What about Bob?

by Alan Zisman (c) 1995. First published in Our Computer Player, March 1995

Even before Windows 95's new way of working makes it onto the
store shelves or user's desktops, Microsoft has unveiled yet
another way to interact with our computers.

Codenamed 'Utopia' during earlier stages of development,
Microsoft has now given it the distinctly uncomputer-like name
of 'Bob'... giving the impression of software that you might
want to invite into your home.

Because that's Bob's mission-- to get invited into your home
and onto your desktop, where you may want to invite him to
take up residence.

Once there, Bob will try to make your computer more homelike
than it's ever been before.

Microsoft is trying to build on a couple of trends of the
past few years...

While the traditional business desktop market may have become
saturated, more and more computers are being purchased for
home use. In 1992, 20% of Canadian homes had computers. By
1994, that figure had risen to an astounding 40%, with no
sign that sales are letting up.

Still, many home users still find PCs intimidating, with the $
2000 machines often being relegated to glorified game

While many users find their PCs too complex, they are buying
ever-more powerful models... most recent home purchases have
featured 486s. 8 megs of ram rather than 4 is becoming more
common. Ever larger hard drives are being featured. And 50%
of new computers are being purchased with CD-ROM players.

I got a chance to work with a late beta version of Bob, still
named Utopia. As well, I got a  beta copy of 'Great Greetings', a
Bob add-in, that will be sold separately, and will only run
alongside Bob. Microsoft expects to release both around March
31st, with Bob selling for about $129, and Greetings for
another $30 or so.

Before inviting Bob in, users should be aware that he's a
demanding, hungry fellow. He wants a 486 with 8 megs or more
ram, and will immediately consume 30 megs or so of drive
space. The Greeting package will take another 5 megs of drive
space. (That's one reason why new machines are being
advertised with 340 meg hard drives).

When you install Bob, you get an option to have it open-up
automatically whenever you run Windows... in fact, you can
use it as a replacement for Program Manager.

And having let Bob into your house, when it starts up, you're
invited into Bob's house... with the invitation being
extended by-- get this, an animated dog, inviting you to
knock on the door.

Before getting to open the door, however, you've got to sign
in. First time visitors can choose to enter as 'Guests', but
it's strongly suggested, by your canine Guide, that you give
a name and other information.

If you've entered your name, you can simply click it on
subsequent visits. And being listed by name lets you set up
private rooms, where no one else can visit.

Once in the door, you're in an imaginary living room. Some of
what you see is decoration-- chairs, fireplace, and so forth.
You can customize these items: adding, moving, removing
items, or changing an items style. Post-modern or retro,

You can move to a new room, or even into a mouse's hole,
getting even more space to customize, or move programs. And
if you've entered the program with your name and password,
you can set up new rooms as private spaces, where no one can
enter without your password.

Other items represent programs. Bob ships with eight mini-
applications, and each one is represented by an object in the
room. These make up a suite of home-oriented programs, which
will only run from Bob. There's a letter writer, complete
with sample text, clipart, and borders for common letter
styles. An Email module, permitting messages via the
Internet, CompuServe, Prodigy, America-on-Line, and so forth (
but only after you sign on via MCI Mail). An Addressbook, a
Checkbook, and a Calendar. A limited version of a kids
geography and nature game, GeoSafari. A Household Manager for
keeping personal inventory and maintenance records, and a
Financial Guide.

You start each of these by clicking on a familiar object in
the room-- the clock or calendar, the chequebook, rolodex, or
box of mail.

These are nicely intergrated. Enter a birthday in the address
book, and it appears in the calendar. For an extra fee, you
can even pay bills electronically from the chequebook (shades
of Quicken!)

And at all steps, the animated guide is available to provide
helpful hints. If you don't want a dog, you can replace hime
with another animal... there's an entire virtual menagerie,
each with a distinct personality, and a different style of
helpfulness. Chaos the cat, for example, is less helpful than
old reliable Rover. Scuzz, the rat, is almost abrasive. If
you select a new Guide, rather than abruptly changing, the
old animal slowly lopes off screen, and the new one meanders

The guides use your name, to add a friendly, familiar touch--
Rover calls me 'Alan', while Scuzz calls, 'Hey Zisman'. When
a program is expecting input, Rover sits at a keyboard and
clicks away. Take too long, though, and he may curl up for a

They try to tailor their help to their perception of your
needs... in the beginning, lots of hints, eventually, only
the odd pointer.

Presumably Microsoft chose animals for Guides, rather than
people (as they used in the somewhat similar Creative Writer
and Fine Artist programs), because users were happier
interacting with smart animals than with the dumb-seeming
people we get when computers simulate humans.

Your choice buttons have an amusing rubber feel to them...
clicking one seems like squeezing a baby bottle's nipple, and
makes a squishy sound. A few squishs and you can instruct Bob
to search your hard drive for installed programs, generating
a list of all your Program Manager icons.

Once this is done, you can use Bob to start all your
programs, not just the handful it ships with.

Unfortunately, these appear in a long, unsorted list, making
it hard to find anything. A better way to use your favorite
program is to add them, one at a time, as objects in the room
of your choice. When you do this, you get the program's icon
appear on a box, within a picture frame, or on a lego or
puzzle piece. Put it where you want, and double-click to

But you'd better remember that icon, because there's no text-
hints. Similarly, in Bob's native applications, there are no
menus... Bob doesn't use the typical Windows conventions that
so many of us have gotten used to.

And that's both Bob's strength and its limitation. The chatty
animals and the cozy home make working this way more
approachable and fun for many first-time users, young and old.

But as their needs grow beyond the limited applications that
come with Bob, they'll still have to learn to interact with
menus and dialogue boxes. I don't expect we'll see Excel for
Bob anytime soon.

Because of this, I'm torn in trying to decide whether Bob has
a future... he's not going to stay in my house-- I'm
comfortable using a more traditional Windows interface, and
my kids have also managed to get computers to do what they
want up to now.

If Microsoft can get Bob bundled on large numbers of
computers targetted at the home market, we may start seeing
Rover and buddies in a lrage number of places. And even if
Bob doesn't become the way most of us interact with our
computers, I suspect it's a sign of things to come-- that in
the near future, we will be talking to our computers, and
relating to them in ways that will make our now-traditional
graphical user interfaces (Macs, Windows, and the like) seem
as awkward and old-fashioned as the DOS command line seems
now. You may not choose to see more of Bob, but I suspect he'
s a taste of things to come.


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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan