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Reprinted from PC Magazine, June 13, 1995, pp. 89.

Illustration by James Steinberg
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Microsoft Bob, I believe, is not destined to become a commercial success. It has an odd aura about it that may hurt sales. Its name is weird, its concept is peculiar, and it borders on being a who-needs-it program. Worse, Microsoft doesn’t seem fully behind it. Only the folks in the Home Division are jazzed about it, and they seem defensive.

But in fact, Bob is the most unique user interface ever introduced to the computing public. I found it uninteresting and beside the point until my 9-year-old son decided to test-drive it. This boy is very particular about what is good and what is bad, and, as you can imagine, he has plenty of computer toys to play with. As a backgrounder, he is thought to be the youngest power user of the image program KPT Bryce. He was doing elaborate renderings with the program at age 8, much to the amazement of HSC Software’s Kai Krause, who is probably today’s most respected computer artist/programmer. The point is that the kid is no slouch when it comes to product evaluation, and I have to respect his judgment despite his age. Bluntly put, he loves Bob.

I thought he’d hate it, since he doesn’t need a front end to work with a computer. But I, like many adults, am probably missing the point of this program. I have to admit I was stunned by the unexpected screens that crop up in Bob once you get deep into it.

Day after day, my son maneuvers around his Bob house and adds more and more outside programs into the Bob framework. He turned his America Online account icon, for example, into a stylized art object that has the AOL logo emblazoned with a modern flourish. My son imports one item after another into Bob, and the program is now like an elaborate, customized house, with secret rooms and hidden entrances.

Children like a sense of privacy when it comes to just about everything, and computing is no exception. Bob is very private. Besides the elaborate password protection, Bob’s overall environment is very much like a kid’s clubhouse. Kids love clubhouses, and the Bob clubhouse can be customized to suit their own tastes.

The problem is, Microsoft would have adults using this thing, when it is obviously a more appropriate tool for kids aged 7 to 14. First of all, it uses cartoon characters as guides, and most adults do not respond well to cartoon characters. Second, it has the appeal of a game. And when working, most adults do not want to play games.

Bob qualifies as a game because there are lots of cool things you can do to each and every object in all of Bob’s rooms. And you can change the rooms in nearly an infinite variety of ways. For children, Bob offers uncharted territory to explore and build upon.

The Bob hype-mongers say it’s for novices and minimally experienced PC users who need a friendly front end to keep from freaking out over some odd prompt or dialog box. Now seriously, does anyone at Microsoft really expect some guy at his desk at Price Waterhouse to have the Bob front end up and running? “Hey guys, look at this neato user interface!” I mean, the man is up for immediate dismissal at this point. It’s like wearing a T-shirt with the word dumb emblazoned on it and an arrow pointing up at your head. It’s not going to fly. Furthermore, nobody but a kid has time to explore the depths of Bob.

Bob has redeeming features. It’s a product with a $69 street price that will keep a child occupied for weeks, maybe even years. Compare that with most CD-ROMs, no matter how they are marketed. The rule is: 2 hours of boredom, and it is never used again.

In Bob, Microsoft has a product that’s as important as Myst, DOOM, or the company’s own Encarta. But we have to still tell the silly rabbits at Microsoft that Trix are for kids. So is Bob.

John C. Dvorak

Page added on 12th December 2004.

Copyright © 2002-2006 Marcin Wichary, unless stated otherwise.