How Microsoft’s much-maligned user interface style contributed towards the development of its successors
Bill and Melinda Gates. Under her maiden name, Melinda introduced the world to Microsoft Bob.
Over 21 years ago, the Microsoft’s Windows 3.1 operating system began to look a bit long in the tooth. It was thought that its user interface lacked user-friendliness. In March 1995, Melinda French – later married to Bill Gates – had a solution. It was one that did away with the WIMP interface, set in a postmodern style house. It could have been called Windows 4 or something similarly prosaic. Instead, it was known as Microsoft Bob.
A Look at Microsoft Bob
Microsoft Bob was a well-meaning attempt to add a human face to computing. In 1995, operating systems were designed for function rather than elegance. Translucent windows didn’t darken our desktop PCs till Vista’s Aero backgrounds appeared in 2007. Windows had sharp edges, flat colours, and clear outlines. Under the hood, Microsoft Bob was still Windows 3.1, or any other version of Windows you may have installed.
Instead of the usual windows and icons, you entered Bobland through a red door. At that point, you are required to enter a password. On the right-hand side, we are chivvied by a personal guide known as Rover, a Golden Retriever. Rover is one of twelve – later seventeen – Personal Guides in Microsoft Bob. There was a different one for each section.
After entering your password, the first room you enter is the Family Room. From there, you can check your home accounts, play on the Geosafari machine beside the fire, or write a letter. The screen invited you to point and click on any aspect of the room and explore. Like King’s Quest did in the 1980s.
On clicking, your Personal Guide will guide you through the process of writing a letter, or any other function you wish to undertake. A Persian cat would help you to write a letter or add a border. An elephant would be your guide throughout the Geosafari game (well, because they say, ‘elephants never forget’). Lexi, an animated chequebook, would do the same with your home accounts.
On its launch, Microsoft Bob was seen as a logical progression from the WIMP user interface, pioneered by Xerox and popularised by Apple and Microsoft. When demonstrated at January 1995’s Consumer Electronics Show, it was seen (in 2016 terms) as a game-changer. Or iconic. On hitting the shelves, it wasn’t well received. Firstly, 8MB of RAM (its minimum requirement) seemed massive in 1995. The average was half that on Windows PCs; a bog-standard Amiga had 2MB (or 4MB, if you were seriously loaded and had an A4000 instead of an Amiga 500 or 1200).
Furthermore, its user interface – supposedly user-friendly – slowed things down, compared with a standard Windows interface. It was a foretaste of the walled garden UI we saw on AOL’s internet service. In spite of its shortcomings, it brought us a few things that we see today.
If you seek its monument, press the Windows button
Though it may be cool to mock its user interface, we have Microsoft Bob to thank for adding a few things after its discontinuation.
Firstly, Personal Guides would appear in future versions of Microsoft Office programs. Rover, the Golden Retriever that welcomed you to the Bob environment, reappeared in MS Office ‘97. He would be accompanied by Clippy, the infamous animated paper clip. The speech bubble used for helping users would also make the journey.
Another, less visible function, was the use of Bayesian logic for its Help sections. Added to Microsoft Bob, this became the norm in subsequent programs, and the Windows ‘95 operating system. Bayesian logic is also used in spam filtering in email clients.
More visible – and, much to the chagrin of fontophiles – was the typeface that was originally designed for Microsoft Bob, though never used. Comic Sans MS was originally designed for Bob. For some critics, what is seen as the worst operating system and worst typeface, could have been a match made in heaven. Since its arrival, Comic Sans MS has appeared on many a poster, and as a corporate typeface – even for funeral directors.
In recent times, Windows 8 has been likened to Microsoft Bob, owing to its Metro-style interface. That of style over substance and a supposedly user-friendly approach. Moreover, the biggest peeve has been the loss of its Start button – a feature of Windows operating systems since Windows ‘95. Thankfully, Microsoft saw sense and reinstated it in 8.1 and added it to Windows 10.
21 years ago, the print advertisements positioned Microsoft Bob as being like ‘an old pair of shoes’. That of comfortable, dependable and familiar. The ‘old pair of shoes’ tag is more applicable to the Start button. Even now, Clippy is still a pain in the proverbials.
Life of Luxury: here’s Rover the Golden Retriever, enjoying his retirement after being the face of Microsoft Bob.