A Light-Hearted Interlude with Clippy

Clippy: Sometimes I popup for no particular reason, like now.

The Atlantic's James Fallows posted recently on the 10-year anniversary of the demise of Microsoft Office's "Clippy" (officially the Office Assistant), the cartoon paperclip helper that would pop up to offer advice and suggestions while a user was creating a document. Clippy is nigh-universally mocked and scorned. Yet Microsoft didn't dominate desktop software for two decades by lacking business savvy. The historian has to take seriously even a technology widely believed to be an abject failure, and ask why it seemed like a good idea to its creators at the time of its creation. Clippy was introduced in Office 97 (which, like a new car, was actually released in 1996). This was in the early years of the Web boom, which, along with cheaper machines, was luring ever-more buyers to the personal computer. Once limited to the professional classes, the home computer was now spreading into the bulk of the middle class: the percentage of households with PCs grew from 23 to 37 percent between 1993 and 1997. The basic idea behind Clippy was therefore a sound one--to make computing more accessible to this new group of users. One could look backward and see a trend from the BASIC prompt of the first generation of consumer microcomputers, to the command-line prompt of the succeeding generation, to the graphical-user-interface (GUI) and desktop metaphor of Mac OS and Windows. Yet over a decade had passed since the first Macintosh. Surely some new innovation was on the horizon that would make computers still easier and more intuitive to use? Such was the objective a product called Bob, released by Microsoft in 1995. Bob ran atop Windows, and replaced the desktop metaphor with a home metaphor. The user could move among different rooms, and re-decorate each room with different applications (represented by picture-frames, and the like). The idea was to create a friendlier, easier-to-use environment for the non-professional computer user. Thisdid not take--adults found it belittiling, and the veneer that was supposed to seal Bob off from all the messiness of Windows was badly cracked. One aspect of Bob survived, however: Microsoft transported the software agents that populated Bob-world to Office, as a means of making the feature-creep morass that plagued that application suite at least somewhat manageable for new users. And so Clippy was born. What were the problems with this "friendly" interface? They were several (see also the Stanford thesis that analyzed user response to Clippy for further discussion of its limitations):

  1. The existing Office user-base, especially those who saw themselves as power-users, found Clippy condescending. No term is more despised among the computer hard-core than "hand-holding," and Clippy exemplified exactly that.
  2. New users found it obnoxious too, at least after the 2nd, 3rd, ... nth time that Clippy cheerily put forth the same *&#!@ suggestion. As Microsoft engineer Chris Pratley put it some years ago, the Office Assistant was optimized for first-time use.
  3. For a supposedly friendly agent, the original Clippy was shockingly impolite. It constantly barged in and started a conversation, like an oblivious roommate, blithely ignoring the fact that the user's attention might be focused on something else.
  4. Finally, Clippy was just not smart/useful enough too offset these negatives. It could recognize a small number of states and offer very limited advice, relative to the level of annoyance it created.

Consider, by contrast, the subtle brilliance of underlining misspelled words in red (a task which this text box is performing at this very moment). That software technology doesn't interrupt the user or presume to correct him or her, it simply highlights words that have a high probability of being incorrect, since they are not found in the word processor's dictionary. A user can attend to the issue at his or her leisure, yet can't fail to notice it when browsing a document.

Image Source: http://www.rjlpranks.com/pranks/clippy/