Bill Gates: Give “Bob” another chance

Credit: OnInnovation via Flickr

Microsoft founder and chairman Bill Gates suggested that “Bob” – the much maligned program that featured a cartoon dog designed to help users get the hang of Microsoft products – maybe wasn’t such a bad idea.

Gates spoke this morning at the annual Microsoft Faculty Summit, touching on a variety of subjects, including ways that software developers could do a better job helping users better take advantage of their products. He was responding to a question about how companies like Microsoft might help the average user take advantage of software in the same way that a computer scientist does.

That was the idea behind Bob -- which if you think about it, was one of the original consumerization pushes. Microsoft released Bob in 1995 as a way to make computers more approachable to more people. Bob initially walked people through a house, introducing users to applications and helping them set them up. Then the cartoon dog would pop up randomly when people were using the various Microsoft products, offering help.

The program had few fans; many people found the dog annoying and not particularly helpful. It was gone by Windows 98.

Gates agreed that Bob didn’t exactly hit the nail on the head but he suggested the idea wasn’t all bad. “It was definitely premature. I think it will reemerge but with a bit more sophistication,” he said. “We were a bit ahead of our time, like with most of our mistakes.”

There’s still a need to help people make the most out of software, he said.

“The way people use the Web and Office, there are all sorts of capabilities that if you had time to explain it to them they could get more out of it,” Gates said. He called it surprising how few breakthroughs the industry has had in helping users fully take advantage of software.

But maybe he’s ignoring some larger developments in computing and some of Microsoft’s competitors. The current consumerization movement was kicked off by Apple, which initially revolutionized the smartphone market with the easy-to-use iPhone. The phone showed Apple's all-in-one integrated approach: Users didn’t require a separate piece of software, like Bob, to introduce them to features. Instead, Apple combined a touch interface, an intuitive UI built around icons and a keyboard that actually worked, one-touch app installation, and (a year later) an on-device store for finding and downloading new apps. The iPhone did not merely take existing computing paradigms and explain clearly how to use them. Instead, it enabled an entire new way of working by combining multiple advances in one package.

In many ways, Microsoft is still playing catch-up when it comes to intuitive computing. Take the new touch interface in Windows 8. While it has its fans, so many users prefer the old desktop style that with the Windows 8.1 update, Microsoft will let users start their machines in desktop mode. Perhaps Microsoft's new reorganization, where product teams are supposedly going to cooperate more closely to make "One Microsoft," will help create more unified computing experiences that are easier for mortals to use -- and don't require additional explanation.

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