Thursday, February 22

What happened to Clippy, the famous Microsoft assistant who ended up deposed to return 20 years later


find someone who I looked at you like Clippy when you write in Word.

Find someone who looks at you like he did with his big black eyes, without blinking, his gaze fixed under two shaggy two-dimensional eyebrows; always lurking in the bottom corner of the PC screen, ready to pounce again and again with his everlasting:

— Do you want me to help you today?

either

— It seems that you are writing a letter. Need help?

If you messed around with Microsoft Office in the late ’90s and used to use Word to write—letters or not, whatever Clippy thought—I’m sure you know what I’m talking about and those questions are familiar to you. Moreover, I would dare to say that on some occasion they even managed to get on your nerves.

the desk companion

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Clippy was that desk mate who gets us in good luck on the first day of school, smart-alecky, naive, a bit heavy too. A pathological care seeker. Always alert. Always on the prowl. Pending a wrong click. Ready to jump at any moment to launch a suggestion and delve into the wounded pride of the writer stuck in front of the blank sheet of paper.

– I can help?

He offered help, yes, and politely; but often in the worst way—without being asked—and so insistently that you end up searching the Internet for a way to disable it. Seen in perspective it is endearing. And in a way, it made all the sense in the world for him to ask us all that in 1998, 1999, or even the early 2000s, when it stood to reason that a lot of Office users were not yet familiar with your tools.

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It was about being educational.

To simplify.

To offer newcomers a user manual that seems anything but a leaden, dry, demoralizing and boring user manual.

To find a simple way to resolve doubts and teach how to handle that Microsoft software; an assistant with whom to interact, a nice-looking chabot, somewhat comical and even capable —if we asked him to click— to make monkeys and do somersaults.

And that was precisely what Microsoft intended.

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The problem: it was not very fine in the attempt.

Microsoft Bob Screenshot

In the 1990s, the people from Redmond had a clear idea: they wanted their software to be more manageable. For those who get along perfectly with computers, of course; but also for those who stood in front of a PC and handled a mouse and keyboard for the first time. To achieve this, they thought, one of the great keys was to offer them a good interface.

They weren’t aiming crazy. In the early 1990s, two Stanford University researchers, Clifford Nass and Byron Reeves, had studied in detail how human-computer interactions developed and their conclusion was very clear: we prefer to treat our computers as if they were “ agents”, social actors; not in the way of simple tools.

“People are good to have social relationships: talk to each other and interpret signals such as facial expressions. Also when dealing with a natural environment, such as the movement of objects and people in rooms, so if an interface can interact with the user to take advantage of those human talents, it may not need a manual, “they pointed out.

In short: if these “natural talents” of the users were taken advantage of, if they were offered an attractive and didactic interface, it might be easier to learn to use the software.

Those ideas permeated the Redmond offices and ended up taking shape in a project promoted by Karen Fries and Melinda French —yes, the later wife and later ex-wife of Bill Gates— and who achieved the support of the management: Microsoft Bob. Perhaps his approach was good. The result, of course, no. Bob was launched in 1995 And it was a huge fiasco.

In his efforts to make it easy for users, he turned the desktop into a kind of prim room, with an air almost almost like a Hanna-Barbera cartoon, a decision that earned him rejection from users and criticism. The Redmond guys had simply gone too far when they wanted to simplify the user experience: they included an envelope for the mail, a paper and a pencil for the word processor… And a yellow dog, Rober, as an assistant.

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the very TIME reserved for Bob a dubious place of honor in the list of the 50 worst inventions along with other great creations of humanity such as Spam, paid toilets or —look at the data— “smile checks”. By ’96 Bob had packed and out the back door.

In most companies such a setback would serve to make a clean slate. Not at Microsoft. Or not exactly, at least. Maybe Bob had missed the shot, but… Was there any way to rescue his philosophy? For Bob, the company had designed around 250 animated characters, such as dogs, dinosaurs and rabbits, so why not keep that idea?

No sooner said than done. In Windows 97 Office Assitant was added with a default avatar: our protagonist, the always willing Clippy, designed by illustrator Kevan Atteberry. The reception he received from users was perhaps not as fierce as Bob’s; but he was far from desirable. People complained. Clippy was annoying. He was annoying.

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Why? In 2003 another researcher, Luke Swartz, published a study with some interesting reflections. The text is clear from its very headline: “Why People Hate Clip: Labels, Appearance, Behavior, and Social Responses to UI Agents?”

His diagnosis—if you rubbed shoulders with good old Clippy, you won’t be surprised—is that the virtual wire assistant was poorly focused and it did not meet the expectations described earlier by Nass and Reeves. To put it bluntly: the Office clip broke the rules that anyone would expect from a good partner. He asked every few minutes without being asked anything, interrupted, stalked and offered help when the user no longer needed it, something more and more common as Office gained popularity and people became familiar with its use.

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In a way, and as Nass himself pointed out to Microsoft, “he despised”.

The public had spoken.

And Clippy was sentenced.

When Microsoft released Windows XP in 2001, the company decided to retire Clippy early. Not in a metaphorical sense, no; During a public event in May 2001, Bill Gates himself represented the retreat of the virtual assistant in a staging that included an actor dressed in a paperclip-shaped foam costume: a bulging, padded, and crestfallen Clippy.

With Windows XP Clippy is no longer included in the default configuration. Over the next few years he and the other attendees—less popular, less angry, too—lost more and more weight. The coup de grâce came six years later, on his tenth birthday: in 2007 Clippy made that early retirement effective and ended up disappearing completely.

Completely?

Well, no.

True to his habits, just like when he emerged from the corner of our screens without anyone calling him, in 2014 Clippy reappeared for a fleeting cameo. Surprisingly, very much in his style. Their come back big —although with a quite different approach from that of 1997— however, it did not arrive until 2021: in May Microsoft launched a series of wallpapers starring the old assistant and in November it published a pack with clip stickers for Microsoft Teams.

However, the great surprise for those who were nostalgic and faithful to Clippy came on July 14 of last year, when the Redmond company raised a challenge via Twitter alongside a large portrait of his old assistant: “If this gets 20k likes, we’ll replace the clip emoji in Microsoft 365 with Clippy.” She got it, of course. Today it goes in fact for the 170,300 likes.

And it is that if Clippy has shown something throughout its history, it is that it is not a friend of half measures: either you love it, or you hate it. And, at a minimum, he has more than 170,000 fans.



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