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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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  • by mdm-adph ( 1030332 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:16AM (#26299327)

    ...gets its facts wrong in the first paragraph.

    Like someone says in the comments, Clippy has been around since Office 98.

    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?

  • it wasn't all bad (Score:5, Interesting)

    by thermian ( 1267986 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:18AM (#26299361)

    The animated Microsoft characters - MS Agents - you could stick in websites and applications were pretty useful sometimes.

    I used to use them in software written for kids, such as for learning basic numeracy, or spelling. A child reacts well to a little robot or santa flying round the program and asking them to do things.

    I used one once as a tour guide to show people round a pretty large website I used to maintain. That was more an experiment than anything, but it got a lot of use.

    I also ported it over to delphi once, it proved to be an entertaining exercise.

    I wouldn't be so sure that such avatars are finished with yet, although clippy and that damn search window dog are good examples of when it can be misapplied

  • Animated Characters (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MyLongNickName ( 822545 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:23AM (#26299417) Journal

    I remember taking some Microsoft certification tests. Now mind you that in order to pass, you must answer things the Microsoft way regardless of whether they were correct or not. Several of the questions on their programming tests involved user interfaces. Invariably, there would be a couple questions on using animated assistants. Now, the correct answer is to never use an animated assistant. But, being a Microsoft test if you saw "animated assistant", that was the Microsoft choice. After failing the first test, I learned "turn the brain off when entering the exam room and turn it on when you leave". Never failed a Microsoft test after that.

  • Microsoft Home (Score:3, Interesting)

    by mlwmohawk ( 801821 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:34AM (#26299509)

    I used to work at a software contracting house about 16-18 years ago. We worked on "Microsoft Home" project. There were two programs: "Fine Artist" and "Creative Writer" for kids. (code name "splat") It had an animated helper, "Pablo Picknoseo" (yes: pik-nOs-O") it seems to be some time before these patents. I still got the tee shirt.

    The Picaso family objected to the name of the character and they renamed him.

    I left that company as they were billing Microsoft by the hour, but paying salary. Microsoft was changing things on a weekly basis, but not adjusting the release schedule. The company was neither adding engineers nor fighting back on the schedule, just demanding we work more. It was crazy.

  • by transiit ( 33489 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:45AM (#26299605) Homepage Journal

    For an article interested in the "Secret Origins of Clippy", they did a good job noting that this all started with the failed Microsoft Bob ("I see you've mistyped your password. Would you like to change it?"

    But for all the secrecy they've uncovered in these public patent filings, they seemed to have missed that the program manager of MS Bob was Melinda French, who later became Melinda Gates. I understand she later worked with the team that gave the world the MS Office Assistant (clippy) as well as the Search animations that show up starting around Windows XP.

    I guess it's anyone's guess whether there was any nepotism driving this as a marketable feature, even when it was regularly reviled by their users.

  • Re:WAT (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968@@@gmail...com> on Friday January 02, 2009 @10:51AM (#26299655) Journal

    Funny you should say that, because when XP came out one of my more popular services was putting that damned search puppy to sleep. Folks would come in "I hate that damned search dog! Can you kill that stupid thing?" and I'd tell them that as part of my clean up and lock down package I'd happily put that dog to sleep. To this day I still get that request a few times a year.

    Of course now I get more "I hate this damned Vista! Can you get rid of it and put on XP?" so you really have to give MSFT credit. They went from just having the search hated to having the whole OS despised! Now THAT is progress!

  • Re:WAT (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Vectronic ( 1221470 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:04AM (#26299799)

    I find that kind of sad, he was useless, but it was nice to know he was there... just for the odd chuckle when bored.

    He's gotta be there somewhere, some obscure keystroke like Ctrl+Alt+Del twice or something.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:10AM (#26299853)

    That being said, I always though Microsoft's weird fascination with these things went a little too far

    I thought of Clippy a lot while reading the 1998 book The Media Equation [amazon.co.uk]. Here's a review [uci.edu]. In short, the researchers' hypothesis was that human interaction instincts like politeness are wired into our brain in such a way that they do not get suspended when using computers. Examples are given in that review.

    It's a believable-sounding hypothesis, and the authors then present a stack of experimental data that corroborates their hypothesis.

    If you look at book pate 33 it says: "How do you enter or leave a social situation? In any face-to-face conversation, people don't turn around and leave. First, they indicate intent and then ask permission to leave, at least implicitly. The opportunity to break this rule in media is legendary. In a famous interface project, a character suddenly disappeared from the screen due to a bug in the program. Users became disturbed, the designers noted, because they felt that the character was angry and had left as a result. Users did not view the disappearance as a problem with the technology. Characters that leave the screen should always take leave by saying "good-bye" or at least making a sound or gesture. They shouldn't evaporate into the digital ether."

    If you still have access to an old copy of office, get Clippy up, then get rid of it. You get a short 'goodbye' animation before the character disappears.

