Vintage Tech: Looking back at Microsoft Bob

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Vintage Tech: Looking back at Microsoft Bob

Managed by Bill Gates' wife, intended to make Windows simple enough for anybody. So why aren't we all Bobbing along now?

There's an old adage that you never trust version 1.0 of any IT product. That's usually when the worst bugs, flaws, feature omissions and problems in a product pop up. But what if the product itself is more or less a skin designed to make Windows easy to use? Microsoft couldn't mess that up - could they?

Oh, yes, they could. This wasn't just any ordinary product - although in the history of Microsoft it's rather notable as one of only a few products that never made it beyond a 1.0 product stage. This was Microsoft Bob.

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So what the heck was Bob, anyway?
Bob was an extension of the Windows interface that ran as its own executable under Windows 3.1/3.11, and technically Windows 95. It could be launched as its own program, or set to launch automatically when Windows started, at which point it would more or less become the new Windows GUI if that's what you wanted.

What made Bob different to Windows?

In a word, simplification. Bob was intended to be the GUI interface for people who didn't like or hadn't used a computer before. It was initially codenamed "Utopia" - presumably because somebody at Microsoft was aiming really high. Or perhaps they were just high.

With a simple interface - because in 1995 most people hadn't used a computer, and figured that the Internet was something you caught fish in - Bob used a "room" metaphor, in which programs could be stored - on a desk, or in a living room, or whatever - and in theory make it a more natural computing experience.

The Bob interface would run on any system running Windows 3.1 or better with a 486 or higher processor, 8 MB of memory, SVGA 256-color monitor and a mouse
The Bob interface would run on any system running Windows 3.1 or better with a 486 or higher processor, 8 MB of memory, SVGA 256-color monitor and a mouse
 

What kind of system specifications did Bob require?
From a modern perspective, nothing too taxing. Bob would run on any system running Windows 3.1 or better with a 486 or higher processor, 8 MB of memory, SVGA 256-color monitor and a mouse. A modem was required for the email and online commerce features, which were US-only.

What's all this business about Bill Gates' wife?
Bob was managed by one Melinda French, although the core concepts weren't hers. She'd been a Microsoft employee since 1987, but is arguably a bit better known for being Mrs Bill Gates, as they were engaged in 1993 and married in 1994.

Why did Bob fail?
It was slow. It was clunky. Strangely, its core specifications, while not cutting edge, were a bit above the average PC of the day. Finally - and the real nail in Bob's coffin - was that Windows 95 was just around the corner. Bob died a rather graceless death less than a year after it was first released, and Microsoft never revisited the concept.

Why was it relevant?
But that doesn't mean that Bob didn't have its place in Microsoft history, even aside from being the punchline to any OS joke you'd care to name. In his CES keynote in 1995, the official Microsoft release talked up Bob as "a new and revolutionary product developed to help increase the usefulness, ease of use, and enjoyment of computers in the home. Bob is designed to be immediately useful to home PC users, providing the essential tools for home computing in eight interconnected programs that help users organize, communicate and play with their computers. The way Bob lets users get things done is also unique and different, as a result of an innovative new user-interface design known as the Social Interface."

Bill Gates is quoted in the same release. "The use of the Social Interface technology in Bob is a compelling example of how very sophisticated technology can be applied to make the computing experience far better for everyone," said Gates. "This technology will be important in our future efforts as well."

And it's Microsoft's future efforts that the research into Bob actually did pay off. It gave birth to office assistants, a strong reliance on Wizard-driven interfaces and the Comic Sans font. If you've ever searched for anything in Windows XP, you've stared straight at a dog that may as well be Microsoft Bob's rover as well.

It's also an excellent soporific. If you're having trouble sleeping, check out this guided tour to Microsoft Bob and try to stay awake to the end.

What's it worth?
Trying our hardest, we couldn't find anyone selling copies of Microsoft Bob online, so exact pricing is a bit tricky. We did discover it being offered up illicitly if you really must. But trust us on this one - you really mustn't.

Actually, you probably don't need to anyway. As this article reveals, Microsoft might not have managed to sell Bob on its own merits, but it surreptitiously managed to ship millions of copies anyway. How it managed this feat is rather fascinating.

Needing around 30MB of space to fill up the Windows XP install CD as an anti-piracy measure, one bright spark grabbed the Bob files, randomly encrypted them by mashing his hands on the keyboard and chucked them into the Windows XP image file. So, although getting it to work might be a bit of a chore, the chances are quite high that you own a copy of Bob already.

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