Theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer reflected on the words of the Bhagavad Gita after the first detonation of an atomic bomb: “Now I have become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Clippy’s creator, on the other hand, felt a little embarrassed when he discovered that Microsoft had shipped the character with Office 97 on Windows.
Those of a certain era will remember the anthropomorphized paper clip, officially called the Office Assistant and also known as Clipit, with fond nostalgia or burning hatred. The character’s job was to anticipate what the user was trying to do and assist him.
The best-known example is: “You look like you’re writing a letter? Do you want help?” This was followed by a series of options: “Ask for help writing the letter”; “Just type the letter without help”; and “Don’t show me this advice again.”
We suspect many never wanted to see the metallic smirk, furrowed brows, and bizarre animations ever again, especially if they weren’t writing a letter to begin with.
However, Clippy remained until Office 2007, where it was removed completely after being disabled by default in the XP version and not installed in Office 2003.
Yet the character maintains an iconic status in the history of the personal computer, and its designer, Kevan Atteberry, occasionally shows up to throw up his hands and apologize.
Most recently, he spoke to YouTube channel Great Big Story and admitted he felt “so embarrassed” when the reviews started coming in.
Atteberry, now a children’s book illustrator and graphic designer, explained that in the 1990s he was employed by Microsoft to create a group of characters for Microsoft Bob “one of their biggest failures, it was software for people who were having the their first computer experience”.
Microsoft Bob was cool if you were a literal kid at the time, but techies found little use for the condescending tone and cartoonish UI. While it never took off as a desktop, Microsoft seemed keen on humanizing computer interfaces and brought the technology into the next version of the Office suite.
“We went through 260 character designs to arrive at the 10 that came with the product,” Atteberry said. In fact, there were other options including The Dot, Hoverbot, The Genius, Scribble, and Power Pup among others, but Clippy rose to the top of the pile by default.
“Inventing Clippy wasn’t as hard as you might think,” she continued. “Well obviously it’s an office thing. I loved the simplicity of a paper clip as a character, I loved the flexibility, all the things I could do. I love that I was just using the eyes because eyes can be so expressive, and , you know, it makes my job easier too, right?”
He said he would work on hundreds of projects including pencils, staplers and mugs, then scan them to work digitally on his Macintosh, a detail Microsoft clearly would rather we didn’t know about.
The projects were then entrusted to psychologists at Stanford University who conducted a study with the general public to find out which characters were the most reliable and likeable.
“There were people there who weren’t happy that Clippy kept going through every level,” reflects Atteberry.
He left Microsoft soon after and lived in blissful ignorance until he started hearing of Clippy’s arrival in Windows. “The contempt for him was just incredible everywhere you turned,” Atteberry said. “People hated that paperclip. They wanted to turn it off, there’s no way to turn it off, and its functionality was too simple and annoying for most people.”
Lest he turn out to be “that guy” who made computing’s most irritating mascot, he said, “I would never, ever include Clippy in my portfolio because I was so embarrassed by him.”
But it wasn’t all bad. Recalling one client’s excitement when he told her he created the animated goofball that appeared on her Word document, she said: “Honestly Clippy has opened so many doors for me over the years. People are very receptive and now, you know , nobody hates Clippy now, he’s on The Simpsons and Family Guy and he’s showing up everywhere.
“I had no idea, you know, obviously how big it was going to get. I mean, holy cow, if I could see into the future and realize, I probably would have tried to have my contract written differently.
“He’s a character whose motivations everyone understands. He’s a guy who just wants to help, and is a little too forthcoming at times, and there’s something funny and vulnerable about that. It doesn’t matter if you like him or hate him. As long as you know who it is, I have cachet”.
Meanwhile, Microsoft is pressing ahead with its attempts to humanize computing, as demonstrated by its multibillion-dollar trust in OpenAI and its GPT large language model technology, which was recently plugged into an AI-powered version of Bing. , the long-lived search engine from Microsoft. .
In other words, the Specter of Clippy continues to haunt us to this day. And you, dear reader? Are you #TeamClippy now that he’s long dead and buried, or are you just glad he’s a footnote in computing history? Let us know in the comments below.
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