Looking Back at Microsoft Bob

Every industry has at least one. Automobiles had the Edsel. PC Hardware had the IBM PCJr and the Microchannel bus. In the software world, there’s Bob. If you don’t remember him, Bob was Microsoft’s 1995 answer to why computers were so darn hard to use. [LGR] gives us a nostalgic look back at Bob and concludes that we hardly knew him.

Bob altered your desktop to be a house instead of a desk. He also had helpers including the infamous talking paper clip that suffered slings and arrows inside Microsoft Office long after Bob had been put to rest.

Microsoft had big plans for Bob. There was a magazine and add-on software (apparently there was only one title released). Of course, if you want to install Bob yourself, you’ll need to boot Windows 3.1 — this is 1995, remember.

To log in you had to knock on the big red door and then tell the helpful dog all your personal information. Each user had a private room and all users would share other rooms.

We like to feature retrocomputing of the great old computers of our youth. This is kind of the anti-example of this. Bob was a major fail. PC World awarded it 7th place in the 25 worst tech products of all time and CNet called it the number one worst product of the decade.

Once you’ve had enough of 1995 failed software, you can always read up on some more successful Z80 clones. Or you can further back in the way back machine and see what user interfaces were like in the 1960s and 1970s.

48 thoughts on “Looking Back at Microsoft Bob

  1. Compaq had an add-on for Windows 3.1 that modified the desktop to be all Compaq. It was generally disliked, and did new users a huge disfavor by training them to use a nonstandard gui. I can’t remember how many of those I disabled (a basic change to the shell environment in win.ini or config.ini, I think?) but people were generally very relieved to be rid of it!

  2. It looks like not very polished big research project on user-friendliness, maybe it wasn’t market success but I would not call it the biggest fail. At least it was not forced then like forcing tablet UI on normal PCs with Windows 8 or forcing to use whole super-duper extra fancy bells and whistles in Windows 10 without leaving “just plain OS” option to home users.

    1. As a 12-year-old, I rather enjoyed it. My siblings and I would set up virtual houses, decorate them endlessly with little doodads and put shortcuts to our favorite games on the “shelves”.

      I still remember Scuzz the Rat (“I had this awesome idea for a store. It’s gonna be called Cars and Guitars.”) and also Java the weird coffee-addicted dinosaur thing.

    2. And yeah, calling it “the worst product of the decade” and “worst tech products of all time”? Come on! I’ve used waaaaay worse software than this. The bar is just insanely high because it carries the Microsoft brand.

    3. Never mind what happened to Windows 9… I hear the answer to that lay in Munich with their embrace of Linux. So successful it was, that tourists would ask what version of Windows as on the internet café computers, only to get a puzzled look and the response: “Windows? Nien!”

      (Okay, maybe not, but sounds like a good story.)

      1. Rumor I heard that sounds best is that there’s still a lot of old code out there that didn’t bother looking into the distinction between Win 95 and Win 98 and just looked for “Win 9*”. Having an operating system called Win 9 would get caught.

    4. Except that it isn’t. Research projects imply original thought which is something that Microsoft has never had. At best they copy or buy out things that most people have never heard of and make their own version popular with marketing and the power of their brand name.

      Bob was just a “modernized” (for 1995) version of Tandy’s 1980s vintage Deskmate.

  3. WAY too expensive and a big resource hog. Good luck running a big application while this GUI was in charge. Also took the “house” and “rooms” metaphor too far. I don’t know about you, but I would have gotten frustrated trying to remember which of those pixilated objects were associated with which function. I’m sure household members would be constantly moving things around where others couldn’t find them too.

    One big thing left out of the video and these comments so far is what I heard about Gate’s wife (or one of Microsoft’s executive’s wives) being behind BOB. With someone with her connections being the creative force behind it, other staffers simply couldn’t say “no” or constructively criticize it.

    1. Whoops. I see other comments mention Melinda Gates now. Sorry bout that! I was commenting to an older copy of the article that had been sitting in my browser since this afternoon.

      One thing I just thought of though… if the whole thing was called “Microsoft BOB”, where the hell was this Bob guy? It’s like calling something “Microsoft Word” without words. Or “Microsoft Windows” without windows! :/

  4. I read somewhere that the “private room” feature was Microsoft’s first attempt at user account passwords, so they included a super helpful password reset feature for the people who hadn’t learned about passwords. “Oh, did you forget your password? Ok! No Problem! What would you like to change it to?”

    Is that true?

    1. Clever. Reminds me of customizing Dreamcast ISOs by stuffing garbage data in the inner portion of the disk. This would push “real” data further out, and thanks to the GD-ROM using CAV (instead of CLV), this can mean faster data access with less head seeking.

  5. Wasn’t it Bob that Apple based their recent security features around?

    A.K.A. if you entered your password wrong a few times, Bob suggested that you may have forgotten it and helpfully offered to let you (or anybody else) create a new one and get access :)

  6. It was an interesting new concept, even if not that successful. As of bad decisions, the same could be said of Windows 8/10 new interface /forced updates, or the indecision in linux many interfaces, ubuntus confusion with gknome/kde, etc.

  7. If only Jurassic Park had been made two years later. Perhaps she would have said, “It’s a Bob system! I know this.” You know, every time I see that clip, I think how much less stress it would have been if she’d been at a command prompt.

    1. Heh, funny thing is how many people think that file browser is fake.

      When one considers the graphics capability of IBM clones back then, it’s a no brainer why they chose to use a SGI (probably a Personal Iris… maybe an Indigo). Even those late 80s machines could do 1280×1024 with 24 bit colour, running rings around what even mid-90s computers could do.

      I don’t know what SCADA package they used (although I can rule out MacroView), but there were a couple for IRIX.

  8. No mention of Tandy Deskmate? The article makes it sound like Bob was the first iteration of this particular failed idea. Tandy did the same thing a decade earlier. Bob isn’t like the Edsel, PCJr and Microchannel bus. Bob is like if someone tried to bring back the PCJr and Microchannel bus in a modernized form today and sold them as a computer that mounts in a new model Edsel!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s