Though roundly ridiculed when it debuted in 1995, Microsoft Bob, or something resembling the short-lived on-screen assistant, will ultimately return, vowed Bill Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft.
"You always make mistakes on these things," Gates said at the Microsoft Research Virtual Faculty Summit on Monday in Redmond, Washington. "We were just a bit ahead of our time, like most of our mistakes."
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Bob, one of Microsoft's most notorious commercial failures, came up during a question-and-answer session at the summit when a researcher asked how software can be made easier to use.
Gates admitted this remains an ongoing challenge for the computer industry. "It's a research issue, to make software better. The prize when you do these things is very large in a commercial sense," Gates said.
Observing how people use products such as Microsoft Office and Bing, it is clear that most people don't know about all the functionality in products and don't have the time to learn, he said. Therefore, it's up to software companies to devise ways of making advanced features intuitive.
Gates said he sees a path forward with personal software agents, which can tie together information from different sources to deliver services more attuned to what the user may need.
This was the mission of Microsoft Bob, which was an attempt to introduce the capabilities of Windows and other Microsoft programs to end-users who had little familiarity with how software worked. An overlay on the Windows interface, Bob organized software by using cartoon images of the inside of a home, such as clickable checkbooks and address books, and provided avatars to walk users through common tasks.
"We tried a little personality that was definitely premature. I think it will re-emerge, but perhaps with a bit more sophistication," Gates said.
The promise today is that personal agents will know more about the context of the task the user is trying to complete, making them more valuable than Bob. The agents now can use online calendars, geolocation tracking, e-mail, and information from many other sources to build a greater context around the user.
"I think we'll be more connected. If someone want to do a task, like find a gift of a certain type, or organize a trip in a certain way, there will be a closer match [between] what the software can do for them and what most people end up doing," Gates said. "We can look at the text and look at the speech and try to be helpful to you in your activities."
Answering a question about intellectual property, Gates addressed the value of open source and commercial software and the value of the patent system.
"Thank God for commercial software. It funds salaries, gives people jobs. And thank God for free software. Free software lets people get things out there, you can play around, build on them. The two work very well in a common ecosystem," Gates said.