and the taskbar with that damned stupid Apple Dock then Win7 is going to go down in flames even faster than Vista. If folks had wanted an Apple they would have freaking bought an Apple. What folks want from MSFT is the same boring as shit they have always gotten, with a little more stability and more drivers included. Add a few little things like native DVD burning and a simple picture editor and they are happy little campers. But if they try to force everyone into this giant Apple ripoff multimedia nightmare then they are going to stay away in droves. I mean have you EVER seen a case like we have now where a new MSFT OS has been out nearly 3 years yet companies like Tigerdirect are bragging Comes with XP Downgrade Rights! [] in giant letters to sell their machines? Hell I didn't see folks run from a MSFT OS this fast when WinME was unleashed with all its evil upon the world(Bill STILL owes me an apology for THAT one,asshole!)

  • by rakslice ( 90330 ) <> on Friday January 02, 2009 @06:42PM (#26305395) Homepage Journal

    I see this comment a lot, and I suppose that many average Windows users don't see the seams and can't figure out what the fuss is about.

    From my point of view as someone who has used Windows heavily for almost two decades, 2007-08 in Microsoft land has been the perfect storm of poor user experience for power users.

    Here are the factors:

    - The configuration dialog shell game that we've come to expect with every new Windows release
    - Deeper UI changes to features that I use several times a minute (e.g. alt-tab ordering, language cycling shortcuts) that had previously worked fine the way they were since Windows 95 or before; I'm not sure if Vista's UI designers knew what they were getting rid of
    - RAM usage that's off the hook and weird paging performance, thus the push to the x64 version
    - The x64 version's remaining hardware and software compatibility issues
    - Just general brokenness around configuration behaviour (e.g. language settings), hardware-related functionality (e.g. built-in burning with -RW disks), and general system behaviour (why would it ever make sense to launch the task manager minimized when the task bar becomes unresponsive at the drop of a hat when an app isn't responding?) that ultimately should have been found in testing and fixed before the product got out the door
    - I'm sure there are things I'm forgetting about here.
    - With all the risk taking with the UI, why not also address underlying OS problems that have been around for years (e.g. mysteriously in-use files getting in the way of deletes and ejecting USB drives, the buggy aforementioned built-in burning?)
    - The icing on the cake: Microsoft choosing to stubbornly phase out XP, so most OEM buyers and most corporate buyers are stuck with Vista for new installs even if they (or their staff) would prefer XP. Microsoft's pacing is really what took the patchable brokenness and the performance problems from being theoretical issues to real ones for power users.

    OFFICE 2007
    - Although not a reason to knock Vista, this is certainly part of the perfect storm, since like Vista, Office 2007 throws out a bunch of the previous product's tried-and-true UI (the whole menu structure) and rethinks it, and MS has taken the same approach to phasing it in as for Vista, so for new installs, it's just as unavoidable as Vista. Because it largely works properly and performs OK (cynical view: higher unit price -> more exhaustive testing?,) and because I can at least come up with plausible explanations for all of the UI changes they made, it's not quite as hard a pill for me to swallow as Vista but still another layer of icing on the cake.

    So yeah...

    I realize that I'm being a snooty power user here. Not everyone wants or needs backwards compatibility. And although the $100+ retail sticker price and huge market share of Windows suggest that MS should spend a lot on testing, the realities of OEM pricing and keeping the shareholders happy mean that MS has to stretch their usability testing dollar a long way. So, power-user oriented features with limited appeal must get the short end of the stick.

    On that note, there are things that Vista has done right:
    - The layer of awful networking wizards are a highly nuanced topic in themselves, but despite being harder to avoid than the ones in XP, they seem to have more informative automated functionality and that's ultimately a win
    - The search box on the start menu is a killer power-user feature (even if I was going to use Launchy anyway)
    - The more detailed performance monitoring in the Task Manager as well as the Performance control panel/snap-in is impressive
    - You'll note that I haven't mentioned User Account Control (UAC) in the minuses... That's because, despite the warts (e.g. tapping my fingers while a low priority process waits to redraw the whole screen that it has just taken over) I think UAC is a real security improvement for power users and has been sorely needed for a long time... BUT I can certainly understand that for averag

  • Re:WAT (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Kagura ( 843695 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @07:07PM (#26305705)

    They know where the buttons were before, they knew what to do to do what they needed before, and now they are nothing but frustrated.

    I strongly, strongly agree with the previous statement. However, this next part...

    And don't even get me started on Office 2K7. Not placing an easy way to default to the GUI that everyone has been using since Office 97 was just plain stupid.

    I see some people ragging on Office 2007, but I think it's an example of something Microsoft has done extremely well. The new interface is a fantastic change, and I'm really impressed with it. Defaulting to the "old" GUI would be a step in the wrong direction.

"How many teamsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?" "FIFTEEN!! YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT?"