Bill Gates thinks that Microsoft Bob, or at least the concept, will come back to life as intelligent personal agents become part of everyday computing. Microsoft Bob, introduced by Gates at the Consumer Electronics Show in January 1995, provided a virtual house with rooms and doors and cartoon character assistants to help users navigate Windows and perform tasks with Microsoft applications. For example, users could log in by clicking on a door knocker or launch the calendar application by clicking on a calendar hanging on a wall. (Read Harry McCracken's fine history of Microsoft Bob.)
Speaking Monday at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit at the company's Redmond, Wash., headquarters, the chairman said Microsoft Bob didn't get it right, but he thinks the concept will reemerge with a bit more sophistication. "We were just ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes," he said.
Microsoft Bob failed to impress users, who were content to live with their simple icons and folders and without cute dogs providing instructions in cartoon bubbles. Bob lived a brief, much pilloried life, exiting the stage in early 1996. But the idea persisted in the Office assistant helper, Clippy, also a subject of derision by critics and featured in Microsoft Office 97 through 2003.
The new generation of personal agents will be more adept at planning activities, such as finding a gift or organizing a trip in a certain way, Gates said. Microsoft Bob won't come back as a dog, but will morph into a disembodied voice from the cloud. Wrapped in the Windows 8 tiled interface, the new Bob will "understand" all that you do -- or are willing to share online -- as well as anticipate your needs and present relevant information anytime, anywhere, and on any device. So far, Apple's Siri and Google Now are alone in providing modestly intelligent personal assistance from the cloud. Bob needs to get back to work. In fact, he should talk to Larry at Microsoft Research.