What about Bob?

Bob, we hardly knew ya. But that doesn’t mean we don’t need ya.

He popped up on computer screens in 1995 as one of Microsoft’s first attempts to personalize the PC, with a smiley face and a pair of glasses that belied his youthful looks. As a software module, Bob was designed to easily

connect users to word processing programs, calendars, e-mail and other applications by brining up an image of his study. Users would click on the pen if they wanted to write a letter, for example, or the rolodex to find a contact name.

Though Bill Gates will no doubt avoid all mention of his name at the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) this week, Bob was living in the kind of eHome the software company wants all of us to occupy. In fact, Bob took the vision a step further: the PC was not merely the focal point of the living room; it contained the living room.

Despite his easy-going demeanor, people didn’t take to Bob — Microsoft killed him off in less than a year (which must have been a slap in the face to Melissa Gates, Bill’s wife, who served as the module’s marketing manager). Consumers have been equally hostile to Clippy, WebTV, and many of the other ways in which the software company has tried to get cozy with its audience. That doesn’t mean Microsoft is ready to stop trying. As we saw earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the company has been preparing a new module, Freestyle, which will reportedly record TV shows, music and photos, allowing users to access them from variety of devices. This could eventually lead to changes at the code level of XP versions sold for the home market. It could also have an impact on hardware design — Freestyle PCs will come with a remote control.

Regular visitors to WinHEC will notice a pattern here. Microsoft takes to the podium and declares the PC “”tired.”” It then announces work on specifications with major PC companies to revitalize the market. Then, at the end of the conference, everyone goes back to work (or home) and forgets about it until next year’s WinHEC.

Five years ago, for example, Microsoft kicked off WinHEC in San Francisco with the release of the PC98 Design Guide, a collaboration with Intel and Compaq which made recommendations on memory size, screen colours and resolutions, processor speeds and ways to make machines digital TV-ready. Entertainment experts discussed how PCs could be used as a device to view high-quality video on large screens (never mind the fact that nobody did).

This doesn’t mean that the conference is worthless, or that major innovations don’t begin there. One of Microsoft’s biggest failures sometimes pave the way for future successes. Bob obviously didn’t live up to expectations, but he was in some ways a predecessor to the online agents that search for keywords on the Internet. In the same way, many of the technologies discussed at WinHEC will probably morph at some point into something worthwhile.

What the company seems unable to accept is that the living room already has a central device — the television set. Once it focuses on building simple PC functionality into TVs and not the other way around, consumers won’t mind making Microsoft a part of the family. Just so long as Bob’s not their uncle.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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