When I was pretty young, my family got our first home computer. I’d messed around with my dad’s work machine and some old DOS computers at school before, but this was a brand new shiny Windows 95 multimedia suite, with a CD-ROM drive and everything. It came preloaded with a whole mess of software, a practice that’s typically frowned upon these days but made a little more sense at a time when consumers didn’t have as much computer know-how. One of the programs that came with our PC was Microsoft Bob. And like the subject of last week’s column, I truly adored this software — only to learn much later that it was near-universally reviled.
Microsoft Bob wasn’t a game. Instead, it was a kind of overlay, a way of interacting with the files and software on your computer that changed up the dominant desktop metaphor. In the place of an imaginary desktop covered in files and folders, Microsoft Bob presented a full home that you could customize and explore. Applications and files were accessed via objects placed in each room. For instance, a rolodex could bring up your contacts, or a typewriter could open a word processor. Even just customizing the Windows icons was kind of fun back then, so getting a whole house to decorate and lay out was a blast.
Released in March 1995 at a time when home computers were becoming more and more mainstream, the idea behind Microsoft Bob was to provide a more accessible computing interface for computers. Unfortunately, tech writers didn’t think much of the program, criticizing everything from its aesthetics to its system requirements. As a kid, though, I didn’t know any of that. All I knew was that it was a lot of fun for me and my sister to build out our little houses, accompanied by one of several different digital assistants. The default was a cartoon dog named Rover, though you could also choose one of many more, including a rat, a turtle, and even William Shakespeare.
The house metaphor was there from the very beginning, as you clicked a large metal door knocker to log into the program. From there, you could create rooms based on a wide number of aesthetics, from the conventional, like “contemporary” and “pastoral,” to the fantastical — “haunted” or “castle.” You populated these rooms with objects, like the aforementioned rolodex and typewriter, but objects weren’t purely functional — they could also be simply decorative. Objects could also function as shortcuts to external applications, like games or other software. Bob did include one game — a geography quiz akin to Encarta MindMaze called GeoSafari, though it was not nearly so well-developed or complex.
Microsoft Bob failed for a number of reasons, but most obvious among them is its condescending approach to computers that turned off adults — a talking, cartoon dog was probably not the right approach to get new users onboard. But it was perfect for me, a kid who was playing around with the new family computer and delighted in customizing things. I never really used Bob for its intended purpose, as a sort of replacement operating system. Instead, I simply liked messing around with it and marveling in how easy it was to change the spaces depicted on the screen to my tastes. As another appreciative reflection on Bob notes, the software could have succeeded were it targeted at kids — but Microsoft wanted it to be the computing home base for the whole family.
Although Microsoft Bob never caught on and was one of Microsoft’s more public failures in the 90s, it did have a legacy of sorts. Designer Vincent Connare created the Comic Sans font to better fit the assistant Rover’s speech than Times New Roman, which according to Wikipedia, “he felt seemed inappropriate for a cartoon dog.” Comic Sans didn’t make it into the software, but later debuted in 3D Movie Maker and went on to become a cultural phenomenon. Rover and the other assistants included in Microsoft Bob also inspired Microsoft’s Office Assistant Clippit (commonly known as Clippy) and, arguably, later digital assistants like Siri and Cortana.
While Microsoft might have swung and missed with Bob, the idea of exploring virtual rooms on the computer lived on. Visual chat applications like The Palace were quite similar in concept. Additionally, as virtual reality technology and 3D graphics have improved over the intervening decades, the visual metaphor of the home for computing has somewhat returned. And regardless of how bad a flop Microsoft Bob was, I loved it — and I’m not sure I would have been as interested in our computer had it not been packaged with it.