This week at the Microsoft Build conference, CEO Satya Nadella spent a lot of time talking up chatbots: Robots that help you get stuff done through normal human conversations.
But for those of us who remember using Microsoft Office in the nineties and early 2000s, the concept raises the specter of Clippy — the paper-clip-shaped, animated help tool that was supposed to answer basic questions in plain speech, but became an icon of annoyance.
Clippy debuted to much fanfare in Microsoft Office 97, and appeared in other products such as Microsoft Publisher. But the negative reaction to Clippy caused Microsoft to gradually phase him out. And by 2008, Clippy had disappeared completely, without a trace or any explanation.
On Thursday, for the first time, Microsoft Office Chief Experience Officer and 23-year company exec Julie Larson-Green took responsibility for killing Clippy.
“I’m the one who took Clippy out of Office,” Larson-Green confessed to Business Insider, noting that it was the first time she had spoken publicly about the deed.
Clippy of yesterday
She describes Clippy, whose proper name was Clippit, as a “polarising” feature.
Some Office users really liked having a floating little friend sitting nearby to answer questions, especially if they weren’t super-comfortable on a computer.
“They liked having someone with them, and not being alone,” says Larson-Green, who previously led UI design for Office products.
The problem was that Clippy was omnipresent, but he could only talk to you with his pre-written responses.
Clippy was supposed to help answer questions and gently guide you to Office’s best features, but instead, all he could tell you was “don’t run with scissors and ‘it looks like you’re writing a letter,'” says Larson-Green.
Users didn’t love that, and it got worse over time. And so, Clippy had to die.
Clippy of tomorrow
Fast forward to the present, and Larson-Green says that technology has finally caught up to the vision that created Clippy.
“We were just ahead of our time with the technology,” Larson-Green says.
Thanks to a confluence of factors, including Microsoft’s research into natural speech, artificial intelligence, and the so-called Microsoft Graph of user data, Office can finally go beyond canned responses and start to actually answer questions and teach you important skills.
“The Clippy of today would have a PhD in learning,” says Larson-Green.
That doesn’t necessarily mean that a reborn Clippy, or his spiritual successor Cortana, will suddenly barge into your Microsoft Office. Larson-Green says that all of this is still so new that the company is still working on the best way to weave the chat interface concept into Office products.
In a bigger-picture sense, Larson-Green says that she sees the intelligence and ability to learn that underpins apps like Cortana as a way to constantly make Office better, without the need to completely revamp the interface or add extraneous new features.
Office can and will make smarter suggestions over time: From “It looks like you’re writing a letter” to “it looks like you’re writing a job application,” plus maybe some formatting suggestions inspired by Microsoft’s own data. Or maybe PowerPoint will help you design your slides to be more eye-catching, based on how long people looked at other peoples’ slides.
But Microsoft Word will still look and feel like Microsoft Word, familiar interface and all.
The promise, Larson-Green says, is a Microsoft Office that can finally and truly respond to people’s needs, across all devices. If it can do that, it can help people not only be more productive, but actually turn out better-looking, better-reading documents.
“There’s a whole new level of making things not only easier, but also higher quality,” Larson-Green says.