    There's a testimony at the start of the book: "Nass and Reeves have spent the last decade working in the area of social responses to technology. We brought them into our team, and they have shown us some amazing things." -- Bill Gates, Chairman and CEO, Microsoft Corp.

    Clippy was a reasonable-sounding social sciences hypotheses, corroborated by experimental data, and realised as a commercial software product. Whether Clippy's failure was a failure of the hypothesis or of the implementation is hard to tell.

  • by RazorJ_2000 ( 164431 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:23AM (#26299965)

    ...it's just that Microsoft's initial implementation was poor IMHO. The whole concept is great. At my work, we have available a tremendous amount of online training through a combination of video and PDF, etc. The thing is that what Microsoft didn't study, or perhaps did but didn't understand is that since childhood, kids are raised to see cartoon charactors as, for the most part, a little retarded. So anyone seen using a cartoon charactor to teach them concepts and usage of a software program will be seen as being retarded.

    I bet that if they had done a proper, professional, and serious implentation, that it might have gone better for them.

  • Microsoft Chat (Score:3, Interesting)

    by qw0ntum ( 831414 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @11:51AM (#26300191) Journal
    Slide 4 is probably related to Microsoft Comic Chat [wikipedia.org], an experimental IRC client that came out of Microsoft Research years ago (and incidentally the origin of the Comic Sans font). It basically took an IRC conversation and made it look like a comic strip, where each member of the conversation had a different character, and their words would appear as speech bubbles. You could also make your character have different expressions. All in all it was pretty cool and actually worked pretty well. It never really took off though because it accomplished all this by prepending metadata to your messages: if the people you were talking to were using MS Chat, they would see your character smile or frown or something; if they used any other client it'd just be a bunch of gibberish before your message.
  • Re:WAT (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Stargoat ( 658863 ) <stargoat@gmail.com> on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:11PM (#26300391) Journal
    I dunno. I found that a good minority of my users actually liked the Microsoft Assistant. They would watch it and its little antics amused them. All were ladies around 40 years of age or older. Heck, I had an accountant go off on me because I turned off her Microsoft Assistant.

    Based on the response I saw, I think Microsoft was on to something, but it was never executed properly. There were two problems. First, IT people got in the way. Second, the platform and the application idea for end use was all wrong.

    it was not a product for a productive business environment. The people who maintain and train on the products are advanced users, and for them, the Microsoft Assistant was not useful.

    But more to the point, I do not believe Microsoft ever really understood what makes a computer efficient. The best "computers" for specific application use are dumb terminals using basic ASCII characters. The Microsoft Assistant is just the opposite of this. If the computer is to be used for a purpose, the Microsoft Assistant gets in the way. If the computer is an unknown machine to a person, having a face on it is useful.

    But, people do not put smiley faces and instructions on hammers. Perhaps there was no way a Microsoft Assistant or a Microsoft Bob could be executed properly. A tool is a tool.

    Still, the idea of my grandparents filing away a form in an animated desk has appeal. If the product were arranged in such a manner that it could be marketed, as part of a separate non-computer, it could work. If a way existed to integrate a browser with digital television and a more intelligent Microsoft Assistant and the product were marketed to the proper audience, maybe it still could pan out. But we are not there yet. Broadband connections still require passwords and modems/routers. The idea does hold promise. A non-computer with a built in broadband router and no need for passwords. Weâ(TM)re surprisingly close it seems sometimes. If it had a wireless keyboard and mouse or roller without the pain of Bluetooth MAC addresses and crap like that. And a television interface no more complicated than a single HDMI plug. Itâ(TM)s not for anyone who would ever even think of being on Slashdot, and maybe it couldnâ(TM)t work if a computer can only really be a tool and not a way of life, but it does seem plausible.
  • by Jim Hall ( 2985 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:15PM (#26300445) Homepage

    A relative of mine (name withheld) was working at Microsoft at the time, in their MS Office division. He told me some great stories about this "animated help assistant" they were working on for the next release.

    The best bit, and most telling, was the huge political infighting about what the avatar would be. One group lobbied for a cartoon dude wearing a Microsoft t-shirt, because you should have the concept that "Microsoft is helping you" or some such. Another group wanted a cartoon dog to answer questions - they argued that version 1 of whatever Microsoft did would suck, that the avatar would often misunderstand questions so would give wrong answers, thus it would be better to have a smart dog occasionally get it wrong, than a Microsoft guy look stupid.

    This person left Microsoft before the avatar was decided, so I don't know why Microsoft decided a magic, talking paperclip was the best solution.

  • Re:WAT (Score:1, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:19PM (#26300469)

    The real question is, "What does Vista do better?"

    Other than a different GUI which you may, or may not, find more appealing, the differences between Vista and XP are minor or crippled in some way. Slower performance on the same hardware with little or no gain to the MAJORITY of customers is what has given Vista a bad reputation. I am sure you can list several new features that Vista has but can you name 2 that the average user knows about and would use?

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:28PM (#26300557)

    I had a certain clueless CPA who kept asking me simple questions about how to use office. I mean stupidly-simple like 'how do i underline?' and stuff like that....

