For the average Joe, needing a reason to own a computer in the early 1990s was still a hard sell to come by. Why spend thousands of dollars on an overpriced calculator that envelopes itself on your desk with all its cables and peripherals? Why spend all of that money for typing out documents when a typewriter costs much less and its output practically the same? Why use a spreadsheet program to calculate my personal finances when a checkbook will suffice? It wouldn’t be until the latter half of the ‘90s for the World Wide Web to explode in popularity to be the reason to finally entice consumers to purchase a computer so they can use it as a sort of car to travel on the information superhighway.
But once average Joe did purchase and bring home a computer, Internet aside, would they actually use it? Would it be too intimidating from the viewpoint of a user interface? Computers in the early ‘90s may have been intuitive to use for people in their mid-twenties and younger, but for everyone else who got through life just fine without a PC, it may have been some sort of alien technology. So to tap into that twenties and above demographic that may be indifferent to menu systems, Microsoft came up with a program that would, hopefully, ease users into working with a modern file-system interface. The result: Microsoft Bob.
Released in 1995, Bob would do away with things like the taskbar, windows, and menu systems and instead replace them all with something every sane human should be able to comprehend: reality. For starters, when logging into Bob (which can be setup to be used as the interface to log into the Windows OS), instead of seeing the traditional Windows 95 login window that includes a textbox for a username and a password, Bob’s interface shows a front door with a door knocker. When you click on the knocker, it will have you choose between a number of names (which is a list of Windows user accounts on that computer) and then will ask for the password. If successful, it's like the equivalent to unlocking the front door with a key so you can enter your home. Hey, just like in real life!
Once inside, instead of seeing the traditional Windows desktop and taskbar, you are greeted with a room. Yep, the primary interface of Microsoft Bob resembles that of the inside of a house. These rooms are flat 2D images instead of polygonal 3D. Each room is stocked with objects which you can add, delete, move, and resize to fit the needs of the room. Some objects are functional while others are just for decorating your rad pad.
The first room you enter should be the Public Family Room. Like folders, you can assign rooms to be public (where other Bob users can visit) or private (for your eyes only). Rooms can be added and deleted from your home and can be different types like the kitchen, study, and garage. There’s nothing unique about the types of rooms because any object can be placed in any room type, so having different rooms are just for visual appeal.
Customization is probably the biggest advantage that MS Bob has because you can go nuts with decorating your rooms. By default, when you use Bob for the first time it gives you a house with a contemporary style. But if it looks too homely for your taste, you have the option to change the style to look like a medieval castle, or a hip and trendy postmodern condo, or a good ‘ol retro style house (which reminds me of what home décor of the 1950s/60s looked like). Best thing of all is that the options you make aren’t permeant. If you picked the castle but changed your mind and want to go with a retro look, then with a few clicks *poof*, your home is a blast from the past suburban home.
Objects act the same way as room styles, too. When you add a new room, default objects are also thrown in to make it look like the room has already been lived in. A clock could be on the wall (which displays the computer’s current time), a calendar showing today’s date, a paper and pencil on the desk for the word processor, or a box of letters on an end table for the e-mail client can been seen peppered throughout the living space. For decorative objects, you can pick from a wide variety and place them anywhere you want in a room. The art design for objects look pretty much like clip art you’d see in Microsoft Works word processor during that time. Objects ranged from books, boxes, cars, lamps, chairs, tables, toys, kitchenware, and plants. Fire types could be selected too and were animated to show the flames licking within the fireplace (or anywhere since the flame objects are not constrained to just the fireplace).
Same thing goes for functional objects. Bob comes preloaded with a few programs to assist with daily tasks. For one, it comes with a word processor called Bob Letter Writer. The interface for it has been simplified to where it doesn’t have the standards like a menu or tool bar. Instead it’s a pencil with buttons placed on it that do basic things like bold, italicize, and underline; cut, copy, and paste; and align text. The button on the eraser is the equivalent of pressing the delete key on the keyboard. Next to the pencil are buttons for actions like printing or zooming in/out of the document. Other Bob programs include a program to balance a checkbook, an address book, a house manager, and a financial guide.
Probably one of the more useful features is to add non-Bob programs to a room. You can have it scan for programs in the Program Files folder and have them listed just below the ones that come with Bob. Unfortunately the objects are just boxes with a default icon on them. It would have been cool if they had the icon of the program blazoned on the box, but I guess even a high customization program like MS Bob has its limitations.
When in your home, take note that you’re never alone. Someone is always stalking you, watching your every move as you go from room to room. But don’t be scared as they are there to help you out with anything you may need. A personal guide is always in the bottom-right corner of the screen and asks questions in word bubbles that appear above it. By default Rover, the playful dog with yellow fur, is your companion, but you can pick from a number of guides where every one of them has a status page that include detailed information like their hobbies, birthdates, and hometowns. What a crazy thing to have! All of them have a number of animations and speech dialog to match their personalities.
Their heart was in the right place but Microsoft Bob was not a product consumers wanted. Given the time of its release, either you were comfortable with navigating the interface of Windows or you just dealt with it. Unless it was the default interface for the operating system, no one was going to use it as intended. When I had Bob back in 1996, I just used it as a sort of doll house to design my vision of what my own place would look like. I never actually used it as an alternative way of working with Windows. For me it was just a toy to mess around with for about 20 minutes.
But from the ashes of Bob came a number of elements taken from it that spread across programs coming from Microsoft and stuck around for the next decade. The biggest are the personal guides that assisted you through MS Bob. Mainly seen in Microsoft Office products such as Word and Excel -- which includes the famously known guide as the paper clip who everyone loved to hate -- Clippy would be the most memorable thing to come of the office assistance feature. The office guides would be streamlined by placing them into Microsoft Agent, a piece of software that would be compatible with Microsoft applications as far as being included with Windows Vista and supported up to Windows 7. Related to the guides, Rover would be seen in Windows XP’s search window.
So seen as a failure and ending with a wet thud, MS Bob was quickly put to pasture and was never given a second chance for revival. Most tech sites today label MS Bob as a dismal failure when it comes to software, but at the same time it seems to have high a curiosity factor as people find copies of it and post videos of it online and write about it from time to time. In fact, you’re reading one right now!Permalink - Category: blog - Tag: mshome