    Eventually I broke down & told her to start asking clippy before she called me... clippy was able to help her enough that my 3 or 4 calls a week dwindled to 1 every week or two.

    Badmouth clippy all you like, for clueless idiots hes a huge help & that CPA wasnt the only person ive ever seen using him on a regular basis.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 02, 2009 @12:40PM (#26300665)

    kdawson didn't miss it:

    Posted by kdawson on Friday January 02, @09:02AM
    from the melinda-has-a-lot-to-answer-for dept.

  • Re:WAT (Score:4, Interesting)

    by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @01:01PM (#26300959) Journal
    "Clippy" itself might be dead, but that doesn't mean that all of the cute, animated assistants have been exorcised from windows. There's still Rover, Dot, F1, Links the cat, Merlin, courtney, Earl, and a handful of others that still exist.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 02, 2009 @01:43PM (#26301539)

    In the 1990's Microsoft was flush with cash (as they are now) and was busily buying intriguing Silicon Valley startups, and hiring away top university talent for its pure research labs. They apparently didn't think much of this "TCP/IP thing" before Netscape Navigator hit the streets, but they were massively intrigued by:

    - streaming video
    - interactive TV
    - hardware-assisted graphics
    - desktop animation
    - speech recognition
    - any other buzzphrase ending in "recognition"

    For example, at one point it seemed that Microsoft had cornered the market for startups in the video compression segment.

    I think Clippy came out of that desktop animation group. They had a bunch of researchers who published articles on a near-annual basis (so they could justify the expenses-paid junket to the academic conference in the exotic locale) on animated characters as avatars, collectibles, personal assistants, game tokens, etc. The "agent" idea is just one application they seized on for relevance.

    If I had to bet I'd guess that most of the researchers are still there. I remember MS did come out with at least two generations of animated character toolkits; the second featured "video" characters (animated JPEG) of young girls dancing, and the like.

  • by mosb1000 ( 710161 ) <mosb1000@mac.com> on Friday January 02, 2009 @01:59PM (#26301819)
    I'm not sure why some people seem to be obsessed with interacting with anthropomorphic machines. There are over 6 billion people in the world, surely you can find one of them to talk to.

    A computer is a computer. People use them more like a book that is updated in real-time than anything else. We should simply let it be what it is and try to improve on the way people interact with it. It makes no sense to try to trick users into believing they are interacting with something else. That can only lead to confusion and problems.

    The same thing goes you anthropomorphic robot-builders out there. Why build something that acts like a human? We already have lots of those. The whole point of automation is that it can do things that are difficult for us to do by hand. It doesn't make sense that an efficient robot would look like a human, because the mere fact that we need or want a robot to do it implies that the human form does not lend itself to the task.
  • Re:WAT (Score:3, Interesting)

    by man_of_mr_e ( 217855 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @02:18PM (#26302137)

    Well, the most obvious things that a clueless user would notice are Integrated search (available for XP, but not quite as well integrated), New games, the sidebar gadgets, Built-in DVD maker, Built-in Media Center (though some people bought XP with Media center, most didn't and the most common version of Vista sold is Home Premium that has Media Center), Vastly improved email client, Snippng tool, etc.. All those things are pretty obvious to anyone who's non-technical even.

  • Re:WAT (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Cor-cor ( 1330671 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @02:46PM (#26302627)

    It was a little different then was I was used to, but everything works.

    I think this is the main problem with Vista now that most of the big bugs have gotten fixed. So many people are completely computer illiterate and just get by through rote memorization of the correct keystrokes/mouse clicks to do the few things they want. When that changes, even a little bit, they are back to completely helpless and hate it, making them want to downgrade.

  • Re:WAT (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Trixter ( 9555 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @03:44PM (#26303355) Homepage

    Well, for one thing, Vista on my wife's brand new laptop can't transfer files at speeds exceeding 1.25MB/s despite the network link being capable of almost one hundred times that speed.

    The out-of-box experience is a giant "meh" right in the first ten minutes. I was expecting a lot more product for something that requires 2G of RAM to boot up without paging.

  • Re:WAT (Score:4, Interesting)

    by shutdown -p now ( 807394 ) on Friday January 02, 2009 @04:16PM (#26303695) Journal

    What are their complaints from XP to Vista? Hearing all of the bad press about Vista, I was not excited to "upgrade" when I purchased a new Laptop. However, having use it for a few months now, I have not come accross any real problems with it. It was a little different then was I was used to, but everything works.

    With Vista, even today, it's rather hit-or-miss regarding hardware. If you get a supported (truly supported!) hardware configuration, you'll get a smooth ride. If not, you can get anything from minor quirks to major blockers. And getting a PC with Vista preinstalled is, unfortunately, no guarantee that all hardware is actually properly supported (rather than "barely working when the stars are right").

    By the way, why is the parent modded Troll? He is merely relaying his personal experiences with Vista - or is it something that's only "+5, Informative" when they are negative?

All laws are simulations of reality. -- John C. Lilly